A family affair to Florida and back
Honda’s Odyssey minivan is fit for Griswold-esque family vacations without Griswold-esque styling
Family road trips are best endured in the right conveyance, and I can't think of a better one than a minivan when you're a family of five or more. The farther apart you can seat the kids, the quieter the voyage will be, and most vans are configured to accomplish just that. It's the best way to travel - at least until anesthetic drugs or cryogenics are approved for domestic use.
There's a bumper crop of new minivans for those who recognize their inherent goodness. With Ford and GM out of the segment, Chrysler is left to defend its sizable market share against three new import-brand vans for 2011: the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest. All are bigger and chock-full of amenities, along with more powerful and efficient engines. Beyond the shapeless two-box profile, what's not to like?
We chose a top-of-the-line Honda Odyssey Touring to take on our road trip to Orlando, Florida. Like Clark Griswold of National Lampoon's Vacation, I was on a mission to get my kids to Universal Studios' Harry Potter exhibit, come heck or high water - and there were flood warnings along the way.
As the fourth generation of a Canadian favourite, Honda's van got a total reworking. The new Odyssey is wider and lower than the 2005-2010 model and has a "lightning-bolt" beltline to break up the slab-sided profile. Gone is the clunky roof rack, replaced by a dealer-install option. The emphasis here is on fuel efficiency, further evidenced by the raked windshield and the way the bodywork sweeps back from the radiator.
We left a frigid Toronto early (7:30 a.m. - early for us) Saturday morning and sprinted to the Peace Bridge, crossing over to rusty Buffalo with a smaller throng of Canadian winter refugees than usual. We cleared U.S. Customs in 15 minutes. Steel-grey clouds and the threat of snow hung over us as we steered the Odyssey onto I-90. Turning southbound at Erie, Pennsylvania, we left the snow-coated trees in our slipstream.
Three-cylinder gas sipper
The new Odyssey is a natural cruiser. Long noted for its somewhat noisy interiors, Honda got this one right with a church-quiet cabin (thank the active noise cancellation system) that allows everyone to enjoy their pastime in peace. The slick profile, combined with the 3.5 L V6's zeal for shutting down one bank of cylinders during steady-state cruising, allows the Odyssey to save more gas than ever. We scored 8.8 l/100 km (32 mpg) at a supra-legal 120 km/h. Judging by previous Odyssey drivers' bleats, this one may actually live up to owners' expectations of a fuel-efficient Honda van (at least since the four-cylinder model bowed out in 1998).
According to Bing, our 1,900 km journey would take 17-and-a-half hours, which we split over two days with a sleepover in Wytheville, Virginia. We front-loaded the driving on the first day (10 hours) so that we'd arrive at our rented Jacksonville Beach condo by late afternoon.
The Interstate speed limit in New York and Pennsylvania is 65 mph (105 km/h), while every state south of that has a posted limit of 70 (112). Still, it's easy to get into trouble. I've never seen more Smokeys on the highway - who says speeding fines don't boost municipal revenues? - and they were all busy pulling over scofflaws.
Watching for black-and-whites
Going 7 or 8 mph over the limit is tolerated, but it gets risky in construction zones and urban areas where the limit can suddenly ratchet down to 50 or 55 mph. You have to watch for brake lights ahead, since drivers instinctively brake when they spot a police cruiser. Unlike Canadians, American motorists seem reluctant to flash their lights to warn of speed traps ahead. (And don't get me started on their reticence to use their turn signals.)
Driving through the weathered mountains of West Virginia was a joy; our 248-hp Honda was better equipped to climb the inclines than other vans we've driven. The Odyssey's V6 maintains its three-cylinder mode longer than most engines of its ilk to save fuel, allowing us to climb a modest slope without arousing the other three pistons.
South of Charlotte, N.C., the scenery becomes more monotonous; the hills flatten out and the temperate forests of South Carolina and Georgia line the Interstate providing little in the way of distraction. We end up listening to the movie soundtrack playing in the back. Lucky for us, we've made Monty Python fans out of our three girls.
Jacksonville Beach or bust
Lying just 40 km south of the Georgia border, Jacksonville is Florida's largest city (hands up everybody who thought it was Miami) and a major commercial seaport despite the fact it's not directly on the ocean. The city hugs the St. John's River inland, which keeps it from getting battered during hurricane season. The locals rely on the big port and two Navy bases for business, not to mention the lucrative tourism trade.
We bypassed Jacksonville proper for the ocean side community of Jacksonville Beach, an old suburban town on the Atlantic coast. We arrived on Sunday afternoon to a balmy temperature of 24C. The entire town seemed to have traded in their SUVs for bicycles. "I could get used to a place like this," I told Margaret, regretting that I left my Gary Fisher at home.
We had arranged a week-long rental in a fairly new condominium building overlooking the beach. Like Daytona further south, the beach sand is packed hard enough to support vehicles. In fact, people used to drive on the beach, until the practice was banned in 1979 for ecological reasons (no doubt the cars oozed a lot of motor oil). Today bicycles tread up and down the pristine beach.
Our week was punctuated by blue skies, warm temperatures and frigid salt water. Not ones to shy away from a challenge, our girls were in the water by the second day, and by the end of the week we were all frolicking in the waves. The surfer dudes, sheathed in neoprene wetsuits, could only stare at the crazy Canucks.