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HONDA’S ODYSSEY MINIVAN DELIVERS COMFORT AND NIMBLE, CARLIKE DRIVING

SHARE HONDA’S ODYSSEY MINIVAN DELIVERS COMFORT AND NIMBLE, CARLIKE DRIVING

More than a decade after Chrysler Corp. introduced its first minivan, Honda is finally getting into the act with its 1995 Odyssey.

Honda says it only expects to sell about 30,000 Odysseys in 1995, relatively few compared with the roughly 118,000 Mercury Villagers and Nissan Quests sold during the 1994 model year.The new Odyssey features front-wheel drive and is based on Honda's Accord sedan. The Odyssey is classified by the federal government as a car, unlike other minivans, which are considered trucks. That means it meets the federal government's more demanding regulations for safety and emissions.

The Odyssey will start appearing in dealerships at the end of December. Honda officials won't release pricing until then, but they hinted that the price would begin around $24,000 for the entry-level LX, which does put it in the upscale Villager ballpark.

Major standard equipment on the LX includes dual air bags, front and rear air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, tilt steering column, an AM/FM/cassette stereo, anti-lock brakes and a rear-window defroster and wiper.

The fancier model is the EX. In addition to the items found on the LX, additional standard equipment includes a power sunroof, remote-entry system, alloy wheels and a driver's seat with power height adjustment.

One big surprise is that the Odyssey has four doors, instead of the usual three. Furthermore, the doors open outward rather than slide.

Honda officials say their research indicates consumers are interested in easy access to the back seat for storing life's bundles, human and otherwise.

The Odyssey looks remarkably compact, lacking the chunky minivan bulk that often dwarfs passenger cars.

That is no illusion. The Odyssey's overall length is 186.7 inches, which makes it only 2.7 inches longer than the Accord sedan. Its 64.7-inch overall height is 9.6 inches taller than the Accord sedan, but 2 inches shorter than a Voyager.

But such tidy exterior dimensions do not mean a lack of interior space, thanks to a wheelbase that is 4.5 inches longer than the Accord sedan's.

There is seating for six or seven people. The six-passenger configuration uses dual captain's chairs for the second row. A no-cost option is seven-passenger seating that uses a bench seat for the second row.

Assuming there are no prima donnas, six 6-foot adults can be carried in the Odyssey with everyone having adequate head and legroom. The Odyssey does seem a bit narrow, though.

One truly unusual feature is storage for the third row of seats - it can be folded down so it disappears into the floor, providing a flat storage area. Consider it the Houdini of seats. It is an amazingly simple procedure, unlike the gut-busting required to remove the rear seat from some minivans. Surgeons who repair minivan-related hernias will hate this innovation.

Should you choose the bench seat for the second row, it tumbles down and folds forward for carrying large objects. If the captain's chairs are chosen, they can be removed entirely. Honda says they weigh about 35 pounds each.

The front seats are comfortable, and the driver looks out a steeply raked windshield reminiscent of the front-wheel-drive General Motors Corp. minivans.

Crash-safety features include dual air bags, height-adjustable front seat belts, and headrests for all seats (except the center spot if the bench is chosen for the second row). In addition, the Odyssey meets the federal government's 1997 standard for side-impact protection for cars.

The minivan has a nice assortment of storage bins, including two glove boxes.

As one would expect from Honda, the basic driving controls are easy to find and use. One minor disappointment was that the dash on the model we tried was done in Heart-of-Darkness black plastic, which made it a bit oppressive. Of course, the Addams Family might like it.

The Shangri-La of minivans is carlike behavior, and the Odyssey has reached that heavenly place. Although it can carry six adults, it feels more like driving a super-capable, overgrown station wagon than a minivan.

The suspension is fully independent, using a double wishbone design and front and rear stabilizer bars, a design borrowed from the Accord.

The ride comfort is good, but what makes the Odyssey special is that there is none of the excessive body lean under hard cornering or the nervous, floaty body motions that make the driver wonder who is in charge. Instead, the Odyssey is supremely friendly, sort of the Golden Retriever of minivans.

The Odyssey gets its power from a slightly improved version of the 2.2-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine used in the Accord. It is rated at 140 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 145 foot-pounds of torque at 4,600 rpm, which is not much for a vehicle with a curb weight of roughly 3,450 pounds. One might guess the little 2.2-liter would make Sisyphus' job in the original rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame seem easy.

But the Odyssey has perfectly adequate acceleration, at least with the two adults it carried during our daylong drive over hilly terrain. It was relatively smooth, especially for a four-cylinder, but the automatic's upshifts were too abrupt and jerky for it to be considered a world-class transmission.

The little four-cylinder should be perfectly adequate for most day-to-day chores. One adult, three or four kids. No problem.

However, load the Odyssey with the six adults it is capable of carrying, and most drivers will probably covet the V-6s found in such prime competitors as the Mercury Villager, Ford Windstar and Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan.

The brakes use four-wheel discs, and anti-lock is standard on both models.

All in all, Honda's first entry in the minivan wars is not going to devastate its American competition. After all, we are talking about 30,000 vehicles a year. But the Odyssey does show that Honda can deliver what American consumers want: safety items such as dual air bags and anti-lock brakes, and nimble, carlike manners.