The Morning Call and's view

In a field crowded with big, blobby minivans, Honda’s Odyssey stood out. It had only a four-cylinder engine, its doors never slid open, but swung open, and it wasn’t as big as other minivans.

It marched to the beat of a different drummer. It was the minivan to drive if you hated minivans.

But the soccer moms and empty nesters who buy minivans don’t have the imagination to try something different, at least, not in sufficient numbers to please Honda’s sales staff.

So Honda went back to the drawing board and has fielded an all-new entry for 1999. It’s still called the Odyssey, but its packaging is a lot more familiar.

If it isn’t quite as blobby as its competitors, thank Honda’s styling department, which has put sharp creases in all the right places.

It’s available in LX and EX trim levels, both of which have dual sliding doors, with the EX having power activation. There’s a lot more room this year, as this vehicle measures in with a 118-inch wheelbase, 201.2 overall length and 66-inch width. That’s 13.6 inches longer and 5 inches wider than before. In fact, it’s the largest vehicle Honda has produced, with 25 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats in place and 163.3 cubic feet of space maximum. That’s plenty of room for all the stuff your offspring might accumulate.

The Odyssey weighs in at over 4,200 pounds, so more power was a necessity. Honda has obliged with a 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam 24-valve V-6. Based on the Honda Accord V-6, this mill produces 210 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. While that sounds like a lot, it’s far from overwhelming given the minivan’s weight. It’s not underpowered, but more ponies are always welcome, especially once this van is loaded up with gear. Honda employs variable valve timing to ensure that this vehicle has decent power, yet it can be classified as a low-emission vehicle.

The V6 feeds its power to the front wheels via a smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission.

Honda’s talent with transmissions is getting better smooth shifting is not something that could always be said about their automatics. Handling is at the top of the pack for a minivan. The ride is firm, with minor road irregularities filtering through, but otherwise it rides well. There’s some body lean, but it handles like a typical family car, which it is, kinda.

Minivans dictate three rows of seats. The Odyssey obliges. Up front is a pair of comfy bucket seats. Although the seat bottom was a little short, it still proved comfortable.

In the center is a collapsible tray table, a unique touch. The center row can be transformed from bucket to bench seats, while the smallish third row stows underneath the floor. While this is convenient for cargo carrying, it necessitates that the compact spare be stowed under a lid in front of the center row of seats.

Each seat has a three-point belt, a headrest and a reading lamp. While the headrests are n ice safety-wise, they limit the driver’s view out. Each passenger can adjust the ventilation to their liking.

The dash is clean, modern, attractive and easy to use. In other words, typical Honda.

The quality of materials is first rate, but the column-mounted transmission lever seemed overly long, a minor annoyance when trying to the tune the radio.

Safety-wise, the Odyssey has dual front air-bags as well as anti-lock brakes on both models. But the brakes are front disc/rear drum only. Traction control, a boon in slick weather, is only available on the more expensive EX.

But even the LX is nicely equipped. Starting at $23,000, the Odyssey comes with dual sliding doors, rear window wiper/washer, air-conditioning, theft deterrent system, power windows and locks, cruise control, AM/FM/cassette stereo, tilt steering column, dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors and lots of cupholders. Jumping up to the EX nets automatic climate control, tr action control, p ower driver’s seat, automatic headlamps, CD player and steering-wheel mounted radio controls, among the major features.

So is the Odyssey better than before? If you treasured its previous incarnation, no. But many more buyers have responded to the new one, making it a scarce commodity on most Honda dealer lots. So it is quite a success.

Even though its features mirror those of its competitors, it has enough handling, quality construction and sharp-edged styling to outclass them all.

Even if I do hate minivans.

>> 1999 Honda Odyssey EX

Vehicle type: Large minivan

Engine: 3.5-liter SOHC V-6

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 118.1 inches

Length: 201.2 inches

Cargo volume: 163 cubic feet maximum

Tires: P215/65R16

Base price: LX $23,000, EX $25,800

EPA rating: 18 mpg city, 26 mpg highway

Test mileage: 18 mpg

Fuel type: regular >>

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