Over the years, people-movers have come a long way. In fact, for some they became so car-like that a purchasing move back to off-road 4WDs was required to give the necessary feeling of (false) security. And if you want the feel and driving behaviour of a truck, don't even look at the Honda Odyssey. For here we have a box-like six-seater (seven seats in four-cylinder form) that doesn't just drive and handle like a car, but does so like a very good car indeed!
The 3-litre VTEC V6 and five speed automatic makes for one of the sweetest drivetrains around, and certainly rivals - for refinement, smoothness and power - some European luxury cars costing over twice as much. The V6 is simply a bloody powerhouse! Forget the road tests that show a 0-100 time of ten point something; the well run-in Odyssey that we had was in the mid-eights to 100 kays! After a slightly wheel-spinning start, the auto-box (left in drive) slurred its way through the ratios, storming forwards with acceleration that genuinely rivals some sports sedans - and kills a whole host of sporty cars.
Numbers don't convey the feeling - here's one car that can punch off the line with enough initial pace to severely embarrass even turbo fours that haven't been launched at high revs. We left one Silvia turbo behind lights after lights - after a while he didn't even try, cos it would have been 80 or 90 klicks before he'd have got past the gold bullet. Sure, people who buy a luxury people-mover might not be interested in straightline drags, but that silken punch is equally as useful in passing other cars on the open road, hauling five other bodies around, and other mundane pursuits.
Developing 154kW at 5800 rpm and 270Nm at a very high 5000 rpm, the Honda SOHC-per-bank V6 shows just how far engines have come in the last few years. Forget the extraordinarily high revs at which peak torque is developed - the lack of bottom-end grunt that you might think is the corollary is simply never present. The five speeds and VTEC variable camshaft trickery mean that the engine pulls strongly whenever your foot is shoved floorwards.
One hundred and fifty-four kilowatts (over 206hp!) is a helluva lot of power; no less impressive is that 270Nm torque peak. This jewel of a 3-litre engine develops more power (and only 10 per cent less torque) than the Mitsubishi Magna 3.5 litre V6, has 8 per cent more power than the Toyota 3.0 V6, and is highly competitive with out-and-out sports car engines like the 3-litre Alfa V6. In short, don't get in and expect to have to prod a leaden lump with a sharp stick - driving the Odyssey's nothin' like that. In fact, you're more likely to find yourself carving a route through the traffic, while those around you are bemused at the sheer punch on display....
A very important part of the Odyssey's on-road performance brilliance can be found in the new, 5-speed auto box. This is simply one helluva auto trans. When you want to toddle, it changes gear seamlessly. When you want to go for it, the gears are held to close to the (6800 rpm!) redline. So? Lotsa transmissions can achieve those two behaviours. But it's the transmission's uncanny ability to always be in the right gear that's breathtaking.
Let's say that you're coasting at 80 km/h down a long hill, one that's got a sharp corner at the base. In most cars, the transmission would be in top gear and you'd be braking all the way. In cars with thinking transmissions, the brain would shift the trans back down a gear, giving you some engine braking. And that's what the Odyssey unobtrusively does, dropping back two ratios to third gear. But when you then want some throttle response to power out of that corner, the trans is already in second! It's stayed in third gear, detected the speed of foot movement on the throttle, and selected second gear quite imperceptibly. There's no put-the-foot-down, and wait, wait - ah! - here's second gear. The car's already in the right gear for action.
With so many ratios to pick from (and included is the locking and unlocking of the torque converter), changes from fifth back to fourth, and from fourth back to third, are quite common. There's no feeling that a kickdown switch must be activated; instead the acceleration is simply always there. Hunting of gears is totally absent - it will pull up a long hill in third or fourth, changing up only when you'd be doing so with a manual gearshift. And if you want to second-guess the transmission, you can pull the Tiptronic lever across to the right-hand side of its gate, and then pick whatever gear you want. You can't grab too low a gear, however - the trans won't let you. After a few days we never bothered Tiptronicing again; left in Drive it does literally everything right....
So it's an impressive drivetrain. But what about the car around it?
Your $52,500 gets you a very well-equipped vehicle. Inside, there are four individual leather-trimmed bucket seats, each adjustable fore-aft and for rake. A third row of seats - also leather trimmed - can be easily folded up to form the floor of what then becomes a very large boot. But with all six seats occupied, boot volume is limited; you wouldn't want to be planning an interstater with six adults and all of their luggage.
The Odyssey has four doors and a fifth lift-up tailgate. There are no sliding doors, which makes accessing the rear-most row of seats rather difficult. If you are placing a child in the back seats, you effectively need to be inside the car itself - it's too far to reach back there while standing outside. Add to this the fact that the second row seats don't tilt and slide forward in one movement, and inserting young children in that third row is a pain. If they're old enough to get in and belt themselves up, fine.
It's one of the few packaging glitches that the car has. Front head and legroom is excellent, while in the second row it's competent. However, the second row passengers can't put their feet under the font seats, and these seats need also to be able to slide back further - this would allow the creation of lots of legroom when no-one's in the third row of seats. It all gets a bit confusing in description; if you're planning on packing a family into one of these cars, take them all along to the showroom and try out a host of holiday/shopping/visiting-grandparents/etc seating scenarios.
In addition to the leather seats, you'll find a leather steering wheel, dash-mounted six-CD stacker to go with the AM/FM cassette unit (sounds very good on CD, less so on FM), cruise control, remote locking, power windows, and climate control. An awkward-to-use foot-operated parking brake is also tucked under the dash. The interior lighting is spectacularly good, and all cabin lights can be easily turned on and off with a large dash-mounted switch. The climate control is straightforward and incorporates the facility to activate a set of rear controls allowing variation in air volume from four rear vents. However, we found that when the front system was set to provide cool air to the face and warm to the feet, the face flow was overly warm.
The seats are clad in a particularly slippery leather, and - probably so that it's easy to slide in and out of the seats - the side support is poor. Further, we found that the numb-bum syndrome intruded after only a few hours behind the wheel. The interior noise level is subdued, with the engine heard only when within a thousand rpm of the redline, and wind noise is always hushed. High speed driving - we saw an indicated 200 km/h - is stable and relaxed. However, at all speeds the Yokohama Aspec 215/60 V-rated tyres develop a constant and annoying whine.
The suspension is by double wishbones all round, with a hefty front anti-roll bar. On the road the ride is excellent, helped by the long wheelbase and substantial 1653kg mass. Broken bitumen and larger undulations are absorbed masterfully, although sharp-edged potholes can still intrude. The Odyssey is one of the very few cars that we can effortlessly take over a certain stretch of urban speed-humps at 60 km/h - the same ones that the Hyundai Grandeur bottomed-out on at 25 km/h.... The car corners with a minor power understeer attitude; backing off the throttle tucks the nose gently back into place. It's very predictable and safe, with quite high levels of grip.
However, the downfall in the on-road behaviour is the steering. While apparently a tricky system that alters assistance on the basis of the measured resistance being imposed by the rubber, in reality it's low-geared and lifeless. The feedback is poor and at the near straight-ahead position the effective sneeze factor is huge - enough to turn around, yell at the kids, inadvertently put on a quarter-turn of lock - and still be in your own lane. Maybe that's why it's like that...
But the lack of steering precision also means that every large freeway sweeper needs to be taken in a series of bites, as you dial on some lock, watch where the front goes, then unwind or alternatively, add some more. You'd get used to it over time, but the delightful precision and responsiveness of the throttle is not matched by the steering. The brakes - four wheel discs with ventilated fronts - are strong. The ABS system features electronic brake distribution, and gives eye-bulging stops, with a light and progressive pedal. Fuel economy is excellent, with around 10 litres/100km available in normal driving. We didn't see that, but then again we weren't driving very normally...
With sharper steering we'd be ready to sing the praises of the Odyssey as the ultimate sports sleeper, but even with that shortcoming, it's still a damn good car. Everyone around here wanted to drive it all of the time - and we don't have arguments like that over boring cars....