Orlando Sentinel's view

Despite being one of the best minivans on the road, the new Honda Odyssey will never pose any major threat to DaimlerChrysler, whose Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country still own nearly 50 percent of the total minivan market.

The reason: price. The Voyager with a four-cylinder engine can be had for about $17,000 and change. You can buy a very tolerably equipped Voyager with a V-6 for about $20,000 or a similar Dodge with a bit more equipment for a few dollars more.

The least expensive Odyssey is $23,615.

Try to bargain, and the Honda dealer will be happy to show you the sliding doors, the fold-down rear seat or the smooth-running V-6 engine. But he probably won’t show you a better price. It’s a Honda, darn it, and that means you pay the sticker or go elsewhere.

With a price tag in the mid-$20s, vans such as our nicely equipped Odyssey EX tester are going to be out of reach for many families. Once taxes and fees are figured into the transaction, the price balloons to nearly $30,000.

That’s a shame, because the Odyssey has everything it takes to be the mainstream family vehicle Honda wants it to be. Everything that is, except a low-price, high-value base model.

Performance, handling

The wimpy 150-horsepower, four-cylinder engine was one of the major gripes about the old Odyssey. That motor just didn’t have enough power to get the job done once the van was filled with people or cargo.

That has been fixed in the 1999 model, which has been rebuilt from the wheels up.

When Honda decided to update the Odyssey, it pitched the four-cylinder and replaced it with a 3.5-liter, 210-horsepower, overhead cam V-6. As before, Odyssey is available only with a four-speed automatic transmission.

As you might expect from Honda, the engine and transmission are highly refined. They behave quite well under all circumstances. In the last two years, Honda engineers have done much to improve the quality of the shifts in their automatic transmissions.

The last couple of Hondas I’ve tested with automatics were superb. There was no hunting for the proper gear, and there were no sudden downshifts upon acceleration — traits that I’ve experienced in Hondas of recent vintage. The ’99 Odyssey runs strong and quiet. H onda says it will accelerate from 0-to-60 mph in just 9.6 seconds.

More than once I surprised a few cars with quick off-the-line acceleration away from stop lights. The downside: The engine drinks only premium fuel.

Odyssey has Honda’s innovative double-wishbone independent suspension system. The ride is supple and compliant. Odyssey takes a corner well and is about as easy to drive as an Accord sedan.

The steering is smooth, light and precise. Odyssey turns a complete circle in a commendable 37 feet.

The only gripe I have with the Odyssey’s otherwise excellent all-round performance is with the anti-lock brake system. It engages too early. Step on the brakes hard on a slick road or a dirt road, and you’ll hear clicking noises and feel the pedal pulse — but the van doesn’t stop quickly. It just keeps going.

Fit and finish

Honda has brought some fresh thinking to minivan interiors with the new Odyssey. I particularly like the third row seat layout.

I own an older Dodge Caravan. I can tell you that lifting out the rear seat from that vehicle is a job for two strong people. It’s heavy and cumbersome, but if you want to use the van as a hauler, the seat must come out.

And that’s the way it is with most other vans, too. Some rear seats have wheels so that after you lift the seat out, you can just wheel it into the garage.

Honda has a better idea.

There’s a recessed well behind the seat. All you do is take off the headrests, pull a latch and then flip the seat into the well. It stores flat. No more sore backs or pulled muscles from lifting the seat out of the van.

With the rear seat folded down, I played Santa Claus and transported two Schwinn Sting Ray bicycles and a sleigh-load full of presents to a friend’s house just before Christmas. That didn’t even didn’t come close to using up all the available cargo room.

Elsewhere, rear-seat passengers can control the air conditioner and lights with switches on the roof. The lights are similar to what you’d find in a jetliner. They shine only on the person in the seat, so as not to distract others in the van.

The view from the driver’s seat is fine from all angles. The windshield is large and easy to see out of, and there is a clear view out the rear. The dash is cleanly styled and easy to use. Three large rotary knobs control the air conditioner. The radio can be adjusted with switches on the steering wheel.

Odyssey comes with a column-mounted shifter that is a bit too close to the windshield wiper lever. Several times I went to shift gears and accidently grabbed the wiper lever.

The EX version comes well-equipped. It has power windows, mirrors, door locks and cruise control. It also has a power driver’s seat and rear air conditioning.

Twin power sliding doors are another handy feature. You can open or close them by pressing a button on the key fob or by using the switches on the dash.

The Odyssey is an excellent minivan in all respects. Too bad Honda can’t figure out a way to make a basic, entry-level version for those with more moderate incomes.

I’d bet that a V-6 Odyssey with just a few necessary frills, such as air conditioning, automatic transmission and power steering, would sell well if it were priced at about $20,000. If that ever came to pass, Daimler Chrysler might have something to worry about.

1999 Honda Odyssey EX

Base price: $23,615. Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, side-impact protection and front and rear crumple zones. Price as tested: $26,364. EPA rating: 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway Incentives: None.

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