BIRMINGHAM, Ala. When the members of the 2004 Detroit News Automotive Consumer Panel toured the Detroit auto show in January, it was fascinating to watch who got the most excited about the 2005 Chrysler minivans.
It wasn_t the moms. It was the mortician.
At the time, James M. Childs, a 29-year-old Clawson funeral director, seemed sold on the new flexibility of the Chrysler minivans.
The second- and third-row seats in those minivans can be folded flat into the floor, creating a minivan with a delivery-vehicle-style cargo area. Childs said the arrangement would be perfect for the transportation needs of his business.
I thought about the panel during the August preview of the redesigned 2005 Honda Odyssey minivan here. The up-to-eight-passenger Odyssey goes on sale Sept. 22. Without giving specific pricing information, Honda said the new Alabama-built Odyssey will range in price from $25,000 to $34,000.
Frankly, I was surprised to see that Honda didn_t copy Chrysler and come up with its own version of second-row seats that fold into the floor. In fact, they did nothing of the sort.
Speaking in part through an interpreter, Odyssey chief engineer Yutaka Fujiwara explained that the second-row seats in the Chrysler minivans were narrow and uncomfortable.
If we reduced the size of the captains chairs in the second row, we could have done a version of fold-into-the-floor, Fujiwara said. But we didn_t see the need for it.
So Honda followed its own minivan path, coming up with such creative cargo-handling solutions as installing a standard lazy Susan beneath the floor of all Odyssey models except for the base LX.
Yes, a rotating lazy Susan like your Aunt Bernice might have had on her kitchen table a sectioned container that spins and holds everything from disposable diapers to packets of Goldfish crackers.
In addition, the Odyssey offers a second-row seat that fits a toddler, and can be dismantled and stowed in the lazy Susan.
When I got back from Birmingham, I sent Childs an e-mail, asking if he had purchased a Chrysler minivan. He had, but it was a 2000 model.
I was at a Chrysler dealership recently and I sat in the back of the new minivans with the Stow _n_ Go seats, he wrote. While they are handy, they are very uncomfortable for a full-sized person. I wouldn_t want to sit in them for any great length of time. I suppose you have to trade comfort for convenience.
These two vignettes illustrate a key point about two of the biggest contenders in the minivan wars of the 2005 model year: Both the Honda and the Chrysler minivans are excellent choices, but they are not clones of one another.
Consequently, you have to decide which mom props in the minivans suit your personal needs the best.
After a daylong drive in the Odyssey, its my thought that moms and dads who hunger for sophistication and superior handling will prefer the Honda.
In fact, the top-of-the-line Odyssey Touring model is so luxurious that its practically an Acura, which is Hondas premium marque. The touring model comes with such standard features as adjustable pedals and Michelin run-flat tires, along with an optional power tailgate and navigation system with a rear-view camera.
But if you must have all-wheel drive in your minivan, bypass Odyssey. Unlike the Toyota Sienna minivan, the Odyssey still does not offer all-wheel drive as an option. (All-wheel drive has also been eliminated from the Chrysler minivans for 2005 because engineers had no room to package the feature along with the Stow _n_ Go seats.)
Despite the lack of the all-wheel-drive feature, there is still an unbelievable level of attention to detail in the Honda. The list of features is impressive:
Second glove box.
Standard second-row sunshades on up-level models that do away with those unsightly suction-cup shades you get at Toys R Us.
Standard three-row side-curtain airbags with rollover sensors.
Smartly designed cabin, with instrument-panel-mounted shifter that frees up space so kids can more easily move between the first and second rows.
Second row power windows that can be rolled three-quarters of the way down.
Vents and lights above the rears seats.
Third-row seat with an adjustable back.
More rear legroom.
My complaints about the Odysseys cabin are few. I would have liked a steering wheel that telescopes as well as tilts, and I wish adjustable pedals were available on all models, not just the top-of-the-line touring model. Those two features allow the driver to customize the seating arrangement to a drivers size and needs; they are necessities in vehicles aimed at women.
Honda engineers worked hard to improve the third-row seat in the Odyssey, though. The one on the old model was a heavy one-piece bench. It was difficult for a woman to lower it, and it could only be folded after the headrests were removed. The _05 model has a 60-40 split folding bench that is easier to flip and fold, and the headrests no longer have to be removed.
Consumers had often complained to me about the booming sound they_d hear in the cabin of the old Odyssey. It came from the deep well that holds the third-row seat. Blessedly, that booming is gone in the new model, thanks to a new subframe design and sound-absorbing material. I never heard it once and I made a point not only to drive the Odyssey, but to ride in the back seat.
Shockingly, the Japanese automaker was so determined to provide top-of-the-segment handling on its minivan that it benchmarked the Odyssey against the BMW 7 Series sedan. The new Odyssey now features standard vehicle stability assist with traction control, a feature that is usually an expensive option on vehicles in this price segment. The dedication to a superior ride paid off. The Odyssey behaved perfectly on twisty, two-lane country roads, with pinpoint responses to driver inputs.
The redesigned Odyssey now also trumps its most serious competition the Sienna and the Nissan Quest in terms of horsepower.
The Odysseys 3.5-liter SOHC V-6 provides 255 horsepower, 15 more than the previous model. Odyssey also gets a revised five-speed automatic transmission.
The engine is available in two configurations, including an advanced version called i-VTEC that automatically deactivates three of the six cylinders during cruising to enhance fuel economy. The i-VTEC engine is standard on Touring and EX with leather models. The base LX and EX models get the regular VTEC engine.
The estimated fuel economy on the i-VTEC models is 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway. Models with the VTEC setup get 19 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway.
Chief engineer Fujiwara said Honda was particularly worried about the soccer mom image of minivans when it redesigned the Odyssey.
He said the 05 model is supposed to look like a cyber-lion, with a more aggressive stance and pronounced even bulgy eyes. New chrome trim around the Odysseys side windows is also designed to lessen the minivans dowdy appearance.
I_m not sure what a cyber-lion is supposed to look like. But I do know the styling is perhaps the biggest disappointment on the Odyssey. Why? Nobody not even Honda has come up yet with a good way to disguise a minivan.
Honda Odyssey Touring model smacks of luxury. The model has a navigation system with a rear-view camera.
Odyssey's smartly designed cabin features an instrument-panel-mounted shifter that frees up space so kids can more easily move between the first and second rows.
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