Hondas have been many things over the years: innovative, well-made, well-engineered. The list of credits is endless.
But there's one thing a Honda has never been, and that's a minivan. Until now.
For 1995, Honda ends its absence in this popular sector of the market with a minivan of its own. And unlike the Rodeo sport/utility, another first for Honda but supplied by Isuzu, this vehicle was home-grown. There are elements borrowed from other Hondas, notably the Accord, but not from anywhere else.
That's bound to be a plus with people who have owned Hondas, particularly Accords.
As you'd expect of a Honda, this minivan is different. For example, it has four doors. This won't be a unique feature in 1995, because the next generation of Chrysler minivans will also offer a fourth door, though it'll be optional while Honda's is standard.
However, the Odyssey's rear doors are hinged, like a sedan's, which makes them a little easier to use. The Chrysler rear side doors both slide back, van style.
Because it uses a modified Accord chassis, the Odyssey will also have one of the most sophisticated suspension systems of any minivan. All Honda passenger cars have what Honda calls a double wishbone suspension, instead of the more common - and cheaper - MacPherson struts.
The advantage of the Honda system is that it minimizes undesirable wheel movements during cornering. This enhances the carlike driveability that's a must for front-drive minivans.
The Odyssey's engine is a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder, the same engine used in the Accord line but retuned slightly for this application - a little more peak horse-power and a little extra torque, the commodity that gets you away from stoplights and helps you haul heavy loads.
The 4-speed automatic transmission is essentially the same as the one used in the Accord, offering smooth shifting and the latest generation of Honda Grade Logic computer programming. Grade Logic uses sensors and a microprocesser to determine special driving situations. If you're driving down a steep hill with your foot off the accelerator, the computer tells the transmission to shift down one gear to help keep your speed in check.
Safety features, too, are up-to-the-minute. The Odyssey has dual airbags, 5-mph bumpers and 4-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock included as standard equipment. The doors are equipped with side-impact beams and meet 1997 federal side-impact standards for passenger cars.
The Odyssey will probably have a familiar look to folks who have owned Hondas over the years. With its short nose, raked windshield and tidy proportions, it resembles the old Civic station wagon, but on a somewhat grander scale.
The issue of size represents a problem for the Odyssey. Even before its introduction, there was criticism from some auto industry analysts who were allowed a preview and dismissed it as too small.
But Honda has always kept its vehicles as compact as possible. There's a near-phobic bias against excess space and mass in Honda engineering, and the Odyssey is true to its heritage in this respect.
However, the Odyssey is no midget. It's a little bigger than the standard version of the Dodge Caravan, a tad smaller than the Mercury Villager and about the same as the Toyota Previa.
The Odyssey will be offered in two models: the well-furnished LX and the loaded EX, which we tested. There's no real base model here.
Interior design has been a Honda strength for a long time, and the experience shows to good advantage inside the Odyssey.
This new minivan will offer seating for six or seven passengers. The standard arrangement is for seven with a bench seat in the middle row - and it's a versatile setup. The middle bench will fold up flat against the backs of the front bucket seats, and the rear seat can be folded down into a well in the rear cargo area, yielding a nearly flat floor.
If you want to convert the Odyssey into a quickie cam-per, you can fold the middle and rear seats down to make a bunk bed - Honda calls it a day bed. You can also flip the rear seat onto its back, creating a bench handy for picnics.
The optional seating package substitutes two captain's chairs for the second-row bench, reducing passenger capacity by one. With this layout, the second-row chairs are removable. They weigh about 25 lb. each, and it's a relatively easy job, although General Motors' front-drive minvans - Chevy Lumina, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Trans Sport - still lead the industry for easy seat removal.
It's a clever design job overall, but we did find a couple of weak points with seating. Rear-seat legroom is a little confined, and getting into the third-row seats is awkward, although a low step-in height makes entry and exit very carlike for the other positions.
We also wish that Honda had found another place to stow the spare tire. It mounts inside the van at the right rear. Even though it's well out of the way, it does limit the rear cargo area to some degree.
Up front, the instrument panel is typically Honda. Control arrangement is logical and precise - everything easy to find, reach and operate.
Something else that's typical of Honda's attention to detail is the Odyssey's small-object storage. There are two good-sized glove boxes and a center storage bin up front, plus cupholders and storage pockets built into the armrests at all the outside seating positions.
Our EX test van included a wealth of standard features that would be extra in a lot of other minivans - front and rear air conditioning, an AM/FM/ cassette sound system and power everything, to just skim the top of the list.
Major additions that go with the EX model include a power sunroof, alloy wheels and a premium sound system with six speakers. But it's hard to imagine anyone feeling deprived with an Odyssey LX, and that's the model we'd recommend.
Although the Odyssey is only one of two minivans on the market without a V6 engine option - the Toyota Previa is the other - we think the performance of its 4-cylinder engine may surprise you - unless you happen to be acquainted with the Accord.
With its internal balance shafts to damp out vibration, this is just about the smoothest 4-cylinder engine imaginable, as well as one of the quietest. The only time it made any noise is when we pushed it hard for passing and during a couple of maximum acceleration runs.
The Odyssey is surprisingly peppy during this kind of work, and its 0-to-60 mph time of a little over 12 seconds compares favorably with the competition.
In normal driving, the Odyssey is exceptionally quiet. In fact, it may be the best of an increasingly refined breed.
And its expansive glass area provides nice vistas for all on board, as well as excellent sightlines for the driver, a subliminal safety feature.
But the Odyssey's strongest suit is its handling. It's not sporty like the Mazda MPV. But it does provide the same sense of competency, control and confidence that distinguishes the Accord - as well as the same smooth ride.
The Odyssey may face an uphill struggle in the crowded minivan market. It's not the roomiest, it lacks a V6 engine option, and it's far from inexpensive.
On the other hand, it's chock full of standard comfort and convenience features, as well as many clever design touches. It's smooth, supremely quiet, versatile, attractive and assembled with Honda's usual careful attention to detail.
And it's got the Honda name. For anyone familiar with this company, that may well be enough to clinch the sale.
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