Chrysler Corp. pioneered the mini-van in the 1984 model year. Since then, roughly 12,000 rivals–give or take a dozen–have tried to wrest the crown from the inventor and innovator.

For 1999, competitor No. 12,001 has arrived–the Odyssey from Honda. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Honda sold a mini-van called Odyssey between 1994 and 1998, a front-wheel-drive station wagon built off a previous generation Accord platform that Honda tried to make folks believe was a real mini-van.

Perhaps it just had a lot of chrome nameplates left over, but Honda chose to use the moniker on its new and true FWD mini-van.

And though the Odyssey falls into the classification of “mini” van, the thing is longer and wider and taller and in general bigger than most full-size four-door family sedans on the market. In fact, most mini-vans are hardly mini.

Mini? Parallel park one. Mini? Slip it quickly into that narrow space–and try getting out without using a sliding door. Mini? How come it fills so much space in the garage where the bikes and lawn mower used to rest?

Mini is a misnomer, especially when seven people and a week’s worth of groceries and luggage fit inside, and with the second row of seats removed and the third seat lowered into the floor, each of those seven can bring a friend to stack inside.

But we digress. The question with Odyssey is how does it differ from the other 12,000 pretenders and contenders for the mini-van throne?

If you wait until everyone else has brought out their version of a vehicle, you better have something special to offer or you’ll get lost in the shuffle. Without a novelty, the only way to compete is price and at $23,000 for the base LX, and $25,800 for the top-of-the-line EX we tested, the Odyssey isn’t exactly a blue-light special.

Odyssey, of course, has the Honda name behind it, which means a reputation for quality, durability and dependability along with smooth ride, pleasant handling, and a quiet, yet responsive, V-6 engine that develops ample power with acceptable fuel economy.

Hmmm. Just described Toyota as well, and it has a Sienna with as many doors and at least as many cupholders. So where’s Odyssey’s novelty?

There are a couple of noteworthy features that set Odyssey apart and could make a difference when someone in the family points out, “but the Honda has…”

The novel features we enjoyed most were the agility of the third-row bench seat, the dexterity of the second-row bench seat and the retractable tray or table top between the front seats that can turn Odyssey into a portable diner or workstation.

The third bench seat is weird, in a friendly way. Pull a lever and the seat back folds. Pull a strap and the back and bottom fold flat and neatly into a massive stowage pocket in the rear floor. Fold the third seat flat and remove the second row of seats and you have space equal to that in a gymnasium.

The stowage hole that hides the folded seat is unique. If filled with water, it’s wide and deep enough to be called a pond. Cover the carpet with a plastic liner, fill with ice cubes, and you could cool enough cans of soda to have a family reunion. If you cover the carpet with a plastic liner or fill the pond with a plastic tub and add water, you could give the kids a bath and wash out all the serving bowls before heading home after the reunion.

One drawback to the pond is that it robs the room you’d need under the vehicle to house four-wheel-drive hardware. So Odyssey is FWD only.

As for that third bench seat, if you have the magic touch after opening the liftgate, you can flip the bench over so that, rather than facing the front of the van, it faces backward so you can look out the rear. The only problem is that if you want a cool pop, you have to lift the seat bottom because it now rests directly over the pond.

Being able to flip that seat means being able to enjoy the open air while lu nchin g. Or, with a liftgate roof over your head, you can sit and watch the kids’ soccer game even in the rain.

The second row of bucket seats has a noteworthy feature as well. Pull a lever under the passenger side seat, flip the seat forward a few inches and you can slide it sideways against the other bucket to create a wide entrance to the third seat.

Once inside, slide the seat back, and you have a wide walk-through from second to third seat.

Upfront, Mom and Dad can use a retractable table top with cupholders that lifts out of the lower side of the passenger seat. After taking lunch or using the table top to catch up on some work, the tray folds back into hiding and you have a walkway to the kids in the second seat.

Other features include dual power side slide-open doors (standard in the EX, dual manual sliding doors only in the LX) with push-button open/close/lock controls on the dash left of the steering wheel, a fairly light and easy-to-open rear cargo liftgate with a low liftover height; flush-mounted coat hooks that pull out from the roof; second seat controls for air/heat; cupholders built into the sidewalls for rear-seat occupants; a host of nets and cargo bins to store things; a power plug in the cargo hold; and a coin holder in the dash.

The cabin is roomy and spacious. The cloth seats are wide and offer good lateral support, but the backs are a tad stiff. Power rear side vent windows help circulate fresh air into the cabin.

Odyssey, in LX or EX version, offers only a 3.5-liter, 210-horsepower, 24-valve V-6, plenty of power despite vehicle size. The mileage rating is 18 miles per gallon city/26 m.p.g. highway.

Base price is $25,800 with a host of standard equipment, including air conditioning, AM-FM stereo with CD player and the full range of power items–brakes, steering, windows, mirrors and locks. About the only option is floor mats at $125.

Honda won’t respond to speculation that a future sport-utility vehicle will be built off the Odyssey platform, minus the pond, of course, which would allow for 4WD. But when an SUV is mentioned, Honda folks beam.

>> 1999 Honda Odyssey EX
© 1998 Chicago Tribune Wheelbase: 118.1 inches Length: 201.2 inches Engine: 3.5-liter, 210-h.p., 24 valve V-6 Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway Base price: $25,800 Price as tested: $25,925. Includes $125 for floor mats. Add $415 for freight. Pluses: Dual power side sliding doors. Four-wheel ABS. Traction control. Third-row seat that performs magic tricks. Seats in second row move–sideways–to allow easier access to third row. Built-in tub in cargo hold to pack your favorite beverages or bathe your favorite kid. Retractable tray table with sliding extension between front seats for on-board meals. Mini-van platform could se rve as basis for a Honda sport-utility vehicle. Minuses: Third-row seat and tub mean you can’t add all-wheel-drive hardware. Has same name of old station wagon that Honda passed off as a mini-van. >>

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