11/1/2010 | 4 MINUTE READ

2011 Honda Odyssey: Yes, It Is A Minivan. Proudly

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When the principal designer has owned seven of them, you know that his knowledge of what works is deep. And when the engineering team has owned over 40, it's more than a job but a commitment. What's more, the minivan handles like—well, something far more than a minivan.


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Catalin Matei was the principal designer for the 2011 Odyssey. He says it took 3-1/2 years to develop the vehicle. Or, more precisely, "a long, hard 3-1/2 years." He's based in Torrance. And he worked extensively with his colleagues at Honda R&D in Raymond, OH. (Speaking of geography: the Odyssey is produced at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in Lincoln, AL, where the Pilot SUV, Ridge-line pickup, and V6 Accord sedan are also built. Matei is rather zealous when it comes to the Odyssey. Although he is the exterior designer of the first-generation Civic Coupe (which appeared in '93 and was part of the fifth genera-tion Civic lineup), and while he says of that car that has been widely embraced by tuners, "Even now I love that car," Matei has owned seven Odysseys.

"I know how it drives and I know a lot about it."

Yes, having had a new one every two years since 1995, and with a penchant for taking trips with his family to places like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, he knows a little more than the average designer might about minivans.

And one interesting styling cue—the "lightning bolt" form in the belt line near the rear quarter—while providing some flair to what is, at the end of the day, a minivan, with all that word carries with it, is actually something that is family oriented. Speaking of the belt line, he says that one of the reasons they did it was because "We tried to make it unique. We want it to be recognizable from a distance." So with that kick, it is a distinguishing factor even if people don't see that the A-pillar is pushed forward and the D-pillar is severely tapered where it meets the belt line.

There was another aspect to the lightning bolt. And it also relates to why the rail for the sliding door is visible on the sheet metal, not disguised in the glass area. Matei says that it is about the kids who sit in the third row: Where the lightning bolt kicks down, they have greater visibility out of the vehicle. And because of the location of the slide rails, they gained about 4 in. of shoulder room in the third row and were able to put in the lightning bolt. Presumably when you are taking kids on a long road trip, anything that keeps them occupied (yes, there are rear entertainment systems, including the "Ultrawide Rear Entertainment System with High Definition Multimedia Interface" that offers the largest screen ever offered on a Honda: 16.2-in. wide). So how does he feel when he's with a group of his peers, a gaggle of designers all talking about what they're up to, what they've been working on, and he says "Minivan"? He answers straight: "I have no problem with it," then adds, "What do you do with a coupe when you have three kids? I have a coupe for my personal car and have a lot of fun with it, but I cannot enjoy the family time or take it to a national park—or it would be a very painful drive."


You Would Never Do This, But You Could

If you want to provide some compelling evidence ("proof" would be too strong a word) that your minivan is not only structurally stiff but has a suspension capable of handling conditions that ordinary people are unlikely to encounter unless they happen to be in circumstances that are euphemistically described as being "over their head," then one thing you can do is to setup a giant autocross course in the parking lot of an NFL stadium and turn a bunch of quasi-professional drivers who happen to write about cars loose on it so that before too much time passes, the smell of low-rolling resistance tires fills the air. Sure, it may not be as accurate as the FEA analyses that were run at Honda R&D in Raymond, OH, during the development program for the 2011 Odyssey...but then it allows Steven Frey and his engineering colleagues to see first-hand how potential "customers" are able to push this vehicle far beyond what even the sportiest soccer mom is likely to do.

So how did they do this? How is it possible that they'd risk having the vehicle thrown around with controlled abandon? Well, in large part it has to go straight to the body structure: 59% high-strength steel. Yet to throw a vehicle around, you want stiff but light, and the weight of the body-in-white (which is the same for all trim levels, even though the curb weighs range from 4,337 lb to 4,560 lb) is down 27.5 lb. The global body rigidity is up 22% compared to the previous model. And you want safe: the roof strength is 2.2 times stronger and the side intrusion strength is 3.7 times stronger. The brake sizes both front and rear are up by an inch (12.6-in. vented rotors in the front; 13.2-in. rotors in the rear). And you want it (comparatively speaking) slippery: the wider (79.2 in, up 2 in.) and lower (68.4 in., down 0.4 in.) vehicle has a coefficient of drag improve-ment of 5.5% and an overall running resistance improvement (thanks to such things as low-rolling resistance tires, tailgate spoiler and side garnish, radiator air guides, and side window shields) of 8%. And, you want it peppy, which goes to the 248-hp, 250 lb-ft of torque 3.5-liter i-VTEC V6 engine. Honda has it at 0 to 62 mph in 8.8 seconds. The engine features Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), which means that depending on driving conditions it can operate on three, four or all six cylinders. In the parking lot it never goes below six, and the drive-by-wire throttle system gets a strenuous workout, as well.