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For Honda, the minivan had always been a blind spot. Although its Accord is one of America's favorite cars, Honda didn't even offer a minivan for years. When it finally came out with the quirky little Honda Odyssey four years ago, it missed the mark by a mile. Too small. Too weak. Not family friendly enough.

But Honda took its mistakes to heart and got to work, coming up with a 1999 Odyssey that shares only its name with its puny predecessor. Honda transformed it into the biggest vehicle it has ever produced. It's also the most powerful minivan on the road, packing a 210-horsepower V6 engine. Indeed, Honda figured out what no other Japanese minivan maker understands: To soccer moms and dads, size does matter.

That's a lesson Chrysler, learned long ago. The auto maker, now DaimlerChrysler, owns nearly half the U.S. minivan market, with its Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and Chrysler Town & Country. But with the reinvented Odyssey's debut, DaimlerChrysler is acting scared: On Nov. 20, it announced a $1,000 rebate on all its minivans.

FORMIDABLE FOE. Indeed, the Canadian-built Odyssey is a formidable foe for DaimlerChrysler. It meets or beats DaimlerChrysler's most dominant model, the Dodge Grand Caravan, by any measure. The Caravan has 168.4 cubic feet of interior space; the Odyssey has 170.7. The Caravan has six cup holders; Odyssey, nine. Each minivan model has storage bins aplenty, including a purse holder under the front passenger seat.

Honda also has gone to war on price. The old Odyssey started at $24,615 and climbed rapidly. The upsized replacement begins at $23,415, with few costly add-ons. Sure, that's still nearly $3,000 more than a base-model Grand Caravan, including the $1,000 rebate. But the Honda comes with several standard features, such as separate air conditioning controls for backseat passengers and a cassette stereo. The top-of-the line Odyssey EX goes for $26,215 and is packed with standard features such as dual power sliding doors, a power-adjustable driver's seat, and a CD stereo. By comparison, a loaded Toyota Sienna tops out at $30,784, but has 20 cubic-feet less cargo space.

The Odyssey's most ingenious feature is tucked away in the back: a third-row bench seat that, at the pull of a strap, collapses flat into a well in the floor. That means no more muscling cumbersome seats out of the minivan to make room for extra cargo. The third-row disappearing act allows the Odyssey to accommodate 4-by-8-foot plywood sheets.

The real measure of the Odyssey is the sporty ride and handling that is Honda's trademark. I was skeptical that Honda could engineer its spunky driving personality into a portly minivan. So while taking the family for a drive, I threw the Odyssey hard into a sharp turn. The only squealing came from my wife and three kids. The Odyssey gripped the road, with none of the unnerving wallowing, tipsy feel of most minivans.

Those precise road manners are what separates the Odyssey from the Grand Caravan and Ford's Windstar minivan. Ford overhauled the Windstar for the 1999 model year, finally adding an all-important fourth door (standard on the Odyssey), but only as a $350 option. The auto maker also has taken the unusual step of offering a $500 rebate on its freshly redesigned minivan. While Ford and Dodge have Honda beat in 0-to-60-mph acceleration, most minivan drivers don't drag race. The more appropriate attributes are the Odyssey's carlike handling and quiet ride.

The Odyssey scores style points for its angular, slightly menacing appearance, which Honda designers say was inspired by a medieval knight's armor. The Odyssey's edgy looks, along with its nimble handling, could finally unlock the secret to minivan success for Honda. Perhaps Honda has found a way to make the dowdy old minivan cool.

By Keith Naughton


Sizing Up the Competition

                 HONDA ODYSSEY
PRICE*           $23,415
ENGINE           3.5 liter V6, 210 hp
GAS MILEAGE      18 city/26 highway
LENGTH           201.2 inches
WIDTH            75.6 inches

                 DODGE GRAND CARAVAN
PRICE*           $21,720
ENGINE           3.3 liter V6, 158 hp
GAS MILEAGE      18 city/24 highway
LENGTH           199.6 inches
WIDTH            76.8 inches

                 FORD WINDSTAR
PRICE*           $24,590
ENGINE           3.8 liter V6, 200 hp
GAS MILEAGE      17 city/24 highway
LENGTH           200.9 inches
WIDTH            76.6 inches

                 TOYOTA SIENNA
PRICE*           $22,738
ENGINE           3.0 liter V6, 194 hp
GAS MILEAGE      18 city/24 highway
LENGTH           193.5 inches
WIDTH            73.4 inches

*Base price for four-door model

toyotasiennabw.jpg (11812 bytes)   1999 TOYOTA SIENNA

fordwindstarbw.jpg (8371 bytes) 1999 FORD WINDSTAR

hondaodysseybw5034.jpg (9312 bytes) HONDA ODYSSEY

dodgecaravanbw5046.jpg (9873 bytes) DODGE CARAVAN