Back to that benchmark fuel-economy claim: Cylinder deactivation now comes on all grades, along with lower internal friction, reduced accessory drive loading, and a new dual-stage intake manifold that broadens the torque curve and boosts power by 4 horses and torque by 5 pound-feet (bringing the totals to 248 horses and 250 pound-feet). In LX, EX, and EX-L models, drive flows through Honda's five-speed automatic, upgraded with a taller sixth gear. Tourings get the new six-speed two-shaft non-planetary automatic from the ZDX and MDX. Tire rolling resistance improves by 8 percent for both 17- and 18-inch (Touring) tires. EPA city/highway figures jump from 16-17/23-25 to 18-19/27-28, topping even Toyota's four-banger Sienna as the most miserly mainstream minivan. That's even better than sister Laura's 3500-pound, 140-horse Odyssey could manage. (At 18/24 mpg on today's scale, it also set the efficiency benchmark in its day.)

Performance and handling may rank pretty far down on the list of mommymobile priorities, but Honda strove to improve these areas, too. Acceleration feels considerably brisker with the six-speed, and stopping distances are improved by upsizing the rotors an inch all around. The aforementioned weight loss is attributable to a body structure now composed of 59-percent high-strength steel, which pays the added dividend of a 22-percent improvement in body rigidity. Of greater importance are the strengthened subframe mounts that allowed many of the suspension bushings to be softened for improved ride quality and lower noise. Finally, a new variable-displacement power-steering pump provides variable effort with much of the fuel-economy benefit of electric assist at a fraction of the price.

So how does it all work, and, more important, would I recommend this Honda to replace Sis's '97? It makes an indisputably spectacular vacationmobile. I feel completely comfortable in every seat, save the wider but slightly too-firm middle-row center. In the third row, I'd wish for more thigh support, but the added 1.1 inch of legroom and the more open shoulder environment are welcome. (I have to move the middle-seat forward to sit in the rear of the Sienna.) The ceiling air vents are too close to my face in the outboard seats (especially with the middle in wide-mode), so dried-out eyes are a concern. The way the seats flip, fold, and slide seems top-notch, though muscling the 49-pound middle seats out to carry drywall could be taxing. Commuting between rows on disciplinary missions now requires leaving parts home in the garage, but with all that entertainment onboard, maybe siblings will no longer rival. Honda doesn't offer the Sienna's Barcalounger footrests, and I prefer the interior ambiance of the top Toyota's wood and chrome to Odyssey Touring Elite's soft-touch tech plastics.