by Ray Thursby
Big, new and innovative, it has nothing in common with the old one.
Base Price $23,000
As Tested $26,215
In the beginning, Honda made its reputation on innovative thinking. From early two-cylinder minicars through clever antipollution technology to the light-alloy NSX two-seater, Hondas were different. In more recent times, however, the company has set its sights on fitting into the automotive mainstream, promoting clean design, high quality and reliability to bring in the customers.
To a large extent, that more conservative strategy has worked. Hondas are perennial fixtures on the best-seller lists in their various classes; with all quirkiness bred out, they represent a safe, surprise-free option for buyers.
Even people who miss the earlier days when Hondas stood apart from the pack will have to admit that the new Odyssey minivan makes a great deal of sense. This is one market where the unusual is not prized. Minivan owners have a basic, well-understood need for passenger and cargo capacity, occupant safety and comfort. The only trailblazing thinking they want to see applied is to details, and only then if such advances lead to increased efficiency or convenience.
Last year's Odyssey was something of an oddity. (It's still available as the Isuzu Oasis.) With four passenger-car type doors and small exterior dimensions, it was more of a transitional vehicle, part sedan and part minivan. Sales were less than anticipated, leading Honda to begin development of a more traditional minivan. Thus the 1999 Odyssey.
In a market dominated by the Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth minivans, GM's Chevy/Oldsmobile/Pontiac trio, Ford Windstar and Toyota Sienna, the Odyssey makes good strategic sense for Honda. The question for would-be customers will be simple: Is the biggest Honda better than the rest, or has the company set its sights on building a mid-pack people-hauler?
Anyone who has taken a tour of the previous-generation Odyssey will find their walkaround of the new version will take a bit longer. The new Odyssey is much bigger than the old one. While the old Odyssey was small, the new one competes with the biggest minivans on the market. It's about the same size as the Chrysler minivans (Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, Chrysler Town & Country). It's slightly larger than the Toyota Sienna, but slightly smaller than the Ford Windstar and the GM minivans (Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Pontiac Montana).
All minivan designers face the same fact when it comes to styling: The ideal shape is a box. Corners can be rounded off, creases can be applied, glass area can be enlarged, nips and tucks can be made, but the essential form can't be altered.
From a styling standpoint, the Odyssey lands in the middle of its opposition. It's neither as distinctive as the attractive Chrysler vans nor as anonymous as the Sienna. Honda has made an attempt to give it some corporate identity around the grille area, but the profile and rear view are decidedly ordinary. Not unattractive, mind you, just ordinary.
But what counts is in place: Odyssey offers four large doors. The rear doors slide open, making it easier to get in at crowded shopping center parking lots. And there's a wide tailgate with a low lift-over height that makes it easy to load cargo.
Rather than ask customers to wade through long lists of options, Honda has chosen to launch the Odyssey in two trim levels. The LX offers almost every feature most buyers want, including air conditioning, antilock brakes, cruise control, adjustable steering column, and power assists for windows, mirrors and door locks.
The EX adds power sliding side doors, automatic climate control, electronic traction control, upgraded sound system with a CD player, and handsome alloy wheels.
All Odysseys are powered by a 3.5-liter 24-valve V6 engine that develops a robust 210 horsepower when fed premium-grade fuel. Using regular is permitted, but results in a 5-horsepower loss.
All come equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission.
Among the Odyssey's safety features are dual front airbags and a three-point seatbelt/shoulder harness for each of the seven seating positions. The Odyssey is not available with side airbags - the safety benefits of which are debated among automakers.
The Inside Story
Hondas generally offer spacious passenger accommodations for their size and the Odyssey is no exception. From the moment the four wide doors are opened, it is obvious that Honda designers have taken advantage of the minivan box form, and have improved on it by lowering the floor height. Space is plentiful by every measurement, with a special call going to headroom that will impress even professional basketball players. As a rule, however, the seven-passenger designation should be applied only when carrying children; adults will find themselves most comfortable when maximum occupancy is kept at six.
One clever design feature has been carried over from the first-generation Odyssey, and it's a good one. The third-row seat (called a "magic" seat by Honda) can be folded into a deep recess, leaving a completely flat floor aft of the second seat for carrying cargo. It is a relatively simple process, though the third-seat headrests must be removed and stowed in side pockets first.
The second-row can be converted from two bucket seats to a full bench seat by sliding them together. They are also removable. As an alternative, the second- and third-row seats can be folded down, leaving space for large, flat items.
Honda takes top billing in the cupholder contest, providing nine receptacles - for seven passengers. We Americans do love our cupholders.
The Odyssey looks like a Honda inside, and that's all to the good. All controls are easy to reach and operate, and all harmonize well with the overall design. The seating position is high and upright, with plenty of visibility in every direction. Materials are all top-grade, and the interior color scheme is exceptionally attractive.
Ride & Drive
Minivan owners and Honda owners alike will find their expectations met by the Odyssey. It performs, handles, steers and rides like a minivan, albeit a very good one, and feels like a Honda from behind the wheel. In other words, there are neither major surprises nor big disappointments awaiting the driver.
The Odyssey offers class-leading horsepower, but this advantage is negated to a large extent by its weight. The Odyssey engine has to pull around significantly more poundage than it would in, say, a Ford Windstar, so acceleration and fuel economy are average. The Odyssey powerplant is smooth and quiet, however, and works well with the automatic transmission.
Our test driving was confined largely to open highways and city streets, an environment where the Odyssey comports itself well. Its ride quality was very good, if not quite exceptional, and it proved to be easily maneuverable in close-quarter situations. One small complaint surfaced on the highway, where a lack of immediate response when turning the steering wheel was noted. Whether due to excessive assist levels in the power steering, or tire design, this vagueness when deviating from a straight line did detract slightly from driving pleasure. Otherwise, there were no areas of the Odyssey's on-road behavior to be concerned about.
Of course the Odyssey is not intended to be a sports car, so crisp handling takes a back seat to comfort by design. Within the parameters set by the designers, it does its job well. Long-distance travel is no problem for the big Honda. Comfortable seats, an efficient heating/ventilation/air conditioning system and good sound insulation see to that.
Honda designers, engineers and product planners have obviously put a lot of effort into getting the new Odyssey right. Design features that made its predecessor a slow seller -- small size and side-door configuration most prominent among them -- are gone, and all the niceties and quality touches one would expect from Honda are in ample supply.
The Odyssey does not really raise the bar in its class, but it does equal the efforts of the competition. Our behind-the-wheel impressions are that it lacks the sophistication of the Windstar, and visually lags behind the svelte Chrysler minivans. Magic third seat aside, it offers little not found on all its competitors.
That certainly isn't meant to imply that there's anything even remotely wrong with the Odyssey. There isn't. It is a very good minivan, one that owners of other Honda products can trade into with perfect confidence.
But the competition among minivans is fierce, and only careful comparison test driving and a close scan of all the features available can tell you whether the Odyssey is your minivan.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.