The shift to SUVs in the 1990s, combined with recession and rising gasoline prices in the 2000s, has left only three main contenders in the minivan market: the Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town and Country duo; the Toyota Sienna and this week's subject, the Honda Odyssey, redesigned for the 2011 model year.
All are strong contenders: They drive well, considering a typical weight of about 4,000 pounds; they seat at least seven people in three rows. All will happily swallow a giant-screen TV still in its box without so as much as a burp. All are replete with storage cubbies and cupholders and are available with rear-seat entertainment systems to keep the kids quiet.
The Odyssey has going for it Honda's reputation for good-quality vehicles -- just as the Sienna is one of many Toyotas that get high marks from the likes of Consumer Reports based on reader experiences.
The Chryslers, however, have been perennial bad boys in the magazine's ratings. J.D. Power and Associates, on the other hand, deems the Honda, Dodge and Chrysler minivans about average in dependability over three years of ownership and in quality in the first three months but says the Sienna beats them all in both categories.
I averaged in the low 20s on gas mileage in the Odyssey tester. The Environmental Protection Agency says to expect up to 28 mpg on highways on regular gas -- 3 mpg more than a Sienna with only four cylinders and 2 mpg better than a Grand Caravan with the standard 3.6-liter V-6.
On sale since September, the 2011 Odyssey begins at about $28,600 with freight.
Engine and transmission are essentially carryovers from the previous model, although for 2011 the topmost Touring models, like my tester, get a new, more economical six-speed gearbox instead of a five-speed. The new model is about 2 inches wider, and so is its "track."
A new "three-mode" design for the second row lets you expand the distance between the seats to increase comfort. The second-row middle seat in most equipment levels now can move forward, which brings child seats within easier reach of a parent in the first row.
The 2011 Odyssey gets a topmost, five-star safety rating from the federal government. It is rated "good" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 248 hp.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front wheel drive.
Safety: Six air bags; 4-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, stability control and brake assist; tire pressure monitoring; fog and daytime running lamps; rearview camera; obstacle detection and warning; blind spot warning; heated outside mirrors; tire pressure monitoring.
Place of assembly: Lincoln, Ala.
Cargo room: min/max: 38.4 / 147.4 cubic feet.
EPA fuel economy estimates: 19 mpg city, 28 highway.
Price as driven: $44,030 with freight.
Bottom line: One of the best in a small class.