EXPERT REVIEW

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HONDA HAS entered the minivan wars with its Accord-based Odyssey. It’s a high-quality piece in terms of fit, finish and appointments. But my hunch is that it’ll appeal only to devout Honda buyers. The Odyssey is too small for what most Americans need and want in a minivan — galumptious space.

Worse, that lack of space comes with lots of price. The Odyssey starts at $22,985!

Is Honda serious? The Odyssey’s more spacious competitors have lower base stickers. For example, the Dodge Caravan starts at $16,100; the Chevy Astro, $18,300; Ford Windstar, $19,200; and Chevrolet Lumina Minivan, $17,600. And those models come with six-cylinder engines.

The Odyssey comes with a standard 2.2-liter, sequentially fuel-injected inline-four. The thing is rated 140 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, with max torque set at 145 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. Wanna guess what happens when the front-drive Odyssey is loaded with its full complement of six passengers and some of their cargo?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots of good stuff in the Odyssey — including four swing-out doors instead of conventional van sliding doors. Swing-out doors reduce injury risks to small children. Sliding doors can inadvertently slide back and bop some poor little kid on the head — which has happened on several occasions, with sometimes tragic results.

Still, the Odyssey isn’t really a minivan. It’s a small-scale, luxurious imitation — a rich thing that’s quite willing to leave the heavy hauling to something else.

Background: Chrysler Corp. opened the U.S. minivan market in 1984. Honda, regarding minivans as a fad, ignored that market. Honda made the same mistake with sport-utility vehicles, suvvies, until those and similar models accounted for 40 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States.

Honda turned to Subaru-Isuzu Automotive Inc. in Lafayette, Ind., for help with suvvies. Subaru-Isuzu obliged by allowing Honda to sell its Isuzu Rodeo asa Honda Passport. But Honda relied on itself and its Accord sedan for its Odyssey, which might’ve been a mistake.

Again, most Americans who want minivans want space — and the Odyssey just doesn’t have it, especially in the rear, which affords precious little leg room. Here is where Honda should’ve teamed up with an American company, as Nissan did when it joined with Ford to develop the Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager minivans. For one thing, the Americans have something that Honda lacks — plants big enough to produce minivans in sizes that suit American tastes.

But the Americans can learn something from Honda too. A lot of care went into the development of the Honda LX and EX minivans, both of which are loaded with standard equipment including: four-wheel anti-lock brakes, four-speed automatic transmission, dual front air bags, dual air conditioning and power side- view mirrors, windows and door locks. All of these goodies were put together in the tested Odys sey LX with impeccable precision.

Complaints: Interior space; wimpy engine under load.

Praise: Overall craftsmanship; myriad personal touches, including two glove boxes.

Head-turning quotient: The Odyssey gets nods, but no big whoop.

Ride, acceleration and handling: A triumvirate of excellence when carrying one or two passengers. Diminished capacity, in terms of acceleration and handling, when onboard weight increases. Braking was excellent under all circumstances.

Mileage: About 20 miles per gallon (17.2-gallon tank, estimated 330-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), running with one to six occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, installed by Honda. Very decent tonal reproduction. A likable system.

Price range: Base price is $23,395. Dealer’s invoice on base model is $20,673. Price as tested is $23,790, including a $395 destination charge. Prices according to Intellichoice. P> Purse-strings note: The Odyssey has tough competitors.

Compare with Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari, Chevrolet Lumina Minivan/Pontiac Trans Sport, Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, Ford Aerostar, Ford Windstar, Mercury Villager/Nissan Quest, Toyota Previa and Mazda MPV. Bottom line is that Honda came late to this party, and it might’ve come undersized and overdressed.

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