The minivan market share may have shrivelled in the slipstream generated by stylish, trendy crossovers usurping its family vehicle role but there are still eight brands of these people-and-cargo-carrying champs available.
They're all chasing a North American market that has collapsed from about a million sales in 2005 to some 400,000 last year and seen General Motors and Ford drop out.
But 400,000 vehicles is still, well, a lot. And some industry seers predict that number will grow to the half-million mark again in a couple of years. This makes it more than worthwhile for Honda, Chrysler, Dodge, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen to scramble for a share.
Clearly, the minivan still has market legs and proof of that is the Honda Odyssey. It is celebrating its 15th anniversary and Honda's party includes the introduction of an all-new 2011 model this fall.
That means dealerships will be diligently striving to move their 2010 inventory, which, along with all the other enticements designed to get shoppers into showrooms, likely means good deals are available on the current model.
Knowing Honda, the new Odyssey should offer several worthwhile improvements, including more aero-styling and the "lightning-bolt beltline" seen on the concept version shown at recent car shows. But it will still conform closely to the basic specification that has evolved since Honda got into the game in 1995; that first model was too small, underpowered and had hinged rear doors.
All those issues were addressed by the time the third-generation Odyssey arrived in 2005 in time to win the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's Canadian Truck of the Year award.
It received a mid-cycle re-do for 2008, but little changes for the 2010 model, just some alterations to the entertainment system, and the addition of a 115v power outlet.
Canadians can shop for a basic minivan in the mid-to-high $20K range, but pricing ramps up rapidly from there and Honda has pretty much always positioned the Odyssey in the premium segment. Pricing for 2010 starts at $31,690 for the DX, jumps to $37,790 for the SE and to $41,390 for the EX-L. The line-topping Touring we'll look at here goes for $49,690.
The Odyssey is among the most stylish of this inherently homely breed. There's not a lot you can do to make a big box that can carry eight passengers or 4,173 litres of stuff look sexy, but Honda stylists have at least made it attractive and distinctive.
They've also given it a style, feel and functionality inside that exudes quality if not outright luxury - although the Touring's leather trim and a wide array of features add to the high-end atmosphere.
Up front, instruments are bright and clear and are viewed through a nicely padded wheel with audio and cruise control, which is reached from a power-adjustable, two-position memory seat shaped to keep you comfortable with good lateral support.
Luxury level gear inside includes all the expected power assists and convenience items, power side doors, voice recognition, rear view camera, navigation, rear DVD entertainment system, tri-zone climate control, power pedals, multi-information display and a really good audio system. The myriad buttons and knobs that operate all of the above take more than a little figuring out.
Centre and rear seats perform all sorts of easy-to-accomplish changes to seat six (a tight squeeze in the rear) or haul various amounts of cargo, with access via a power-operated hatch.
A full battery of airbag systems are provided in case you do something indiscreet enough that the four disc brakes with ABS and electronic stability control system can't keep you out of trouble. It also has a five-star safety rating.
At highway speeds the cargo-container-sized cabin is quiet enough and the ride is fairly supple given the degree of springing firmness required to make it handle with confidence. Like every other minivan, at heart it's a big, tall, heavy, front-drive under-steering pig when pushed a little beyond its comfort zone. The only "sporty" feature I could find that might add to the Touring's handling was its P235/60 R17 tires (other models get P235/65R17s).
Speaking of hefty ungulates, the Touring weighs in at a porky 2,107 kilograms. This asks a lot of the 3.5-litre V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission tucked into the nose, but this single-overhead-cam engine - rated at 244 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque - is up to the job. It can get the Odyssey from 0-100 km/h in less than nine seconds and provides decent mid-range acceleration for passing or merging.
The engine also has a Variable Cylinder Management system that can deactivate two or three cylinders to improve fuel economy, rated at 12.3L/100 km city and 7.8L/100 km highway. A green "eco" light on the dash reminds you to drive with a light foot; however, the on-board display showed a mediocre 13.8 L/100 km average. Thankfully, it's happy with regular gas.
Odyssey has a well-earned reputation as a much-coveted minivan. And it's still worth considering, even as a new one looms on the horizon.
2010 HONDA ODYSSEY TOURING
TYPE: Luxury minivan
BASE PRICE: $49,690; as tested $49,690
ENGINE: 3.5-litre, SOHC, V-6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 244 hp/ 245 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: Five-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY (litres/100 km): 12.3 city/ 7.8 highway; regular gas
ALTERNATIVES: Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan, Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna, Volkswagen Routan, Kia Sedona, Hyundai Entourage
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