Minivans are all about happy, active families enjoying time together on the road. While Mom and Dad listen to CDs through the audio system, 2.7 kids watch DVD movies in the back. And for all the Sponge Bob backpacks and Paddington Bear duffles, there's flexible storage space galore.
So it may surprise folks that the subtext for all these cheery marketing images is one of total warfare being waged among rival minivan manufacturers.
For 2004, over 1,000,000 minivans are likely to be sold; and a full quarter of these will be budget-minded versions of the Dodge Caravan. At the pricier end of the spectrum (i.e., $25,000+), Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Chrysler are punching themselves silly vying for market share with their Odyssey, Sienna, Quest and Town & Country minivans, respectively.
Last year, the 2003 Odyssey was the sales champ by a large margin, with Town & Country second, Sienna third. Not so this year: Through July, Toyota's minivan sales are almost 10 percent ahead of Honda's, 23 percent ahead of Chrysler's.
Sienna's comprehensive redesign for 2004 has apparently worked, and Quest is also picking up steam with its own makeover model. Town & Country's incorporation this year of innovative flat-folding second- and third-row seats hasn't proved as compelling as Chrysler must have hoped. Honda has played coy for most of 2004. With the September 22 showroom debut of a completely redesigned 2005 Odyssey, Honda is hoping to slingshot back into the lead.
This all-new minivan, in other words, is going for all the marbles. The '05 Odyssey is techie, versatile, sporty, roomy, fuel-efficient and clean-green. And its prices, still unannounced at press time, are promised to fall within a $25,000 to $34,000 range.
Odyssey is now an eight-occupant minivan, when the optional PlusOne seat is installed between the second-row captain's chairs. It fits in place like a small jump seat with integral three-point seatbelt and head restraint, and when not required, its stows unobtrusively underfloor. There are important increases in rear legroom. The third row seats, in fact, are particularly adult-friendly, even for long drives. The third-row bench will seat three when necessary or fold into two sections (60/40). With one hand, these spring-loaded MagicFold seat sections roll backward then fold floor-level flat into a capacious cargo well. All told, cargo capacities total 38 cu. ft. behind row three; 91 cu. ft. behind row two; and 147 cu. ft. with the third row folded and the second row seats removed from the vehicle.
Comparatively, Town & Country scores in terms of convenience with its new Stow 'n' Go system for flat-folding seats that don't need to be removed. But whereas its total cargo capacity is best-in-class, its intermediate storage spaces (26 cubic feet behind row three; 54 cubic feet behind row two) are surprisingly puny. Sienna and Quest split the difference with capacities of 44/95/149 cu. ft. and 33/88/149 cu. ft., respectively.
Of the four Odyssey models available, two ("LX" and "EX") will use Honda's 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam V6 with VTEC variable valve timing. The other two ("EX with Leather" and "Touring") use the same motor, but with a refinement dubbed i-VTEC. At the heart of i-VTEC is a fascinating technology called Variable Cylinder Management that alternates seamlessly between engine power produced with all six or just three cylinders.
Both motors produce 255 horsepower and 250 ft.-lbs. of torque, and i-VTEC drivers will never know whether three or six cylinders are firing unless they notice the indicator illuminated in the instrument panel. It's all in the interest of better fuel economy and cleaner emissions, of course. Just the same, the mileage gains are somewhat anticlimactic: 19 mpg/city, 25 mpg highway for VTEC; 20 mpg/city, 28 mpg/highway for i-VTEC.
Because an inline three-cylinder motor (i.e., one-half of the V6 layout) is inherently prone to noisy vibration, Honda engineers have equipped the i-VTEC Odyssey models with a pair of countermeasures. Electro-hydraulic motor mounts actively compensate for split-second shifts of engine position due to vibration by expanding and contracting at microsecond intervals.
Then, by means of something called Active Noise Control, the cabin is literally scoured clean of extraneous noise. Using frequency-phase technology, a hidden microphone in the Odyssey constantly samples interior noise and, via computer, "instructs" audio system speakers to produce sub-audible frequencies of "anti-noise" that cancel offending sounds.
The effect is uncanny silence within a hollow minivan capsule that otherwise might reverberate like a giant bass drum on wheels. Occupants notice nothing, and ANC is at work whether the sound system is on or off. Cryptically, however, Honda's press materials incorporate the following subtle caveat: "The system will not counteract voices inside the cabin whether desired or not [emphasis added]."
Four-wheel disc brakes and fully independent suspension endow this van with fine road manners and the responsive, sporty handling of an Acura sedan. What's more, the center-console-mounted gear shifter is finally out of the way when the driver reaches for the radio. Yet Odyssey is a vehicle for passengers' enjoyment as much as for the driver's. As if to prove the point, second-row riders get retracting windows in the sliding doors; and a sub-floor "lazy Susan" storage well measuring 2.6 cubic feet is well within reach of both front- and second-row occupants.
Honda, of course, touts this rotating tray as a great way to keep Baby Jack's toys segregated from Baby Jill'sand out of sight into the bargain. You could even say that this innovative lazy Susan tray symbolizes Honda's determination not to settle for anything less than all the marbles with its new Odyssey minivan. Keep in mind, though, that no amount of fancy noise control yet devised can combat the racket of Jack's pocket-full of cat's eyes when he's poured them down the storage well.