- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Compelled to buy a minivan for the first time, a female friend recently was lamenting the move from sportier cars to family transportation. In this case, it wasn’t a recent birth motivating the change, although she does have a 6-year-old daughter, but the realization that nothing but a minivan can truly accommodate the family’s Great Dane that rides to and from the family-owned business every day. It made mincemeat of the cargo area in the family’s Dodge Magnum, which is really too small for the task anyway.

Because a minivan has never been on her buying radar, she didn’t realize how far the minivan has come. Not only has she been surprised by the convenience and versatility of power sliding doors and seating that disappears into the cargo floor, but the high degree of luxury available in some top-end models.

“Perhaps,” she reflected, “buying a minivan isn’t the trip into driving purgatory I thought it would be.” Welcome to the modern minivan.

I provided to her my short list of recommendations, and no such list is complete without the Honda Odyssey. Yes, it can be relatively bare-bones transportation when in its $29,495 LX guise. Even here, however, it has power windows, cruise control, air conditioning, and an audio system with a CD player and auxiliary input jack for personal entertainment devices. For my friend’s lifestyle and needs, the Touring trim levels at the top of the Odyssey food chain hold more attraction.

If you don’t grow faint at the thought of a $40,645 minivan, the Touring has all the bells and whistles an on-the-go young family or luxury rolling dog pound require. In addition to the usual wide array of power accessories, it features a GPS navigation system with rear back-up camera, a DVD-based rear entertainment system with wireless headphones and nine-inch color monitor, leather seating, an up-level audio system with subwoofer, XM satellite radio and six-disc CD changer, Bluetooth hands-free setup, power side sliding doors, and tri-zone automatic climate control.

Drivers who don’t want to find themselves stranded on the side of a busy Interstate, or do a lot of night driving, or find themselves driving out in the boonies a fair amount of the time might want to pony up another $600 for the Touring Pax trim level. This includes four Michelin Pax-system run-flat tires. This technology retains tire sidewall rigidity when a flat occurs, permitting the vehicle to be driven up to 100 miles before changing the tire. The downside is that these tires can’t be repaired and are more difficult to find than an outspoken Republican in Hollywood.

All Odyssey versions find their get-up-and-go in a 3.5-liter V6. In the Touring, as well the EX-L editions, it generates 241 horsepower and 242 pounds-feet of peak torque. Although they have the 3.5-liter engine, the numbers are slightly different in the LX and EX models. This is because the higher-end versions also have Variable Cylinder Management or VCM, which is Honda-speak for its cylinder deactivation system that shuts down some cylinders while cruising. A five-speed automatic transmission moves engine output to the front wheels. It’s a pure automatic; there is no driver-shift mode. Fuel economy is as good as it gets in a V6-powered minivan of this size with an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Typically minivans aren’t called on to do much towing. With its car-based suspension and layout, the Odyssey can pull about 3,500 pounds. Its ride is much more closely related to a big sedan’s than a truck’s. The ride is quiet and smooth. The four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system features electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, traction control and stability control. Inside safety equipment includes side head-curtain airbags for all three rows of seats.

The Touring’s cabin is luxurious and carefully laid out with most controls confined to the center stack. The gearshift lever protrudes from the dashboard just to the right of the steering wheel. The only nit to pick with the controls is the location of the audio controls low down on the center stack. This inconvenient positioning is somewhat mitigated by the redundant steering wheel-mounted controls.

The pedals are electronically adjustable to aid in finding exactly the right driving position. A fold-away center tray between the front bucket seats invites easy access to the second-row seat (eight-passenger configuration) or the second and third-row seats (seven-passenger configuration). The third-row seat reclines and can be manually folded flat with the cargo floor. With all three rows of seats in place, the Odyssey can haul 38.4 cubic-feet of cargo. Folding the third row into the floors ups the cargo capacity to 91.1 cubic-feet. The maximum cargo space behind the front seats is 147 cubic-feet. The power rear door on the Touring and the low lift-over makes easy work of utilizing the cargo hold.

Although minivans remain more of a need than a want, and they still don’t do much to enhance one’s self image, they are certainly the answer when transportation needs require multiple seating or varying amounts of weatherproof cargo hauling. Luxury is also available with all of the passenger convenience features that entails. Driving in purgatory? Not so much.

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