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Personal Finance > Autos

Minivan smackdown
MONEY: 2005 Honda Odyssey blends value, convenience, safety in what may be the ultimate minivan.
September 8, 2004: 11:59 AM EDT

Compare four top minivans by style, features and cost.

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - Ladies and gentlemen, a new cup-holder record. The 2005 Honda Odyssey will cuddle 17 beverages in its top-shelf Touring model, a mere 15 in other versions. Even that's enough for seven two-fisted passengers, plus a bottle for baby.

Now the cup-holder count is possibly the least salient detail of this remarkably engineered Honda, but it does show the lengths to which minivan makers will go to top one another.

In less than a year, we've plunked our own juice boxes into a quartet of redesigned minivans. Some are impressive, like the Toyota Sienna; some are not, like the warmed-over Ford Freestar.

But none of them advance the art of family transportation quite like the new Odyssey. From the curb you could easily overlook the thorough upgrades from the 2004 model. Styling changes are what automakers like to call "evolutionary," meaning it would take most people 10,000 years to see the difference.

However, in price, performance, safety, comfort, fuel economy, interior design, environmental friendliness and projected resale value, this Odyssey is a hero of Homeric proportions.

Beginning Sept. 22, when dealers unwrap the 2005 model, the Alabama-built Odyssey will rank as a top value in its class. While pricing hasn't been set to the penny, Honda plausibly claims it has added an average of $3,000 worth of features to 2005 models, yet will keep prices roughly in line with the '04s.

2005 Honda Odyssey  
2005 Honda Odyssey

That means a base LX model starting at approximately $25,000, an EX out the door for under $30,000 and the new high-end Touring edition from about $34,000, maintaining Honda's high-value reputation.

To see what you get for that money, let's begin with the power train: The 3.5-liter V-6 develops a hearty 255 hp, up 15 from the 2004. Joined to a smooth five-speed transmission, the 6 provides best-in-class horsepower, acceleration and -- paradoxically -- mileage.

Credit for the miserly fuel consumption (20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway) goes in large part to Honda's variable cylinder management (VCM) technology, which seamlessly shuts down three of the engine's six cylinders when the car is coasting. The process boosts economy by two or three miles a gallon -- not earth-shattering but still a concrete gain in what is, at up to 4,700 pounds, the nation's chubbiest minivan.

And seamless is the right word: When those cylinders take a nap, active engine mounts nullify vibration and a sound-canceling signal zaps through the audio system. The on/off cycle is imperceptible.

Unfortunately, cylinder shutoff is available only on the two priciest models, the EX with leather and the Touring edition. The standard engine is just as powerful but thirstier (19 city/25 hwy.).

Out on the road, the Odyssey's precise handling tops competitors like the Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Town & Country. Steering is sharper and sportier than the Toyota's but not annoyingly, artificially heavy like the Nissan's. Minivans are often disparaged as dull and anesthetic, yet the Honda feels more nimble and carlike than most any SUV of comparable size and utility.

Then you have the new Odyssey's comprehensive gains in convenience and safety. The 1999 model literally floored the competition by pioneering the "magic" third-row bench seat that disappears flat into the floor. Toyota's latest Sienna one-upped Honda with a lighter and more versatile split-folding seat.

The 2005 Odyssey replies with its own 60-40 split third row. The new seat takes less than half as much effort to lift as the bulky original, no longer requires removing the headrests and folds away with one hand.

Road noise, a modest flaw of the outgoing model, has been solved with generous sound-absorptive materials. The Odyssey's second-row windows roll down, a minivan rarity. A "conversation" mirror lets a parent monitor back-seat mischief without turning around.

The second-row seats, a pair of captain's chairs on most Odyssey models, also slide forward 10 inches to give parents an easy reach to kids in back. Those chairs don't fold away as in the latest Nissan and Chrysler vans -- you have to remove them to max out cargo space -- but they are more comfortable than the competition's.

For the first time the Odyssey also offers an eight-passenger version, but only in EX models. Its second-row, three-passenger bench features a clever middle seat that can recline, double as a table or pop out and stow under the floor, clearing a path to the third row.

Safety first

In safety, Honda recently proclaimed its intent to set the industry pace when it comes to standard gear. So the Odyssey comes with standard side air bags and side-curtain air bags with rollover sensors in all three rows. Anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control are also standard; the latter is a must-have on tall-riding minivans and SUVs.

Along with the new Acura RL sedan, the Odyssey is the first Honda in North America with a special advanced compatibility engineering (ACE) structure. It's designed to reduce injuries to occupants of smaller cars or to an unfortunate pedestrian.

That top-shelf version piles on the extras, including bigger wheels, a power rear liftgate, tri-zone climate control, adjustable driver's pedals, a DVD player with a nine-inch screen and remote control, a 360-watt, six-CD audio system and Michelin run-flat tires with pressure monitor. Thus equipped, the van could easily be relabeled a luxury Acura and no one would quibble.

The Touring model's only option is the navigation system, which simply tops any we've tested at any price. It offers the most intuitive graphics and directions, and a voice-recognition system that understands 637 spoken functions, including audio and climate controls. Its DVD-based database maps from 7 million U.S. points of interest (double that of many competing systems), along with 1.7 million city and street addresses.

Where every other nav system forces you to scroll through cities and laboriously type names and addresses, the Honda lets you simply ask to go home: I just said my street address out loud, and the system found it, mapped the route and set the course. Incredible.

It's not easy to get excited about minivans, but the Honda raises our pulse with its winning design, performance and practicality. American families will soon be toasting the Odyssey throughout suburbia.

And, of course, when they're done toasting, they'll have a truly epic number of places to put their cups.  Top of page

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