2003 Honda Odyssey EX L-RES
Honda has been producing the current Odyssey since 1999. Since then, this minivan's content and features have improved only slightly when compared with its competitors. What has remained constant is a bargain price for a lot of space and the peace of mind that comes with every Honda product. That's why we're calling the Odyssey the defender of the Japanese-branded/American-built minivan competitive set--and the one to beat.

In Honda nomenclature, EX represents the topline model, and L-RES indicates a new option, grouping Leather with a Rear Entertainment System. The base price is $29,900, and destination and handling charges bring the as-tested price to just $30,360. A cloth-trimmed, steel-wheeled, modestly equipped LX example can be had for $24,860. Our tester was blessed with every power accessory in the Honda repertoire except the optional navigation system.

A 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower V-6 is the only engine currently available in an Odyssey. It's aided by Honda's version of variable-valve timing to offer low-end torque and high-rev horsepower. All three minivans have similar powertrain architecture, engineering, and efficiency. The Odyssey's mileage is rated at 18 mpg in city driving and 25 on the highway, while emissions are kept to low-emissions-vehicle standards. The Quest also is rated at 18/25 mpg and it, too, is an LEV. Toyota trumps them both with 19/27 mpg and a ULEV EPA rating. The Odyssey's power delivery is more linear (less peaky) than we've grown to expect from SOHC VTEC-equipped Hondas, but it's the least transparent among this group.

Power is routed through a five-speed automatic with effective, grade-logic programming. While this transmission is intelligent and smooth, the steering-column shifter draws complaints. Moving the dashboard-obscuring lever from Park to any gear (or among fifth, fourth, or third on the fly) is frustrating because the resistance between gears is greater than the detents that define them; it's difficult to select the desired gear on the first attempt without zipping right past it, sometimes twice. It's a small blemish on an otherwise polished presentation, but it's been like that for as long as we can remember. The Nissan and Toyota feature fore/aft navigation through the gears from their dashboard consoles.

The Odyssey has a hard, slender steering wheel that doesn't offer a connected feel to the road, but the chassis itself is still responsive by minivan standards. Though more capable than one might expect, the Odyssey is by no means silent doing its work--especially under full throttle--despite sound-isolation materials that were bulked up in recent years. Road grain, engine, and some wind noise still get through; these annoyances are better isolated in the Nissan and Toyota.