The Detroit News's view

Nobody makes a bad minivan. That makes life a little difficult for families comparison-shopping more than a dozen entries from such stalwarts as Chrysler, Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota, as well as relative newcomers like Kia.

Three of the class leaders — Toyota Sienna, Ford Windstar and Nissan Quest — are being redesigned this year, with Mercury introducing a brand-new model called Monterey. So the heat is on Honda, whose Odyssey has been at or near the top of the segment in recent years.

The company has responded with a 2003 edition that’s been improved in many ways and continues to appeal with such benchmark features as a fold-flat third seat. Our test model, a well-equipped Odyssey EX, had a sticker of $30,860.

She: We owned three minivans while our kids were growing up, and they were excellent family vehicles, in terms of the package. Since our kids are now in their twenties, I had no one to test the 2003 Odyssey on, except for my parents. I thought it was interesting that my dad was shopping recently for a Mercury Villager because it would be perfect for hauling everything from his golf equipment to his grandchildren. I spent the better part of a weekend in the Odyssey with both my parents, and they raved about it, especially the power sliding side doors and the easy accessibility to the second row. This is a perfect vehicle for families of all ages.

He: I’m not so sure that empty nesters like ourselves are the right demographic. In some ways, this is almost too much vehicle for a couple whose kids have flown the coop. But I couldn’t help but be impressed by the amenities, the power and the overall comfort in the Odyssey. It’s truly light-years ahead of those early minivans that we owned.

She: Can you even imagine owning a minivan these days without a rear-seat entertainment system? That’s one of the features that Honda added on the 2003 Odyssey. It’s probably the smartest $1,500 a family will ever spend.

He: Even though our test model didn’t have the DVD entertainment system, we had the optional navigation system, which is one of the best and easiest to use on the market.

She: Honda also added a five-speed automatic transmission, which improves performance and fuel efficiency, and the 3.5-liter V-6 engine received 20 more horsepower. The new Odyssey now makes 240 horsepower, which is more than enough power for everyday tasks. Another new feature — the grocery-bag hooks built into the back of the third seat. Honda didn’t invent them, but they wisely copied them from their competition

He: That probably explains why we saw so many Honda engineers crawling over the new 2004 Toyota Sienna at the Detroit auto show. The Sienna raises the bar in some areas, but I’ll bet it won’t be long before Honda matches or exceeds them. Right now, there isn’t much that you can’t get on the Odyssey. But unlike some competitors, you can’t get the Odyssey with all-wheel drive. And H onda doesn’t offer a power-operated tailgate — yet. That last item would be helpful for those who find the tailgate too heavy and difficult to pull down. The same could be said for Honda’s clever folding third-row seat, which stows into the floor, but is heavy and difficult to lift back up. Perhaps a power folding seat mechanism would solve that problem — and push the Odyssey well ahead of the Sienna. I never know what to do with the three headrests on that rear bench seat. You can’t fold the seat into the floor until you remove them, but there doesn’t seem to be a really convenient place to stow them.

She: There’s very little to gripe about on the 2003 Odyssey. One thing that does bother me is the lack of air-bag protection for the second and third rows. I talked to a Honda spokesman about that, and he pointed out that the Odyssey gets the highest marks from the federal government in front and side crash tests. Our Odyssey EX model came with anti-lock brakes and traction control, but it would be nice to have some sort of stability-control system to help reduce the chance of fishtailing on slippery pavement.

He: We’ll test the redesigned Sienna and Quest over the next several months. Until then, the improved Odyssey remains one of our favorite minivans.

Paul’s rating: World Class

Likes: One of the best minivans on the market, at or near top of class. More power this year. New five-speed automatic transmission. Excellent ride comfort. Lots of cargo space. Acceptable styling. Excellent standard safety features, including anti-lock brakes, traction control, side air bags for front passengers.

Dislikes: No power tailgate. No good place to stash third-seat headrests.

Anita’s vehicle rating: World Class

Likes: Built for families of all ages. Clever storage for third-row seat. Extendable “picnic table” between front seats. Aircraft-style vents and lights in second and third rows. Good handling. Height-adjustable second-row seat belts. Retractable coat hooks. New optional $1,500 DVD system. Good gas mileage. Good side crash ratings from federal government. New grocery bag hooks for back of rear seat.

Dislikes: No AWD or four-wheel drive option. No air bag protection for second and third row. Third-row seat heavy and difficult to lift from stowed position. Tailgate heavy.

2003 Honda Odyssey EX

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, seven-passenger minivan

Price (Includes $460 destination charge.): $30,400; as tested, $30,860

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 240-hp; 242 lb-ft torque

EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway

Key competitors: Chevrolet Venture, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Windstar, Kia Sedona, Mazda MPV, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Pontiac Montana, Toyota Sienna

12-month insurance cost (Estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record): $1,200

Where built: Lincoln, Alabama

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