Updates for 2021 make Honda’s already excellent family hauler slightly better.
In spite of my penchant for dad jokes, I am not in the target demographic for the 2021 Honda Odyssey – as an unmarried, childless, 31-year-old male, my automotive tastes currently skew I sort of, maybe, someday, possibly hope life will put me in a position where a minivan would make more sense as a daily driver than my two-seat BMW Z4.
If that modern-day Family Truckster is the 2021 Odyssey, at least I won’t have to sacrifice too much driving fun for school-dropoff convenience. For context, the day Honda dropped the Elite-trim minivan in my driveway, I had access to both my personal roadster, my boyfriend’s E90-generation 330i, and a Porsche 718 Boxster GTS 4.0 (review coming soon). To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the spacious, comfortable, smooth, and light-on-its-feet Odyssey about 70 percent as much as any of those far sportier steeds. All that in a vehicle that also offers a built-in vacuum.
What’s New, Gumshoe?
2021 brings a facelift to the popular Honda minivan, which has been on sale since 2018 in its current form. But the Odyssey’s age shouldn’t deter buyers, as Honda applied a conservative spate of improvements that help the not-so-minivan – seriously, it’s longer than a Chevy Tahoe – appeal to families looking for space, comfort, and efficiency.
Obvious changes include newly standard LED headlights on all models, along with a restyled grille, front bumper, and wheels. Much more importantly, the automaker added its Honda Sensing suite of safety and driver-assist technologies to all trims – even the $31,790 LX gets features like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assistance, and lane departure warning. Furthermore, Honda Sensing is also better than last year, thanks to a new radar sensor that offers a low-speed follow function with stop and go, pedestrian detection, and perceptibly better performance in a wider variety of driving situations.
On an Odyssey Elite, most of those updates are largely immaterial, since the top-spec trim has offered LEDs and Honda Sensing for a while. The 2021 Odyssey’s new electronic brake booster, however, is a notable improvement. Reportedly inspired by the NSX and boasting a 20 percent shorter stroke, the new Odyssey feels much more confident in normal stop-and-go situations and the occasional panic moment when traffic ahead comes to a sudden halt. Pedal feel might not be a big priority for minivan drivers, but the confidence the new brakes afford is an intangible that makes the Odyssey a solid and stable family hauler.
Staycation On Wheels
The Odyssey offers excellent space for the two forward rows of passengers, and even the way-back is comfortable for two adults and adequate for three. Furthermore, Honda claims that three child seats fit across the second row with the center seat position installed.
There’s also abundant storage in the Honda van – the front and sliding doors boast bottle holders and slim binnacles, and the reconfigurable front center console comes with a wireless charging pad and plenty of space for electronics, handbags, and gear. Cupholders are predictably bountiful (I counted no less than 12, and I probably missed some), and all three rows offer power outlets and USBs.
The Elite trim also comes with a minivan piece de resistance, an onboard vacuum cleaner that picks up Cheerio dust with the best of them. Accessed via the rear hatch, the HondaVac has a hose that’s long enough to reach even the front seats.
While we’re back there, cargo space behind the third row is incredible at 32.8 cubic feet, and stowing those chairs is a cinch thanks to the backward-flipping “Magic Seat” that stows in the deep cargo area for a flat rear load floor. A family of four or five would have all the room in the world if they needed it for a long trip.
The Odyssey is about as nimble as you’d expect of any vehicle wearing that squared-off H badge. I was legitimately surprised with its grip and handling verve on a spontaneous blast down a scenic route...
While the third-row seat stows simply, the same can’t be said of the second row – a revised folding mechanism for 2021 makes removing each of the middle-row seats easier, but the captain’s chairs are still rather unwieldy. I’m not known for my upper-body strength, so maybe someone else would have an easier time of it than I did, but if I regularly needed to go from passengers to cargo, the Pacifica’s Stow-N-Go seating would be my vibe. Honda says it prioritized passenger comfort – sit in one of the Pacifica’s foldably slim middle seats and you’ll understand why the bulkier (and cushier) Odyssey perches don’t retreat into the floor.
Making up more ground are middle-row bucket seats that move from side to side in a few different configurations, including a center-oriented “buddy” mode, split captain’s chairs, and a left- or rightmost position that eases third-row access. Honda even says the so-called Magic Slide feature even operates with baby seats installed on the LATCH anchors. With no children to my name, the Magic Slide instead got pressed into duty during an impromptu “drive-in” date, using the Elite’s standard Blu-Ray player for a viewing of Sleepless In Seattle.
Imitation Of Luxury?
Honda says it designed the top-of-the-line Elite model less for traditional minivan customers and more for family folks trading in a premium car or SUV. As such, 2021 brings unique perforated leather and seat piping that looks appropriately chic. While some of the Odyssey’s cabin materials are clearly intended for robustness – think a fashionable Nike walking shoe, not a leather Ferragamo loafer – the Elite’s interior styling nonetheless impresses, particularly given the Odyssey’s form factor.
But at $48,940 as tested (up from $47,820 to start), it damn well better. That price could get a buyer into an arguably more luxurious Hyundai Palisade Limited or base-model Volvo XC90. Instead of outright posh, the Odyssey Elite offers a balance of comfort and space for well-heeled buyers that nonetheless need to ferry around six or seven passengers and all of their cargo. In that vein, it succeeds.
That said, there’s still no arguing that nearly 50 large is too much to spend for some of the cabin’s natty plastics. Ditto the weird, Elite-specific dashboard garnish that only raised questions: Is it faux wood or faux aluminum, and couldn’t Honda have repurposed some gorgeous Acura open-pore Desert Olive Ash trim? At least the unchanged infotainment and 8-inch touchscreen work well, offering quick responses from both embedded features and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And Honda’s segment-exclusive CabinWatch camera helps helicopter parents monitor napping (or bickering) kids.
Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 is unchanged from previous years, mated to a standard-on-all-trims 10-speed automatic transmission (the 2020 Odyssey marked the merciful death of Honda’s jerky nine-speed auto that came standard on most models). Producing 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet, the engine is merely adequate when weighed against the Odyssey Elite’s 4,603-pound heft.
It’ll hustle up an on-ramp with some alacrity, but maintaining speed on long freeway climbs requires lots of downshifting – thank goodness the sourced-inhouse 10-speed makes smooth and logical gear changes. What’s more, Honda made paddle shifters standard on all trims for 2021, offering both a manual mode and a quick-kickdown feature if the driver wants a bit more response when passing or extra engine braking on a long grade.
With the newly responsive brake pedal, the Odyssey is about as nimble as you’d expect of any vehicle wearing that squared-off H badge. I was legitimately surprised with its grip and handling verve on a spontaneous blast down a scenic route – tire squeal comes on early, but understeer remains controlled at a pace that would likely cause the van’s typical rear-seat passengers to quickly lose their lunch.
There’s a good amount of roll in enthusiastic driving, but otherwise, body motions are well-controlled. And transient response (when’s the last time you heard that phrase applied to a minivan?) is entertainingly composed.
Unfortunately, it’s not all roses in the 2021 Odyssey. While I never drove it loaded with sound-dampening passengers or luggage, I was a bit unpleasantly surprised with a lot of gritty road noise that found its way through the tires into the cabin. Hopefully, some duffel bags in the cargo area and butts in the rear seats would alleviate that unfortunate situation – long-distance drives gave me some sonic fatigue otherwise. And a blown rear speaker was something of a concern given the newborn van’s low miles.
Minor qualms aside, the Honda boasts a spacious and family-friendly cabin, handsome styling inside and out, and enthusiast-approved driving dynamics. Indeed, it might make a fine entry into my paternal three-car garage – alongside my ride-or-die Z4 and my ride-or-die’s machine of choice, of course. If Disneyland T-shirts, BOB strollers, diaper bags, and the 2021 Odyssey are in my future, I won’t protest too much.
2021 Honda Odyssey Elite Engine3.5-Liter V6 Output280 Horsepower / 262 Pound-Feet TransmissionTen-Speed Automatic Drive TypeFront-Wheel Drive Efficiency19 City / 28 Highway / 22 Combined Weight4,603 Pounds Seating Capacity7 Cargo Volume32.8 / 88.8 / 144.9 Cubic Feet Base Price $47,820 As-Tested Price$48,940