EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

It’s all black fibs and patriotic propaganda. Chrysler did not invent the minivan. Not by 36 years and not ahead of Volkswagen, which birthed its Transporter in 1947. That rectangular wheeze-box begat the EuroVan and VW Microbus, which added new freedom to loving and hauled flower power, peace and pot from Woodstock to Haight-Ashbury.

Chrysler did pilfer the idea of a personal bus, enlarged and domesticated the concept and in 1983 created the American minivan. Also a national mode that morphed pretenders with names that whispered of meandering roads and vagabond ways. Windstar and Safari, Quest and Villager, plus a set of GM triplets with Dustbuster snouts and a Toyota Previa that looked like a soft-boiled egg.

All shapes and floor plans, all sizes and prices and, in the end, most large enough to make a misnomer of “minivan” as a job description.

Yet none improved on the Detroit original or put a ding in Chrysler’s success. The Town & Country is the Conestoga wagon of the ’90s. Add the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager clones to the family roster, and Chrysler’s minivan stable continues to supply about 50% of the U.S. market.

But watch out for the redesigned 1999 Honda Odyssey.

This is no tepid effort to imitate Chrysler but a dedicated attempt to hassle the up-market Town & Country with a larger, more powerful, better-equipped and highly ingenious full-size minivan. Granted, there’s far too much reputation to overcome before Honda can even daydream about dethroning the world champion. But see the Odyssey as able competition hungry for a rather large piece of Town & Country turf.

It’s also likely that most other minivans–even Toyota’s spacious, refined Sienna, guaranteed to match Honda in matters of reliability, finish and durability–will become collateral casualties.

Let’s make the Town & Country LXi the paramount point of aim and our test vehicle, an up-line Odyssey EX, the principal sniper.

At $25,800 ($23,000 for the entry-level LX), Odyssey sneaks under the Chrysler’s sticker by several thousand dollars. Its 210-horsepower V-6 is 15% more powerful; there are headrests and three-point safety harnesses on all seven seats; it has more cargo room, a longer wheelbase, more torque for better tugging and, as standard equipment, a pair of power sliding doors.

Odyssey is wealthy with ingenuity and functionality:

* Those power sliding doors have three-way opening or closing via dashboard switches, pulling on the door handles or thumbing a key-less remote. They have also borrowed a safety feature from Otis Elevator. Should doors start closing on a toddler’s foot or grandmother’s Beanie Baby, they will reverse direction once the obstruction is touched.

* The second row of seats is a pair of reclining buckets, adjustable for legroom and with armrests. Now, raise the armrests, release a latch, and slide one chair against its buddy. Voila! A two-person bench. Or you can unhook both seats and toss them in t he garage should your Rottweiler want to go drivies.

* The third-row seat cannot be removed. Doesn’t need to be. It folds flat and into a floor well, leaving a large flat space that’s a small backyard. With seats locked and upright, the well becomes a handy basin for groceries, spare sneakers, pooper-scoopers, videotapes that should have been returned before midnight Tuesday and other items that otherwise would ricochet around the cabin during impatient maneuvering.

* Naturally, there are more cup holders than occupants, enough cargo nets for a small freighter, seat-back grab handles, storage pockets and bins, cubbies and change holders and a retractable tray table between the front seats. The table provides enough nonskid room for two Diet Pepsis, one coffee and a can of Lipton’s iced tea, plus four Sourdough Jacks and fries. This isn’t a Honda, it’s a Winnebago.

And, of course, the Odyssey gives you anti-lock brakes, automatic climate control with front an drear ducting, eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support and height adjustment, a HomeLink remote system, six-speaker sound, roof rails, alloy wheels and traction controls as standard fittings on the EX.

Oddly, leather seating is not available. Styling is, well, pretty much like all vans in Christendom, and that means a shovel snout, bulgy sides and the shoe-box silhouette of a carriage perfect for “soccer moms,” a term that has entered our language and emerged as a suburban pejorative. And few will be thrilled by an auxiliary power source (remember medieval times when they were used for cigarette lighters but were always called cigar lighters?) that’s buried in the dark someplace.

*

Yet these are sparse flaws for a vehicle that has the greatest asset of all: It doesn’t waddle or roll like a van.

At the controls–thanks to a four-wheel independent suspension, with double wishbones at the rear–the feel and view from the bridge are about the same as if you were driving a compact sport-utility. There is absolutely no awareness of 14 feet of seats and space back there. Lowered seating, and an even lower center of gravity, erases that sense of being part of a pole-sitting contest.

Low-rate, long-travel springs soak up all the gullies and thumps of Broadway between 2nd and 4th streets, which is the worst stretch of street since the first grading of the Appian Way. Clearly, this is not the type of vehicle for hot-lapping Willow Springs International Raceway, but the engine is strong, mid-range acceleration is slightly better than par, and that makes the Odyssey eminently freeway friendly.

But here’s its real threat to its entrenched rival:

Chrysler has never been able to break a habit of selling cars with irritating glitches and weevils in the plastic.

Honda, on the better hand, continues to live up to its reputation for building super-reliable cars that for their first years seem to render warranties superfluous.

There, in the minivan long haul, could build the serious siege and initial uprooting of Town & Country.

1999 Honda Odyssey EX

Cost Base, $25,800. Includes automatic climate control with front and rear ducts, four-speed automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, traction control, dual power sliding doors, alloy wheels, six-speaker sound system with CD, dual air bags, cruise control, steering wheel radio controls, eight-way power driver’s seat, tilt steering, theft deterrent and power windows, locks and mirrors. As tested, $26,364. Adds floor mats and destination charges.

Engine 3.5-liter, 24-valve, V-6, developing 210 horsepower and 229 pounds-feet of torque.

Type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, seven-passenger, full-size minivan.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, in 10.3 seconds. Top speed: 110 mph (estimated). Fuel consumption, city and highway, with four-speed automatic: 18 and 26 miles per gallon (Environmental Protection Agency estimates).

Curb W eight 4,288 pounds.

The Good: Bigger and better than Chrysler, the minivan marque it must now attack. All the room but none of the soggy ride of most family buses. Priced well for equipment offered, with two power sliding doors, plus adjustable, folding, removable and hideaway seats designed by Houdini. All this and Honda’s legendary quality and reliability.

The Bad: No leather interior for non-vegans. External styling indicating nobody dared to be different.

The Ugly: Hey, it’s a van.

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