There’s a brand-new Honda on the market, ready to battle for dominancy in yet another market segment: the minivan.

It’s the completely redesigned 1999 Odyssey, and it makes most of its competitors seem like last year’s leftovers.

Honda, the Japanese automaker whose Accord sedan has consistently ranked among the top-selling passenger vehicles in America, finally jumped into the minivan market five years ago with its first Odyssey, a respectable van built on the Accord chassis.

But sales never caught on the way the Accord’s did. That’s because even though the vehicle was typically very high quality, a Honda trademark, it really didn’t stand out among the minivan crowd. The four-cylinder engine was not quite powerful enough, the interior was not quite as roomy as it should have been, and there really just wasn’t anything very exciting about it.

It was a Honda, for sure. It reflected Honda’s tradition of building practical, dependable cars that aren’t particularly snazzy but will keep running for years without a lot of maintenance.

In fact, exciting has been about the last word that most people would associate with most Honda products.

But Honda has come up with a unique combination in its all-new Odyssey: It’s a vehicle with style, power and functionality. Honda bills it as the largest Honda ever offered. And with 210 horsepower, the Odyssey also becomes the most powerful vehicle in this class.

I can tell you after a week’s worth of test-driving the Odyssey that Lee Iacocca and the folks at Chrysler never envisioned a performance-oriented vehicle like this one when they rolled out their first minivans in 1983. The Odyssey is a minivan that refuses to be a boring mommymobile; it looks great and is fun to drive.

Besides style and performance, the Odyssey takes convenience to a new level, too, with such features as dual electric sliding passenger doors.

The top-of-the-line EX model, with a base price of $25,800 (plus $415 transportation), which we tested, comes with electric doors. General Motors introduced the first electric sliding door on its Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan five years ago, and has since added this option to the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Trans Sport. But Honda is the first to offer the electric doors on both sides. That feature alone will capture some sales for Honda.

Cleverness abounds inside the Odyssey, beginning with the third row seat. It can be folded into the floor to create a huge cargo area. The two individual middle seats can be pushed together to make one bench seat, or left apart to separate two kids who would otherwise pick at each other the whole trip.

A folding tray divides the front bucket seats, so you can serve lunch to a passel of kids in the back. There is room enough under the seats for skis or pieces of lumber. The middle seats can be removed quickly, and with the rear seat folded into the floor, the Odyssey becomes a cargo van — it can even hold 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood.

Passengers have their own reading lamps that also shine onto the ground when the doors are opened so people can see where they are stepping in the dark. Cupholders abound, and they will hold just about anything a kid wants to drink. I believe real moms had a large hand in designing the interior of this vehicle; it’s the essence of practicality for kid-hauling.

How about this for passenger convenience: Each person has his or her own heating and air-conditioning controls.

The new Odyssey, at 200 inches long, is almost as big as the extended-length versions of DaimlerChrysler’s vans. It’s 13.6 inches longer than the previous Odyssey and 5 inches wider. Yet it retains the tight 37-foot turning radius of the previous model. There is an inch-and-a-half more headroom than in the Dodge Grand Caravan.

Power comes from a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine that has the largest standard displacement in the minivan segment. It connected to a smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission, and the shift lever is mounted on the steering column to keep it off the floor and out of the way.

This vehicle is very stable in turns, thanks in part to its four-wheel independent suspension and wide track, the widest in the minivan class. The unitized body is built on a sturdy cross-section ladder-type frame with seven cross members under the floor.

Antilock brakes are an important safety feature, and they come on all Odysseys at no additional charge. The EX model comes with electronic traction control to minimize wheel spin on slippery surfaces. There are dual air bags up front, and all seven seats have three-point lap and shoulder belts. An engine-immobilizer antitheft system is standard; keyless entry is available on the EX.

The base LX model, which lists for $23,200 plus transportation, comes with power rack-and-pinion steering, power front disc/rear drum brakes, 16-inch steel wheels, dual manual rear sliding doors, rear wiper/washer, front and rear air-conditioning, power windows and door locks, AM/FM/cassette stereo with four speakers, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, rear defroster and rear-seat heater ducts.

For the extra money, the EX model adds the power sliding doors, auto-off headlights, eight-way power driver’s seat, compact-disc player, six stereo speakers and 16-inch alloy wheels.

Built on the Accord sedan chassis, the Odyssey is assembled at Honda’s plant in Alliston, Ontario.

EPA fuel-economy estimates are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. The tank holds 20.5 gallons of gasoline.


THE PACKAGE: Five-door, seven-passenger, V-6 powered, front-drive minivan, completely redesigned for 1999.

HIGHLIGHTS: The premium EX model is the first minivan with dual electric sliding doors; the 210-horsepower engine lets the Odyssey run away from the rest of the minivan pack; the interior is the essence of convenience with separate heating/AC controls for each passenger, unique seating configurations and lots of cargo space; the vehicle is roomy, comfortable, quiet and fun to drive.

NEGATIVES: Even the base LX model ($23,200 plus transportation) is priced too high for many minivan buyers.

MAJOR COMPETITORS: Toyota Sienna, Ford Windstar, Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager, Oldsmobile Silhouette/Chevrolet Venture/Pontiac Montana, Mazda MPV, Dodge Grand Caravan/Plymouth Grand Voyager/Chrysler Town & Country.

EPA FUEL ECONOMY: 18 miles per gallon city, 26 highway.

BASE PRICE: $25,800 plus $415 transportation.

PRICE AS TESTED: Not provided.


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