EXPERT REVIEW

The Sacramento Bee's view

The problem with high expectations is that they’re so … high.

Take, for example, a test drive in a 2001 Honda Odyssey EX minivan.

Virtually every American auto reviewer with a pulse has crowned the Odyssey king of the minivan hill during the past year, vaulting it over the reliable Toyota Sienna and the U.S. sales leader and founding father of the minivan segment, the Dodge Caravan.

We’re talking raves here, with reviews so complimentary that one would think the current Sienna and Caravan models were auto auction retreads. So, when I stepped into the cockpit of the Odyssey EX — complete with a DVD-based satellite navigation system and a healthy bottom line of $28,840 — you’d better believe I expected to be captivated.

What I walked away with was the impression that the Odyssey occupies the penthouse in this segment. I’m just not sure it occupies it alone.

Having only recently piloted a versatile Caravan with 215 horsepower and high-tech goodies that included a power liftgate that could be operated by remote and a Sienna that was entirely functional and hugged the road like sport-tuned sedan, I found the Odyssey to be right there with them.

In short, you could throw a blanket over the three of them and start arguing price with your local dealer.

If money is not the issue, it seems that a decision to go with the Odyssey boils down to choice — wanting the things it has that its two major competitors do not. Along that line, there’s plenty to like.

Let’s start with the thing that most sharply separates the Odyssey from the crowd — the rear seat. As most of the civilized world knows, the Odyssey’s rear bench can be folded down down in the back, disappearing into a well in the back of the vehicle and creating a flat, spacious cargo area.

Beautiful; simply beautiful. And if I can fold down the seat without three return trips to the owner’s manual, it should be a snap for the general driving public.

Some folks do not like the fact that the rear well translates to low, flat styling on the Odyssey’s tail. Personally, that didn’t bother me. The convenience of the folding bench outweighed the deduction in style points, and the front-end styling on the Odyssey is aerodynamic enough for most tastes.

Need horsepower? All Odysseys get the willing 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 210 horsepower. That’s nearly 60 ponies more than the base Caravan offering and 16 more than you get in the standard Sienna V-6.

The power and handling of the Odyssey were a comfort. There’s nothing worse than being on a family outing with six heavy suitcases in the back and coming up empty when you ask the family hauler to merge into freeway traffic. Odyssey has the juice, even with the air conditioner operating in full-blast mode.

Odyssey braked as well as any minivan I’ve driven. The front discs with four-wheel anti-lock and electronic brake distribution combine to bring some 4,30 0 pounds to a halt quickly and with virtually no rocking and rolling.

On the tested EX, the navigation system bumped the base price $2,000 above an EX sans DVD system. But it’s a terrific perk — easy to use and easy to read. Assuming that many minivan buyers typically take their families on long road trips to unfamiliar places, the navigation system offers something more than dollars. It’s called peace of mind.

Safety features were numerous, including special anchors and tethers for children and their safety seats. A traction-control system is standard — a nice touch for travelers taking a loaded van through a high-speed freeway turn in mountain country.

The Odyssey has the now-expected package of tined glass, privacy glass, vanity mirrors, map lights, cupholders and cargo netting. Electric dual sliding doors entertain the kids and the neighbors, and safety mechanisms negate the potential horror of a sliding door pinning Aunt Lil against one of the front ats.

While nearly $29,000 might seem like a lot to put down on a minivan, the standard package on the tested Odyssey EX was most impressive. In fact, the only addition to the base price was a $440 destination charge.

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