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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?
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.