Amazingly, the 2nd generation Odyssey has now been with us for six years. And perhaps more amazingly, it still serves as one of the class benchmarks. Since it's been around for so long, we'll go ahead and assume that you're familiar with the basics and just fast forward a bit and tell you everything that's changed for its senior year: The Honda Navigation system received an improved database (EX-L models). That's pretty much it. Besides a few interior/exterior color changes everything else remains virtually unchanged since the Odyssey's well-timed midcycle refresh in 2002. During the refresh, the engine output was bumped from 205/210 hp(regular/premium) to 240 hp (regular), with a similar bump in torque (from 229 lb-ft to 242 lb-ft). Also upgraded in 2002 was the automatic transmission; the 4-speed was jettisoned in favor of an all-new smooth-shifting 5-speed. While the drivetrain upgrades were the most notable changes for the midcycle refresh, there were numerous other (more subtle) revisions, including suspension tweaks, NVH enhancements, a new alloy wheel design, and the offering of the industry's first factory-installed DVD rear entertainment system.
While I've spent a few thousand miles driving several different Odysseys, I recently had the opportunity to drive a 2004 Toyota Sienna and a 2004 Nissan Quest, both all-new designs which are clearly gunning for the Odyssey. These competitors represent the best efforts to date when it comes to challenging the Odyssey's leadership role. The newcomers help bring to light the strengths and weaknesses of the Odyssey.
You've probably heard the term "carlike" used to describe the Odyssey driving experience, but in my opinion that doesn't mean it rivals the feel of an Accord or a TL. Driving the Odyssey, you can certainly sense the additional weight, the higher roll center, and the slower steering response. But there are MANY cars that would absolutely kill to have the driving dynamics of the Odyssey, so in that context "carlike" is a reasonable assessment.
Perhaps the most carlike aspect of the Odyssey is the way Honda's smooth 3.5L 240hp SOHC VTEC V6 makes it scoot. With 0-60 mph coming up in a few ticks under 8 seconds, this people mover will give you more than enough squirt to step right on out. Perhaps even more impressive about this soccer schooner is what happens when you drop the hammer on the freeway. This van finds the century mark so quickly you'd swear you were reading the metric scale on the speedometer. Keep your ValentineOne plugged in!
The drivetrain has always been one of the Odyssey's strong points, and against the latest efforts of Toyota and Nissan, it still shines. The combination of the 3.5L SOHC VTEC V6 (J35) engine and smooth shifting 5-speed automatic transmission make for one less thing you have to worry about when travelling. Roll-on acceleration performance is absolutely excellent for the class, providing a safe margin for overtaking on two lane roads or on the interstate. While we have not dyno tested an Odyssey yet, the torque curve feels broad and flat.
Class-leading acceleration numbers are great, but what about the subjective performance of the drivetrain? From this standpoint the Odyssey excels as well. The J35/5AT combo is simply the smoothest, most refined V6 drivetrain in any minivan today. It also makes some of the best sounds in the industry. Despite a weight advantage of over 300lbs (vs. the Odyssey) and a motor with comparable output, the Quest offers no discernable advantage in terms of acceleration. The Quest's motor is smooth and has a useful powerband, but the drivetrain loses points when it comes to the transmission (I've only tried the 4-speed automatic - the SE offers a 5-speed AT). Much like other Nissan automatic transmissions I've sampled, the torque converter feels sloppy, resulting in protracted shifts and rpm variations disproportionate to throttle position (tip-in and lift). The Quest's gearing is tall and widely spaced, which can leave you in a lurch if you need sudden power at interstate speeds. You can wait out 3rd gear, which offers much less thrust than the more optimally geared Odyssey, or you can slow down enough to get a downshift to 2nd. Only then do you really have thrust that compares to the Odyssey. Performance off the line is similar to the Odyssey, perhaps a tad snappier, though Nissan cheats a bit by using a relatively high stall speed (seemingly around 2500 rpms). When in the appropriate gear and rev range, the Quest's roll-on acceleration feels about on par with the Odyssey, but the Odyssey feels more responsive the rest of the time. Both the Odyssey and the Quest exhibit shades of mild torque steer. The Sienna's motor trails both the Odyssey and the Quest in terms of both refinement and power. In first gear it manages the weight of the Sienna decently, but in the upper gears it feels and sounds overburdened. Roll on acceleration is barely adequate - I would not feel comfortable attempting many passes on a two lane road in the Sienna. It should also be noted that at higher rpms Toyota's new 3.3L V6 is not nearly as smooth as Honda's J35 or Nissan's VQ35, which is surprising given the very high levels of refinement the Sienna exhibits otherwise.
The Odyssey's chassis dynamics are another one of its strengths. As you approach the limits, it progresses towards understeer (as it should!), but considering the utilitarian nature of the vehicle and its conservative shoes, the thing is actually capable of attacking the twisties quite well, as long as you keep things in perspective. I took five family members on a fall outing to the north Georgia mountains for a day of hiking and general sight-seeing. Of course, in order to reach our destination, I had to take some of my favorite winding test roads. The Odyssey dug in impressively, providing a reasonably entertaining drive, most notably NOT tripping all over itself or doing anything untoward. The tires were obviously not chosen for their cornering prowess, and there was an acceptable amount of body roll, but the van never felt "tippy" or top-heavy, and ride motions were well contained. Transient response is quite good - much better than the Sienna or Chrysler Pacifica (if I might very briefly introduce another potential, yet ultimately unworthy competitor to the discussion), both of which have seemingly zero roll stiffness. The Odyssey's steering is nicely weighted, accurate, and offers decent feedback. The Sienna is softer and understeers almost immediately. I did not drive it on the same loop as the Odyssey, but I did push it through a short segment of curvy 2-lane, and it wanted nothing to do with spirited driving. NO FUN. The Quest, on the other hand, seems to offer driving dynamics very similar to the Odyssey's, and to its credit the Quest's brakes felt stronger than the Odyssey's as well, though its 300lb weight advantage could have a lot to do with that. The Quest and Odyssey's dynamics are close enough that I would have to drive them again back to back on the same roads make a final call. Similarly, it's tough to make a call on the ride quality of the three vehicles as I did not have the opportunity to traverse any seriously degraded road surfaces in the two challengers. On typically smooth roads, they generally offer similar levels of ride comfort.
One area where the Odyssey's chassis is beginning to show its age is in terms of NVH. Both the Sienna and Quest do a better job of dealing with road noise and windnoise than the Odyssey. The Odyssey's tires transmit a fair bit of information regarding the road surface through the body of the vehicle as well as through the air to your eardrums.