2021 Honda Odyssey First Drive | What’s new, photos, specs

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — We quite liked the Honda Odyssey when we first drove the current generation back in 2017. It offers a ton of space, of course, but it makes that space especially usable with multi-directional sliding seats, good ergonomics and tech that makes it easy to see into and be heard in the rear seats. For 2021, Honda’s not messing too much with a winning formula, giving us the same great, convenient, usable, drivable space with a nip here, a tuck there and a new bit of tech that may not seem like much on paper, but can make a big difference in livability if you find yourself regularly commuting in traffic.

The 2021 Odyssey gets updated exterior styling including a new look to the front bumper and grille. We like the straightforward, more uniformly horizontal and overall less busy look to the nose of the Odyssey. All trims now get LED headlights, and LED foglights are available. The trim on the tailgate is tweaked to match the look of the new face. There are also new wheel options.

Inside, all 2021 Odyssey trims get a rear seat reminder, which gives you a notice on the dash when you turn off the car to check the rear seats if you had opened the rear doors before driving. Touring and Elite trims, which include CabinWatch, will display a camera feed on the infotainment screen to give a birds-eye view of the second and third rows. All trims also get bag hooks on the back of the third row to keep groceries secure. EX and up get tri-color floor mats, while Touring and Elite trims get piano black door and dash trim, plus illuminated USB ports for the third row.

The top-of-the-line Elite trim — as our tester came equipped — adds to the Odyssey’s facelift with Shark Grey wheels. Elite also gets auto-dimming side mirrors, perforated leather first- and second-row seats, seat piping on all rows and new trim on the dash. Elite is now the only trim to come with the HondaVac, which is great for both sucking up a mess of crumbs and scaring the baby.

The Odyssey drives familiar, and is rather effortless. It has a nice, naturally-aspirated V6 engine that supplies 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet torque to the front wheels. That’s enough to spin rubber from a stop with a heavy foot, and to get out of your own (and anyone else’s) way pulling out onto a road with limited visibility or merging with highway traffic. It actually sounds just macho enough to make you feel good about flooring your family hauler from time to time. Its standard 10-speed automatic transmission helps keep the revs in check in calm driving. There are even standard paddle shifters you can feel free to ignore unless you’re traversing steep hills or towing something behind you.

It’s not as nice on your ego as a three-row SUV or crossover, but the Odyssey makes up for it in drivability and space. You trade a commanding view of the road for a merely great one — not as high, but with lots of glass to help you see more of your surroundings. Ingress and egress are just a small step up, which is great for comfort, but it’s also a time-saver for parents who don’t have to hoist their smaller kids into and out of the vehicle at every stop. Its length is as much a hindrance in parking lots as it is for those larger ‘utes, but you get more carlike comfort and stability out on the road.

And of course there’s the sheer magnitude of space. The huge sliding doors and second-row seats that slide side to side in addition to fore and aft make the third row easily accessible, especially if you have to put a car seat back there. With all rows of seating in place, there’s still a deep, massive well that dips below the load height of the liftgate to swallow bags and bags — and then more bags still — of cat litter, with plenty of room for a full load of groceries on top of that. Little bag hooks on the back of the seats help keep anything with a handle from tumbling around. The third-row seats fold down into that rear well for a flat load floor. And, of course, if you need to, you can remove the second row to unlock the full 144.9 cubic feet of cargo space behind the first row.

One of the few beneath-the-skin improvements for 2021 is a benefit for your right foot, with larger ramifications than you might think. For 2021, Honda incorporated an electric brake booster to improve braking feel, decreasing the pedal stroke by 20%. To be honest, we don’t recall having any complaints about the brake feel in model years prior, but we can declare that this updated Odyssey feels natural with the left pedal. More important, the brake booster allowed Honda to improve functionality of the driver assist system with low-speed follow.

The Honda Sensing driver assist suite is now standard on all trim levels. That includes adaptive cruise control that, unlike previous models, will actually bring the vehicle to a complete stop, and begin accelerating again when traffic starts moving. Bless the brake booster for this function, as we no longer suffer the frustration of the adaptive cruise control canceling on us in traffic jams — we even “lucked” into such a jam on our Sunday drive and were able to confirm it works well. On its closest follow setting, it leaves a comfortable distance without inviting anyone and everyone to fill the space in between. For some buyers, adaptive cruise control is a deal maker or breaker. The fact that the Odyssey’s now reaches parity with what many have come to expect from a new vehicle — and does it well — is a crucial selling point for drivers who live with daily congestion.

Honda Sensing includes other aids as well, including the addition of pedestrian detection to its emergency braking system. The lane-departure warning remains, and the lane-keeping assist has been improved. We didn’t really have any complaints about the last iteration, but were impressed in this drive by how subtly it works, without heavy-handed corrections. It also managed to keep track of lanes on light pavement when the sun washed out the markings to our own human eyes. You turn all these functions on with the push of a button on the left side of the dash, and you can turn off individual functions through a menu in the instrument cluster via steering wheel controls.

The 2021 Odyssey’s infotainment system is as easy as ever to use, with crisp graphics, intuitive menus and configurable tiles to put the functions you use the most right where you want them. The inclusion of CabinWatch in the higher trims makes it easy to keep an eye on little ones in back without the use of additional mirrors or needing to crane your neck for a peek. CabinTalk even lets you project your voice through the speakers (or the rear-seat entertainment system’s headphones) to make yourself heard in the third row. They’re fun party tricks, but more useful than we expected them to be, too.

So where does that put the Odyssey on your author’s list of minivans? Right near the top in a close second, same as it was before. The plug-in Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid still holds the top spot in our heart, as the electric mileage, low center of gravity and quiet operation add to an already solid competitor. The Odyssey is close behind — and safely ahead of the all-gas Pacifica. The 2021 Odyssey improves on an already thoughtful execution of the minivan as not merely a means to move people, but to keep those people happy, comfortable and safe. We’re pleased Honda continues to raise the bar for its customers. Now we get to see if the hybrid Toyota Sienna can give it a run for its money.

The 2021 Honda Odyssey is on sale now, starting at $32,910 including the $1,120 in destination fees. The Elite trim we tested starts at $48,940.

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