In the time it took for one red light to cycle to green, I counted six Honda Odyssey minivans as they passed through a suburban intersection. And that didn't include the one I was driving. That's quite a testament to the Odyssey's popularity. The Odyssey, first introduced as a 1999, has been, and continues to be, a hot item for Honda dealers. With good reason. Consumer's Digest, Intellichoice and "Motorweek" have all given it awards. Its 118.1-inch wheelbase and 201.2-inch overall length make it roughly the same size as a Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country or a Ford Windstar.

The Odyssey is a sensible combination of carlike driving characteristics, room for seven and a 3.5-liter V-6 that gives it energetic acceleration. Prices start at $23,900 for the LX, $26,400 for the EX and $28,400 for the EX with navigation system. The LX comes with dual sliding doors, anti-lock brakes, front and rear air conditioning units with a micron air filter, nine cup holders, cruise control, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, power flip-out rear quarter windows and variable intermittent windshield wipers. The EX, which I drove, adds power sliding doors, remote entry, automatic air conditioning, CD player, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, a HomeLink transmitter, alloy wheels and traction control.

One key reason the Odyssey feels so sure-footed is its low center of gravity. That enables it to nose into turns without feeling overly top-heavy, and the low floor makes stepping in easy. The driving position is sufficiently tall for a good view, nevertheless.

Aside from the power sliding doors that are standard on the EX, the Odyssey's most endearing feature is a third seat that folds into the floor when extra cargo space is needed.The only thing that makes the third seat less than perfect is the fact that the headrests have to be removed before it can fold, but they stow quickly in a nearby net-covered bin. For families who tailgate, the third seat can be flipped around so it faces out the rear cargo door like a couch. That would be perfect for the kid's Saturday morning soccer games.

Flexibility is what made minivans so popular in the first place, and Honda's third seat is brilliant. Mazda and General Motors have adopted similar seats for their vans.

The Odyssey's interior is quite comfortable. The instrument panel has large, simple gauges like those of a Honda Accord, but the touch-screen system used for heating and cooling is visually distracting. The navigation system, a $2,000 option, is one of the easiest to use, but my opinion of these systems has changed and I would save the money.

Front seats are quite comfortable and have good lumbar support. The second seats are as good as the fronts. In a nice nod to owner flexibility, the second seats can be located together to form a bench seat or apart like bucket seats, depending on which configuration is the most useful at the time. Very clever. Each back seat has its own air vent and a reading light which was designed so its light would not distract the driver at night.

Compared to luxury models from Chrysler, Dodge and Ford, the one missing option on the EX is leather upholstery. Leather might seem like a luxury, but it is easier to clean up and resists stains better than cloth, and that can be an issue for families with young children. Plus, it looks much nicer than the cloth.

Honda's V-6 engine has 210 horsepower. The VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) system broadens the power band for strong off-the-line response without sacrificing high-speed passing power. The engine is mounted on an aluminum subframe, and rubber insulators keep vibration out of the body. The electronically controlled automatic transmission has a Grade Logic Control that downshifts when the brakes are applied and holds the transmission in gear longer when climbing grades. Downshifting before a turn enables it to accelerate around the corne thout pausing for the transmission to shift.

As a highway cruiser, the Odyssey is superb. It is almost as quiet as a luxury sedan, but there's a bit more wind noise because of its size and shape. The engine, at least with four people on board, supplies more than enough power. Traction control and anti-lock brakes are great features for bad weather.

Price The base price of our EX test vehicle with navigation system was $28,400. Freight brought the sticker price to $28,840.

Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point:The well-equipped Odyssey is a delight to drive. Its 210-horsepower V-6 has adequate muscle, the low center of gravity provides stable handling and the versatile third seat folds into the floor.

Counterpoint: I wouldn't spend the extra money for the navigation system and I wish leather upholstery were optional.

Engine: 3.5-liter, 210-hp V-6
Transmission: automatic Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 118.1 inches
Curb weight: 4,317 lbs.
Base price: $28,400
As driven: $28,840
Mpg rating: 18 city, 25 hwy.
> >