IRVINGTON, N.Y.—The minivan is one of the great automotive innovations of the past 50 years.
It's been beloved, berated, embraced, and shunned since the Plymouth-Dodge-Chrysler version took the box-on-wheels design mainstream in the 1980s. And that's a good thing because the minivan takes a stand and makes a statement: "I can carry you and yours and your 'stuff' anyplace you want to go ... and do it in comfort." Now, as Honda introduces the fourth generation of Odyssey minivan, you can add "... and in style" to that statement.
Honda has identified three market segments when it comes to the minivan: the fans (adopters), foes (rejecters), and a gray-area segment (the hesitators), those who understand the utilitarian aspects of the minivan but are hesitant to drive one, perhaps perceiving a "soccer mom" stigma.
We recently drove the 2011 Odyssey along the parkways north of New York City and came to one main conclusion: If it looks like a minivan, drives like a minivan, and has a gazillion uses, it must be a minivan.
But what is a minivan owner? Even Honda is having trouble making that definition. Why else would the company offer the new Odyssey in eight trim levels, a something-for-everyone approach that will increase production costs and dealer floor planning?
Pricing runs from a nicely equipped base LX at $27,800 (plus $780 destination charge) to the $43,250 Touring Elite that's comparably equipped to a top-of-the-line Acura MDX SUV. If you want to go in near-luxury style, this is the one for you.
Honda used an all-United States team to design what the company is calling "An American Odyssey." Project leader Art St. Cyr says his group has owned 42 Odysseys among them.
They're also part of the present crop of American parents that are the first to have grown up in minivans.
"They grew up as latchkey kids and now are devoting more of their time to parenting. Dads are more involved and we're seeing more three-child families and more stay-at-home moms," says St. Cyr.
"Sooner or later, they'll need a bigger vehicle and be looking at minivans and SUVs. Some will be minivan fans; others wouldn't be caught dead in one. We've designed the new Odyssey to capture the in-betweens, that 'hesitator' group."
The design team came up with an innovative second row of seats that can be used as a pair of captain's chairs with an armrest/console or in "wide mode" as three seats that can accommodate three of the widest baby seats on the market.
Of course, three baby seats abreast would mean one had to be removed to slide an outside seat forward for access to the third row.
But once that's done, the access is relatively easy and St. Cyr, at 6-foot-4-inches, fits comfortably back there. If he had an identical twin, he could have been back there alongside him.
And those back rows can be entertained by an available rear entertainment system. Standard on the Elite is a 16.2-inch screen that can be used in a split-screen mode and has multiple input points and types, including a high definition.
It's almost by rote that we say the new Odyssey is longer, lower, wider, safer, more powerful, has better fuel economy, more body integrity, and a more comfortable ride than the outgoing model.
But it's also true.
Driving the New York exurbs shows the Odyssey to be comfortable, secure, and powerful enough to get the job done. Gunning it into traffic from one of the Saw Mill Parkway's tight and short on ramps reveals a surprise: a nice exhaust tone. The standard-across-all-trims 3.5-liter V-6 produces 248 horsepower and 250 lb.-ft. of torque with either a five- or six-speed automatic transmission (depending on trim level).
Depending on the transmission, economy ratings are 18-19 city, 27-28 highway, and 21-22 overall.
We drove both a loaded Touring Elite with every conceivable bell and whistle and EX (without navigation). The EX's center stack was a lot less complicated and, at 4,412 pounds, it felt lighter than the 4,560-pound Elite.
An intentional hard stop in the Elite over a rough stretch of road was smooth, steady and without wheel hop.
You had to like the "cool box" at the bottom of the front center stack (it works off the air conditioning evaporator) and the "trash ring" that holds a small trash bag to help keep the interior tidy.
About the only feature not available on the new Odyssey is all-wheel-drive. "It would have meant too many compromises on height, weight, and space," says St. Cyr. Instead, the front-wheel-drive Odyssey should be able to go anywhere with anti-lock brakes, traction control, and a stability system.
The initial feeling is that Odyssey has raised the bar in its back-and-forth race with Chrysler-Dodge to top the minivan sales charts.
The Globe attended a manufacturer-sponsored event to bring you this first drive report.