EXPERT REVIEW

TheMercuryNews.com's view

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. — Were I to buy a minivan today — and with two growing boys, that’s not simply a rhetorical statement — I’d pick the Honda Odyssey.

Why? Well, while I’ve been favorably impressed with the Odyssey on a couple of previous test drives, I recently had a chance to give it a more real-world evaluation. And, on a 13-day, 2,600-mile family road trip, the silver 2001 Honda Odyssey EX proved to be reliable, comfortable, practical and spacious. Other than a few minor knocks — more on those later — the Odyssey is the rare vehicle that delivers what it promises.

The drivetrain is excellent, with smooth power from the 210-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine and smooth shifts from the four-speed automatic. Climbing up mountain roads and shooshing through curves in the rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula, the Odyssey proved steady and stable. Gas mileage — 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway — was quite good for a vehicle with as much people- and cargo-carrying ability as this one. And, most importantly on a long trip, this was a vehicle that was comfortable to back and bottom.

Storage space is pretty amazing, and Honda executives continue to deserve praise for deciding that Americans really want and need a big (201.2 inches) minivan. We’re a family that travels heavy, but our collection of suitcases, sleeping bags, tents, coolers and more didn’t make a dent here. We could have taken twice as much stuff. And, thanks to the fold-away third seat, we could travel with all our gear with the back seat folded flat or, as we did when we visited friends in Washington state, we could pop the seat back up and take six people along for the ride.

My complaints about the Odyssey are mild and minimal. You certainly can buy a cheaper minivan, and the model we drove — the top-line EX with navigation with a window sticker of nearly $29,000 — was very pricey. Still, the base LX version at $23,900 is very well-equipped and a good value considering Honda’s reputation for quality.

I’d like to see cup holders for second-row seats. I’d like to see grocery-bag hooks in the cargo area. The power sliding doors need a little work, too, as one went kaput for three days after a seat belt got caught in it while closing. And operating them from the key fob remained a task that constantly bedeviled me as I always hit the wrong button or hit it twice, which stopped it in middle of opening or closing. (And, personally, I’d like to see the rear cargo door raised an inch or two as I banged my head on it every single day, which might tell you more about me than about the van.)

The navigation system, which adds $2,000 to the price tag of the Odyssey, was both appreciated and annoying. It’s great for charting progress on a long trip, for scouting for short cuts and for finding hotels and restaurants along the way — don’t miss the porter-glazed salmon and the craft beers at the Wild Duck Brewery on Sixth Street in Eugene, Ore. But in a number of small towns, including this one, the detailed information in the database, such as streets, grocery stores and restaurants, was lacking.

For 2002, the Odyssey gets significant upgrades — and a price hike. Engine power is increased from 210 to 240 horsepower. Fuel economy stays the same. A new five-speed automatic transmission replaces the four-speed used in 2001 models. Rear disc brakes and side air bags are added as standard equipment. And leather seats and a rear entertainment system are newly available options.

The price of the cheapest Odyssey grows from $23,900 to $24,250, and that of the mid-level EX version goes up from $26,400 to $26,750. And, for 2002, three up-level versions are offered, replacing the $28,400 EX with navigation model sold in 2001. Those include the EX with leather ($28,250), the EX with leather and rear-entertainment ($29,750) and the EX with leather and navigation ($30,250).

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