EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 1999 Honda Odyssey

The minivan is big business in this country. A million of them go out the showroom door every year.

So, understandably, Toyota and Honda have wanted to get into the act. But until recently, Japan’s two best automakers have been missing the mark.

Toyota’s first stab at the vehicle came in the mid-1980s, after Chrysler had invented the modern minivan. Like so many other manufacturers, Toyota was playing catch-up, and tried to quickly field a competitor by cutting windows into a home-market cargo van. You had to remove steel floor plates to do the most basic maintenance on this vehicle, and its ride and handling were even truckier than its appearance.

The next-generation Toyota vehicle, the Previa, was a true minivan. But thanks to its manufacturing costs, it proved to be overpriced as well as underpowered.

Last year, however, Toyota finally got it right with the delightful, affordable Sienna.

Honda’s journey to the right minivan was a little less arduous. An automaker without experience building truck-type vehicles like the minivan, Honda didn’t take on the genre until the 1994 model year, when it introduced the Odyssey. There was nothing wrong with that first Odyssey. It just wasn’t a minivan. Rather, it was a glorified station wagon built on a stale Accord pleasure-car platform.

One can’t say such snide things about the replacement vehicle that’s hitting the market this fall, however. The all-new Odyssey is a true, full-size minivan — and a devilishly good one at that.

Now, we all know that Hondas aren’t built in Texas. But, given the bigness claims made on the new Odyssey’s behalf, you would think it hails from the Lone Star land of the Chevy Suburban.

We are told, for openers, that this is the biggest vehicle Honda has ever made.

It is, in fact, 13.6 inches longer than the one it replaces, and five inches wider. At more than 201 inches long and over 68 inches high, it rivals the exterior dimensions of the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Ford Windstar.

Inside, it actually beats out the Ford and Dodge products for total storage space. If you remove the second and third rows of seats, the Windstar and Grand Caravan provide about 148 cubic feet of cargo volume. The Odyssey furnishes 163.3.

The Odyssey is motivated by the most powerful engine in Miniville — an all-new, 3.5-liter V-6 that uses 24 valves and premium fuel to develop 210 horsepower. (Ford and Chrysler offer 3.8-liter V-6s, but they are less techy engines that don’t put out quite as many horses. They do run on regular fuel, though.)

The 1999 Odyssey’s surprises extend beyond its size and power. It features exceptional handling and quiet, and some nifty interior accoutrements, including a rear bench seat that disappears into a floor well.

Obviously, Honda is banking on the vehicle’s finesse and the company’s quality reputation to sell the Odyssey, because it isn’t exactly employing mi ne-shaft pricing. The base LX model starts at $23,000, and the upmarket EX is tagged at $25,800.

While those aren’t exactly close-out prices at the Home Depot, it’s also true that the Odyssey is a well-equipped minivan. The standard gear on the base LX model I tested included air conditioning, an antilock braking system, power mirrors and windows, cruise control, and adjustable steering.

Although the new Odyssey lacks the styling pizzazz of the Chrysler minivans, it is attractive enough, and it has that design cleanliness and functionality that the species must have to be successful.

The Odyssey’s innards are another example of Honda’s neat, thoughtful and often innovative interior design. The gauges on the aircraft-type, wraparound instrument panel are easy to read, and the controls fall readily to hand. The seats are comfortable and supportive in the seven-passenger Odyssey, and visibility is good.

There are several memorable touches in the cabin. One s the multipurpose console between the front bucket seats. This clever, counter-like construction has cupholders at its four corners, and can function as a writing surface or a teeny picnic table. It folds down alongside the passenger seat to provide a pass-through to the back seats.

The pair of modular buckets that comprise the second row of seating can be removed for cargo carrying, or slid sideways from the passenger side to create easier access to the third-row bench.

That third-row bench is the Odyssey’s piece de resistance, by the way. Its backrest folds forward, then the folded seat assembly flips backward into a floor well behind it. When you aren’t using the well for seat storage, you can stow cargo there. (This is a clever idea, but the well would disappear if Honda decided to make an all-wheel-drive version of this front-drive vehicle. I say that because the well would interfere with the driveshaft back to the rear differential.)

Storage certainly isn’t a problem in the Odyssey. There is a plethora of compartments and cubbyholes, including a slide-out in the dash that contains — you guessed it — two cupholders. With those two, the four in the console/table, and three positioned in backseat side panels, passenger thirst deaths should be minimal.

Convenience extends to dual sliding rear doors. These are manual on the LX and electrically actuated on the EX.

While the Odyssey earns high marks for comfort and convenience, I was most impressed with the way it accelerated and handled. This new V-6 gets the Odyssey out of the blocks in a hurry, and it does it in an acoustically civil fashion. Noise, vibration and harshness aren’t in this engine’s vocabulary.

The Odyssey’s suspension performance is just as car-like as the engine’s. The vehicle is very composed in the corners, and exhibits less body roll than most minivans.

The trade-offs for the Odyssey’s athleticism and good road feel are a fairly firm ride, and a certain amount of suspension twang on highway expansion joints and byway bumps.

The body fits and interior workmanship on the Canadian-built Odyssey test vehicle were up to Honda’s usual high standards. The paint film, which contained some “orange peel” on vertical surfaces, wasn’t quite as exemplary.

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