SAN DIEGO – Designing a better minivan, arguably the market’s most practical vehicle, is a task akin to building a better mousetrap: difficult, if not impossible.

But Honda Motor Co. Ltd. mostly pulls it off with the new ’11 Odyssey, which retains the features minivan owners love but boasts a few “surprise-and-delight” additions.

While plenty has changed from the outgoing model, immediately noticeable is the ’11 Odyssey’s “lightning bolt” beltline, a design cue Honda says “distinguishes” the vehicle’s profile.

It’s distinguishing all right, but perhaps not in the way Honda intended. The risky design, which looks as if two different vehicles were slammed together, is disconcerting. But that doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to the younger buyers the auto maker is targeting.

Another potentially alienating styling element is the exposed rail system for the sliding doors, long a feature of Honda minivans. This is more than a design cue, however; it actually serves a practical purpose.

With most other minivans, the rail, and the motor for the sliding door, is hidden along the lower edge of the side rear window. But Honda contends this layout interferes with shoulder room and requires third-row windows to be narrower, a compromise the auto maker was unwilling to make.

While unsightly, Honda’s decision to position the rail lower on the body for better passenger comfort is the correct one, a triumph of function over form that’s critical in this market segment.

The interior is decked out in quality materials but is a bit cluttered. Switches are easy to reach and operate, although there are too many of them and they are scattered about in a visually unappealing way.

But this is a minivan after all, and the plethora of switchgear is needed to control all the Odyssey’s electronic gizmos and entertainment options for the kiddies.

Our favorite is the DVD-equipped “Ultra-Wide Rear Entertainment System,” which comes standard with the $43,250 Touring Elite package.

With a mammoth16.2-in. (41.1-cm) screen that can be split to display output from two separate devices, it ensures there is no fighting for control of the system (unless there are more than two children aboard).

In typical minivan fashion, the rear seats allow for up to nine configurations to carry a combination of cargo and passengers.

More innovative are the “wide-mode” adjustable 40/20/40-split second-row seats. As the name suggests, the end seats slide outward 1.5 ins. (3.8 cm), creating enough room for three child seats.

’11 Honda Odyssey Touring
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 7-passenger minivan
Engine 3.5L SOHC V-6 with aluminum-alloy block and head
Power (SAE net) 248 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm)
Bore x stroke (mm) 89 x 93
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 118.1 ins. (300 cm)
Overall length 202.9 ins. (515.3 cm)
Overall height 68.4 ins. (174 cm)
Curb weight 4,541 lbs./2,060 kg
Base price $40,755, excluding $780 destination charge
Fuel economy 19/28 mpg (12.3-8.4 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Kia Sedona
Pros Cons
New sheetmetal “Lightning-bolt” beltline not for everyone
Fuel-efficient V-6 Could use a tad more power
Interior boasts quality material Instrument panel a bit cluttered

The Odyssey’s seats are easy to reconfigure, especially the 60/40-split third-row “Magic Seat” that can be folded into the floor with a single pull of a side-mounted strap.

When in the upright position, the third row provides ample legroom and headroom for an average-sized adult, something lacking in many minivan competitors.

Also new are a removable center console, allowing for easier access to the rear, and a flip-up trash-bag ring that accommodates plastic grocery bags.

The ’11 Odyssey retains the 3.5L V-6 from the previous model, albeit with some modifications.

On the LX and EX trim levels, the engine boasts Honda’s Variable Cylinder Management, which runs in 3-, 4- or 6-cyl. mode. All trims get a 2-stage intake manifold that boosts power to 248 hp and 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm) of torque, as well as some block modifications to reduce internal friction.

On paper, 248 hp doesn’t sound like enough to adequately propel the 4,541-lb. (2,060-kg). Odyssey. But on the road, the vehicle is mostly satisfying, with the exception of relatively weak mid-range torque.

However, most consumers will be content with the balance of power and fuel economy. The Touring edition, which gets a 6-speed automatic as standard, is rated at 19/28 mpg (12.3-8.4 L/100 km) city/highway.

Although the standard 5-speed proves adequate, the 6-speed gearbox is a better match for the 3.5L and delivers 1 mpg (0.4 km/L) better fuel economy in city/highway driving.

Handling is superb, thanks to the Odyssey’s responsive steering. And the minivan drives like a much smaller vehicle, making it sportier than most of its competitors.

The ’11 Odyssey is for the young-at-heart. It offers all the amenities that have made the minivan a must-have for families, but boasts some mold-breaking, fun-to-drive characteristics.

Credit Honda with building a better mousetrap.

bpope@wardsauto.com