How good is the new Honda Odyssey minivan?

I’m a bit biased, I’ll admit, since I am one of the voters, but the recently concluded North American Car of the Year competition speaks volumes.

The winner was VW’s New Beetle, which stole all the headlines in 1998, but the runner-up was the Odyssey. That means the judges — about 45 auto journalists from across the United States and Canada — picked the Odyssey over the other new vans that arrived last year, including the Ford Windstar, Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest. It also means the Odyssey was more highly thought of in its class than many other non-winning vehicles were in theirs, including the BMW 3-Series, Chrysler 300M, Lexus RX 300 and Porsche 911.

If you’re one of the happy multitudes who have been driving around in a series of Civics and Accords for the past 10 or 15 years, the concept of Honda producing a top-notch minivan isn’t a surprising one.

And, if you’re one of the few who bought the first-generation Odyssey and you love it, which most of its owners do, then the quality of the 1999 version isn’t big news either.

But if you’re one of those minivan shoppers who rejected the first Odyssey as too small and underpowered, which it was, then this is time to rejoice.

First a bit of history. Chrysler has dominated the minivan market that it almost single-handedly created since the early ’80s. Other automakers came to market with products that missed the mark — think of Ford’s tepid Aerostar, Toyota’s odd Previa and the trio of Dustbuster-shaped vehicles from General Motors.

But, over the last few years, even as the Chrysler vans have improved, the competition has caught up. The GM vans (Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Pontiac Montana) are quite good. So, too, is the new Ford Windstar. And Toyota’s Sienna is a world-class effort.

Enter the 1999 Honda Odyssey. It has all the attributes that make the Accord so popular, like a good engine, a smooth ride and the confidence engendered by high-quality construction.

Plus, this van is big, which is what American families want. Chrysler sells vans that are either 186 or 200 inches long. Toyota split the difference, building a Sienna that is 193.5 inches long. That half-foot difference is vital when it comes to cargo and passenger room in a minivan. You never want to buy a vehicle like a minivan and still feel that you want more space. Honda understands that, and that’s why the new Odyssey is 201.2 inches long.

Seat-configuration is another factor that can make or break a minivan. We’ve all seen the ads showing overhead shots of dozens of combinations of seats — up, folded or removed — and lots of gear in a minivan. And, despite some improvements — like seats on rollers — there’s nothing better than Honda’s “magic” seat. When the third row isn’t in use, it folds into a recess to create a flat floor. You don’t have to lug back-breaking seats into the garage w hen you want extra cargo space in the back of your minivan. That’s a major benefit.

As with other Honda products, buyers will probably have to pay a premium over some of the competitors to get the Honda name. Most buyers seem to feel it’s worth it. There’s also probably not as much negotiation room as on some rivals when you’re buying an Odyssey.

The range of Chrysler vans — in both price and equipment — is amazing. You can buy a base 1999 Plymouth Voyager for $18,585 or a 1999 Chrysler Town & Country Limited All-Wheel-Drive model for twice that ($36,720). And there are a lot of Chrysler vans in between. The Odyssey comes only two ways. The LX model ($23,415 with destination) costs about the same as a Dodge Grand Caravan SE ($23,445). The EX version ($26,215) is about $750 less than the Grand Caravan LE.

Our tester, an EX model, was very well-equipped with two sliding doors, front and back air conditioning and a CD player. Floor mats ($149) were the only opti .

A test drive of a Toyota Sienna overlapped with the one of the Odyssey. Although I’ve said good things about the Sienna in the past, and I still think it’s a strong, functional product for Toyota, I like the Odyssey better.

Its size better fits the needs of families who occupy most of these vans. It has a smoothness of design and drive that’s superior, if only slightly, to the Sienna. Getting into the third seat in the Odyssey is tons easier than in the Sienna. And, of course, there’s that “magic” seat.

In a category where all the vehicles seem similar, the new Honda Odyssey manages to rise above the pack.

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