Road test: 2011 Honda Odyssey

The minivan offers luxury and size, with numerous hidden and optional entertainment extras

Is the minivan cool again?

Well, I'm not sure they were ever really cool. But there was a point when they were extremely popular with families, and for good reason: they offered plenty of room for the brood along with decent fuel economy. But then the macho SUV started to get popular, and a lot of buyers thought the extra cost of filling up at the pumps was more than worth being seen as "cool" in a tall 4x4.

Which is silly, really. Let's face it: you may not be the type who wants to take the family vehicle into the dunes here, either because you're just not the outdoors type or you don't want to risk your expensive vehicle off-road. Hey, maybe you're so extreme you've even got a dedicated off-roader or motocross bike, but still need a larger family vehicle for getting them to school or the occasional longer trip.

If these descriptions relate to you, then there's no reason why you shouldn't be looking at a minivan. And if you're also looking for a bit of luxury and an insane amount of optional equipment to keep you and the rest of the family happy, then you should look at the new Honda Odyssey.

Released last year, this latest version of the Japanese company's people mover has grown both bigger and more beautiful, making it easily one of the best minivans on the road today.

The new 3.5L V6 is superb; it's smooth and quiet and gives a good, steady push at just about any speed. On this Touring model, it's coupled to a six-speed automatic that works well and gives better fuel economy that its base five-speed version.

The ride is firm but very comfortable, with very little wind and road noise. And the handling - well, it's surprisingly agile, but you do feel the Odyssey's size and weight in the corners. But who would use a minivan for slaloms anyway?

The only driving bugaboo I had was with the brakes; although they are certainly up to the task of stopping safely, the pedal needs a touch more force than you'd expect from a family car. A bit more boost would be appreciated.

Inside is absolutely cavernous. The seating positions in the front are high, so you can pretend that you're driving a big SUV, and there is room for eight full-sized adults in total to lounge comfortably in the plush, leather seats, with plenty of head and leg room for all. The cargo area behind the third row of seats will fit just about anything; its floor is recessed, giving a deep well to put your stuff. And although the seats don't fold into the floor, they are removable to give you enough room to practically move your family in - Honda lists the interior space at almost 5,000L. Hey, that way, you can live in any neighbourhood you want!

It seemed that the more time I spent with this car, the more pleasant surprises seemed to spring up. Of course, there are the prerequisite creature and driver comforts, such as cruise control, sat/nav, an excellent stereo system, split climate controls, etc etc. But there are also myriad other features that distinguish the Odyssey as a car that was clearly planned out for families in mind.

There's a cool box in the centre console on the dash that will keep a few drinks chilled, along with gads of other little storage areas all around the interior. Not only that, but the deep centre box that sits between the driver and passenger is completely removable, which would leave the entire space between the rear door and the dashboard completely free for longer items. There are also power sliding doors on the sides and a power rear hatch, which can all be opened with the key fob.

At one point, I popped down the sunglasses holder above the windshield and was curious about the convex mirror that came down with it, only to realise it was there to keep an eye on the mischievous kids in the back seats: very clever.

To keep those children quiet in the back, this Touring model comes with the optional 16.2-inch, split-screen, DVD video system that drops down from the roof behind the front seats. There are plugs for headphones and USB jacks for more personal entertainment, too; there should be no reason to complain on longer trips.

The price of this Touring version is considerably higher than the base Odyssey, but with all of its options the cost is favourable compared with other large, luxury minivans and SUVs. Add to all this Honda's legendary build quality and a five-star safety rating by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US, and you have a versatile vehicle that seems perfect for a large family. That is, if you have the self-confidence to be seen in a minivan.

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