1999 Honda Odyssey First Drive

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1999 Honda Odyssey Minivan

(3.5L V6 4-speed Automatic)

A Swiss Army Knife on Wheels

Honda is celebrating its 50th year as a company by re-entering that segment of the market that has heretofore been completely dominated by American carmakers: the minivan. The ultimate in the large family car, the minivan was pioneered and continually improved upon by Chrysler Corp., and until this year, no Japanese company ever posed a serious threat to Chrysler's dominance.

Making a mistake that even Toyota failed to recognize with their Sienna, Honda's first attempt at the minivan market came in 1995 with the original Odyssey - a smallish vehicle often used for taxi service in New York City because of its ability to squeeze a lot of people into a little space. The Odyssey was misplaced in the minivan market, which favors a huge, comfortable amount of interior space and versatility to tight taxicab ambience and ease of parallel parking. The minivan market is also keen on the ability to carry a 4'x 8' section of plywood, something that the previous Odyssey could do only if the plywood was strapped to the roof or cut into several smaller pieces.

Rest assured, you plywood and drywall consumers of America: the new Odyssey easily swallows up a 4'x 8' sheet. It can also swallow up seven adult passengers in comfort, and even has room under the seats for easy stowage of two-by-four pieces of lumber or skis. In fact, the new Odyssey is related to the old Odyssey only in name - the car has been completely redesigned.

Starting with the engine, the Odyssey is powered by a new, 3.5-liter 24-valve V6 VTEC, which produces up to 210 horsepower and 229 foot-pounds of torque while achieving the environmentally friendly status of a low emission vehicle. The V6 is based on the Accord's 3.0-liter engine, but, thanks to the extra half liter of displacement, offers substantially more power. Honda's first-ever use of a knock sensor allows the engine to burn either premium or regular unleaded fuel. For frugal types, the engine achieves 205 horsepower - premium users gain five horses.

Honda is not one to make the same mistake twice. The previous Odyssey was too small, so engineers went back to the drawing board, took a long look at Chrysler's benchmark minivans, and came up with an improved replica. The new Odyssey measures 201.2 inches long (compared to 199.7 for Chrysler), 75.6 inches wide (76.8 for Chrysler), and 68.5 inches high (68.7 for Chrysler). Where these vans differ the most is in their track width: Chrysler's track is 63.0" / 64.0" front to rear, while the Odyssey's track is 66.1" front and back, the widest track for any minivan. The Odyssey also offers an additional inch of ground clearance at 6.4 inches, yet its center of gravity is lower. What does this all mean? Well, nothing until you compare the interiors.

The floor of the Odyssey sits lower than Chrysler's minivans, and front headroom is improved over the benchmark competitor by an inch and a half. In every angle, the Odyssey manages to inflate the interior space while keeping the exterior bulk maneuverable in parking lots. Despite the car's increased size, track length and width, the new Odyssey's turning radius is the same as its much smaller predecessor. Moving the wheels out to the corners helps more than handling - it gives the interior designers more to work with.

There's a full 25.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, and 53.3 cu. ft. with just the rear seat folded. Maximum cargo capacity is an impressive 163.3 cu. ft. But the cargo capacity itself isn't as impressive as the ease with which the capacity is expanded.

The best Odyssey feature continues to be its hideaway, or "magic" seat, as Honda calls it. With a minimum of effort and the use of only one set of hands, the rear seat can be folded out of sight and flush with the floor in a matter of seconds. It works like this: first pull out the three headrests and stow them in the side-area cargo net. Then release a latch and fold the seatback forward, release another latch and pull back on the nylon strap. That's it. The seat slides back and down into the lowered floor, forming a level cargo area. No grunting, no groaning, and no finding room in the garage to store an unwieldy piece of car furniture.

The second row seats come as separate captains chairs and as a bench. Yes, they are standard both ways, because Honda has decided to let buyers configure their minivans to their own ever-changing needs. The right seat is mounted on a sliding rail and can be lifted forward and pushed flush with the left seat to form a two-seat bench. If you desire captains chairs, just reverse the procedure. It is still possible to delete the convertible chairs and go with a bench (at a savings of $200), but the added versatility could be helpful some day. The second row can, of course, be removed for those plywood hauling emergencies, and the bucket seats are light enough to be removed by one person without much effort.

Because there's no drive shaft turning the rear wheels, engineers were able to utilize some of the space under the middle of the Odyssey. The spare is located just below the floor in front of the second row of seats. With the seats pulled back on their tracks and the tray table up, the floor can be lifted to reveal the spare tire. A nifty pull-cord complete with hanging hook keeps the floor and carpet propped up (just hook it to the handle on the back of the front seat), and the tire can then be lifted out. Each Odyssey also comes with a plastic bag to store the ruined tire, so it won't dirty the interior when you go to put it back in the storage den.

Safety is a big concern for the Odyssey's buyers, and Honda believes that their minivan will achieve high crash scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). All seven passenger seating positions have headrests and three-point seatbelts, both firsts in the minivan market. An Electronic Brake Distribution system (EBD) is standard. This system senses the placement and amount of cargo, and compensates for it during hard braking to avoid rear-wheel lockup. Of course, it's more complicated than that, but we'd rather not get into talking about sensors, control modules and ABS solenoids.

The EX-exclusive power sliding doors operate smoothly and actually stop when something impedes their progress - unlike similar attempts by General Motors, in which the doors could easily knock over an adult before reversing. We were so bold as to close the door on three fingers (something no one should try in a Pontiac Montana) - and since I'm able to type this report, you are correct in assuming that the door detected my fingers and slid back open.

The LX, or current base model, starts at a low $23,200. The LX includes such standard fare as dual sliding doors, power windows (including power rear vent windows), power locks, power mirrors, cruise control, a theft-deterrent system, two 12-volt power outlets, front and rear air conditioning, antilock brakes, and of course the 3.5-liter V6 engine. That price is actually $800 less than the current Odyssey LX, and severely undercuts similarly equipped long-wheelbase minivans from the competition.

The step-up EX model comes in at $25,800 (exactly the same price as the previous Odyssey EX). The EX features additional niceties such as dual power sliding doors, body-colored door handles, a roof rack, keyless remote, eight-way power driver's seat, alloy wheels, traction control, a CD player and steering wheel mounted radio controls. Plunking down the extra $3,000 for EX trim is worth it, just for the seats, which are infinitely more comfortable than the two-way manually adjustable seats of the LX. Leather is not available.

Other than the door handles, roof rack and alloy wheels, the two trim levels are indistinguishable from outside. There are no "LX" or "EX" chrome badges to set the cars apart, and the bumpers are thankfully not available in black plastic, which always cheapens appearances.

And how about the appearance? Well, there's only so much you can do with minivan styling, and Honda's goal, as one engineer noted, was, "Don't make it ugly." Styling a minivan is sort of like deciding how to dress up a Sumo wrestler: no matter what you do, he won't look chic, but as long as he's not wearing a skin-tight Spandex thong, he looks respectable. With that distasteful image in mind, the Odyssey ain't bad by a long stretch. The sliding door track is not well-hidden like Chrysler's, but that's because Chrysler employs the styling masters. Honda is more worried about function and the optimal location for a door track is in the middle of the sheetmetal. The taillights are configured horizontally, or more car-like than truck-like. Rear directional indicators are smaller than we'd like, but that's just a personal preference. Overall, the Odyssey's styling is functional - exactly like a minivan should be.

Sitting on a four-wheel independent suspension, a first in the minivan segment, the Odyssey is supported comfortably while keeping the driver in touch with the road. Combined with the Odyssey's wide track, the suspension adds a nimble feel to this big car. We did not weave through a slalom, but body roll around corners was well damped for a car of this height.

So what can we say of the drive? Well, this is a minivan, so it's not what you'd call exciting, but for a normally uninspiring class of car, it is very good. Takeoff from a stop is smooth, and gear changing is seamless, even at higher speeds. As with most front-drive vehicles, torque steer pulls the wheel slightly under acceleration, but not enough to count any points against it. The front disc / rear drum brakes slow the Odyssey down smoothly and quickly for such a heavy car. All in all, it's a high-powered, smooth-shifting minivan that handles with confidence and doesn't make a powerful racket.

After startup, the engine can not be heard at idle, and there is no vibration. That's due to the engine's position, mounted in a rubber-isolated subframe. The engine mounts are liquid-filled and electronically controlled, allowing the engine to run unnoticed by interior occupants. A large-volume exhaust system also helps to keep the car quiet at speed. Wind noise can be heard at highway speeds, but no more than any other minivan - the overall height of the vehicle dictates that. Sound deadening material placed in strategic locations throughout the body also puts a damper on road noise.

Instrument panel gauges are easy to read and the center controls are logically placed, except for a dome light control button that's nowhere near the dome lights. The cruise controls are mounted on the steering wheel, as are remote radio controls on the EX model. The EX is further enhanced with power door controls just left of the steering column. Climate controls are placed higher than the radio controls on the center console, but, thanks to the console's elevated lower surface, everything is within easy reach. The interior abounds with cubby holes and map pockets, and the nine cupholders are all functional, unlike some of the indentations other minivan makers are stamping onto seatbacks these days. Two cupholders slide out from the front console, four are available on a foldable tray table between the front seats (the rear two slide back on a tray table extender so middle-row occupants have an easier reach), two are built in next to the right rear window, and one is located next to the left rear window. So the whole family should have enough beverages to keep them anxious for rest stops.

The new manufacturing plant at Alliston, Ontario will build 60,000 Odysseys for the 1999 model year, and capacity will soon grow to 120,000 when a second shift is added next year. If a third shift were added, simple math would conclude that Honda could build 180,000 minivans, but the market for minivans can go only so far. But we wouldn't be surprised to see the Ontario plant gain a third shift to build another large Honda vehicle in the near future: perhaps a large SUV.

As Honda Vice President Dick Colliver said at a press conference, "There's one area where the competition won't be able to touch the Odyssey: the dependability, quality and reliability that have become Honda trademarks." Now that Honda has something for its Civic and Accord loyals to step into when they start their families, American minivan makers had better heed the message: the minivan market will not grow by 120,000 sales per year. Honda's going to carve its own niche within the existing segment. And they'll carve it with the Swiss Army Knife of minivans.

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