EXPERT REVIEW

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Odyssey.

What is it?

Honda calls it a mini-van.

But the automaker’s new 1995 entry has four car-like swing-open doors, rather than two front doors and a slider on the passenger’s side.

Odyssey looks like a station wagon on the outside with van-like bucket and/or bench seating for six or seven on the inside.

Designed, developed and built in Japan, the Odyssey wagon that will be sold here starting in December was made for narrow Japanese roads and tool shed-size garages, a formula that typically doesn’t attract big-is-better U.S. tastes. Nissan and Mitsubishi tested the van-that-looks-like-a-wagon market with the Access and Colt Vista, respectively, and both bombed big time.

Still, Honda thinks it can pull it off thanks to its reputation for quality.

Odyssey is different, with its four doors, which allow children to enter and exit from both sides at the same time, a third seat that folds and hides in the rear floor without having to be removed and six or seven passenger seats that can fold or be removed to increase cargo room or recline into a bed for a couple of campers.

The third seat is Odyssey’s piece of least resistance. Turn two dials and the back folds, the bottom flips and the seat disappears into a cavity, leaving you with a flat floor and a wealth of cargo room. The Mercury Villager has attracted buyers because its third seat slides forward for added cargo room without having to be removed. Odyssey’s seat works as quickly and eliminates the seat track Villager leaves behind as well.

Then, too, Odyssey is appealing because it has dual air bags and anti-lock brakes as standard. And travelers will like it because they’re never more than arm’s length from a cupholder, stowage bin, map holder or some type of crevice, indentation or hole where they can store food, toys, camping or fishing gear, luggage and perhaps the kids.

Odyssey is about eight inches longer than a Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Voyager, so it distances passengers from the wheels and keep them from being jostled on uneven pavement. Though longer, it’s about two inches narrower than Caravan or Voyager, and the price you pay is cramped quarters.

With six-passenger seating, a passthrough runs from front to rear seats so Mom or Dad can cater to the kids or slip back to break up territorial disputes on long trips. But Honda put the parking brake handle between the front seats will limit passage to Dads (or Moms) nicknamed “Slim.”

Massive front door armrests that stab you in the side compound the space problem.

Also, the front passenger is burdened by a floor board that sticks up at a 45-degree angle to provide more room in the engine compartment rather than sitting flat to accommodate your feet.

One other seat gripe-the backs and bottoms are stiff and make you squirm to find a comfortable position. You sit on the seat rat her than in it. And because Odyssey is narrow, the kids in back are going to be on top of each other, a position not conducive to relaxed vacation travel.

Honda is studying plans to offer a bigger version of Odyssey soon. Not only will it be wider to accommodate U.S. tastes, but longer to compete against the likes of the extended-length Ford Windstar and Grand Caravan/Grand Voyager from Chrysler.

As for the four car-like doors, Honda says consumers prefer those doors rather than pinching their fingers in a slider, but folks have been pinching fingers in car doors since Henry Ford turned his dream into reality. In truth, four car doors are cheaper than one slider and its hardware.

Four doors are supposed to make entry/exit easier, but the Honda doors don’t open at or close to a 90-degree angle. And though the rear seats are light enough for a kid to pop out, removal is hampered by the narrow door openings.

From a performance standpo nt, Odyssey comes with only a 2.2-liter, 140-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine teamed with automatic.

We tested the Odyssey EX here on straight/twisting, flat/mountainous roads at a media preview. In traveling through elevations or pulling out to pass, the 2.2 could use some more oomph-and it wasn’t burdened by a cabin full of passengers or their luggage. A V-6 is coming, but not for a year.

The 2.2 is teamed with a 4-speed automatic with “grade logic,” which finds the correct gear when going up or down hills. The automatic performed as advertised.

Odyssey features double wishbone suspension, front/rear stabilizer bars, gas-filled shocks and 15-inch, all-season tires. Ride and handling is very car-like.

A gripe-the steering wheel juts out too far toward the driver. If you have short legs and have to motor the seat forward to reach the pedals, the wheel is too close to your chest.

Some items worth noting: Odyssey’s massive dash top and mini-side windows are a copy of that design in the plastic-body General Motors mini-vans; two glove boxes increase stowage space; and outside mirrors are huge for great side and rear visibility.

Items that need changing: the spare is inside along the right rear body panel, an obstruction for third-seat passengers, and there’s no dash button or floor lever to pop open the hatch lid.

Prices start at about $24,000 for the LX, $25,500 for the EX we tested.

Standard equipment in both includes power four-wheel disc brakes, power/steering/windows/mirrors/locks, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with cassette, cruise control, tilt wheel, tinted glass, rear-window defroster with wiper/washer and full wheel covers. The EX adds power sunroof, radio upgrade with six speakers, power driver’s seat, remote entry system, alloy wheels, body colored side moldings and fold down center armrests.

Accord V-6 sedan

The moaning and groaning can stop-from consumers and the engine-because Honda put a V-6 in the Accord to rival the Toyota Camry and Mazda 626 V-6s, which account for 28 and 30 percent of their respective sales.

The V-6 is the 2.7-liter, 170-h.p., 24-valve unit offered in the Acura Legend before it went with a 3.2-liter, 210-h.p., 24-valve.

The V-6 is offered in the Accord LX and uplevel EX sedans. We tested the EX and our immediate suggestion is that Honda add a starter shutoff like Cadillac has on its Northstar V-8. The V-6 is so smooth, so whisper quiet, that some might not realize it’s running. With starter shutoff, if you turn the key when the engine is running, the starter disengages so you don’t get the grinding and squeal associated with the goof.

The EX sedan is very peppy with the V-6 and handled the Arizona mountains with ease. Like the Odyssey, the 4-speed automatic has grade level logic to reach the right gear up or down steep inclines. Noise? None. Vibration? None. Guts? Plenty. Nimble? You betcha.

The V-6 and automatic (no manual) is rated at 19 miles per gallon city/25 m.p.g. highway.

The V-6 sedan comes with dual air bags and ABS as standard as well as the static prone Michelin MVX4 15-inch, all-season radials. Honda said the tire formula has been changed so static buildup is gone.

The LX starts at $22,300, the EX at $24,950. Standard equipment includes power steering, power four-wheel disc brakes, power moonroof (EX),power mirrors, bodyside moldings (color keyed on EX), 5-m.p.h. impact bumpers, leather trimmed seats and steering wheel (EX), power seats (EX), cruise control, power windows and locks, AM/FM stereo with cassette, adjustable steering wheel, fold down rear seats, cupholders, illuminated vanity mirrors, rear window defroster and rear seat heat ducts.

The V-6 comes with a chrome grille, a slightly higher hood, V-6 badges in the grille and deck and a larger muffler.

>> 1995 Honda Odyssey EX mini-van – Wheelbase: 111.4 inches – Length: 186.7 inches – Engine: 2.2-liter, 140-h.p., 16-valve, 4-cylinder – Transmission: 4-speed automatic with overdrive – EPA mileage: 19 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway – Base price: $25,500 tentative – Price as tested: Not available Pluses: Dual air bags and ABS standard, low step-in height yet high seats and massive windshield for panoramic view, nifty seat fold/remove/hide/bed feature to add cargo capacity. Third seat in rear folds hidden in floor. Cupholders galore. Good ride and handling thanks to well tuned suspension. Four car-like swing out doors make for quick entry/exit and no messing with a finicky sliding side door. Minuses: Narrow and somewhat cramped. Kids in back have limited room to roam and will be too close to parents upfront. Narrow walk through to rear to break up fighting kids that’s further blocked by emergency brake handle between front seats. All seats too stiff. Called a van, but looks like a wagon with mini-van seating. Lack of front passenger leg room. Four-cylinder needs a V-6 companion. Mileage a tad low. Side doors don’t open wide enough. >>

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