SAN DIEGO – American Honda Motor Co. Inc. hopes to capitalize on an evolving minivan market with its new ’11 Odyssey.

When the former Chrysler Corp. launched the first modern minivan in 1983, it was an instant hit, filling the need of the ruling generation of Baby Boomers looking to haul their ever-expanding families.

Fast forward to 2010 and the Boomers now are grandparents, more likely to purchase a tiny B-car than a 7-passenger minivan.

Although new generations have stepped up, the need for the functionality offered by a minivan continues to be strong, says Art St. Cyr, chief engineer for the ’11 Honda Odyssey.

“The families that are now buying minivans are predominately Gen X and Y,” St. Cyr tells Ward’s at a recent Odyssey preview here. “It’s the first generation that actually grew up with the minivan.”

Younger generations still seek the family friendly characteristics of the minivan, but they also demand more than their Boomer parents, especially when it comes to style and performance.

To accommodate these new customers, Honda designers strayed from the boxy design that permeates most of the segment, opting for a tapered cabin and “lightning bolt” beltline.

In addition to improving the view for third-row passengers, the unorthodox zigzagging beltline lends a degree of sportiness to the new Odyssey, Honda officials say.

Under the hood, a beefed up 3.5L V-6 provides the performance Gen X and Y buyers crave.

Although the V-6 basically is the same one used in the ’10 Odyssey, Honda engineers have wrung out an additional 4 hp and 5 lb.-ft. (7 Nm) of torque, upping output to 248 hp and 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm). “We really focused on improving the mid-range torque for drivability,” St. Cyr says.

In keeping with the family friendly approach, engineers also concentrated on safety.

The new Odyssey’s body structure is 59% composed of high-strength steel, which “made the roof crush and side intrusion (ratings) stronger and the body stiffer,” St. Cyr says. “And we did it all with 2.2 lbs. (12.5 kg) less weight in our body-on-white.”

Quality was another focus, leading to key changes in the early development. Increased collaboration between vehicle engineers and line assemblers at Honda’s Lincoln, AL, plant where the Odyssey is built, helped ensure topnotch quality, he says.

Advice was solicited from the assemblers on how best to build the Odyssey. This strategy did away with assembly methods that were cumbersome, labor intensive and potentially could negatively affect quality.

One change was the way in which the van’s brake pedals were installed.

“With the current Odyssey, you have to lay on your back on the floor of the cabin and shoot a bolt straight up,” St. Cyr says, noting the method is not ergonomic and a “little bit hard” for assemblers.

Workers now are able to install the pedals while standing upright, using a pass-through in the instrument panel.

Perhaps the Odyssey’s best-selling point is its interior enhancements, including a “3-mode,” second-row seat design that allows the outboard seats to slide 1.5 ins. (3.8 cm) toward the body of the minivan to accommodate three passengers.

Also new for ’11 is a 16.2-in. (41.1-cm) rear-seat, split-screen display and an auxiliary high-definition multi-media interface video input.

The Odyssey’s third-row seats fold flat, while the second row can be removed for extra hauling space. St. Cyr says folding-flat second-row seats, like those offered by Chrysler Group LLC, represent a trade-off Honda was reluctant to make.

“There are some major compromises you have to do,” he says. “Your cushions have to be flat and thin. It was more important for us to have a seat that people were comfortable to sit in.”

Although the minivan has undergone improvements, the segment sales continue to suffer from the economic recession and the popularity of cross/utility vehicles.

The stigma long attached to minivans as “soccer mom” vehicles still is an issue, although it has died down somewhat, St. Cyr says. In analyzing the segment, Honda marketers broke it down into three consumer groups – “minivan adopters, rejecters and hesitators.”

The rejecters are a lost cause, but the adopters are a sure thing and the hesitators are a potential conquest group.

“We want to capture those hesitators before they move to (CUVs),” St. Cyr says. “How do we do that? We looked at the current-generation Odyssey and visualized what attracted (consumers).

“There’s the left side of the brain that cares about fuel economy, safety, value; and there is the right, emotional side (that wants) more styling and performance. We used that to deliver both rational and emotional appeal.”

Erik Berkman, vice president-corporate planning and logistics, says Honda expects to sell about 110,000 copies of the ’11 Odyssey a year but warns the economic recovery “is slower than we’d like to see.”

The minivan market is poised for healthy growth, although it’s unlikely to ever return to its heyday, he says, noting the segment should increase to 600,000 units annually by 2012.

The segment’s best year was 2000, when 1,228,090 units were sold, according to Ward’s data. The minvan’s share of the overall U.S. market crested in 1994, when the segment accounted for 8.1% of all light vehicles.

Just 424,007 units were sold in the U.S. last year, down from 592,000 in 2008. Through August, 321,950 minivans were delivered.

In terms of volume, Berkman says the Odyssey has been in a “horse race” with the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. Through August, Honda sold 71,584 Odysseys, compared with the Caravan’s 66,897 and Town & Country’s 78,492.

However, those two vehicles are not considered the top threat to the Odyssey. Rather, it’s the Toyota Sienna that is most often cross-shopped against the Honda offering.

St. Cyr says Odyssey buyers rarely frequent Chrysler showrooms, noting a vast difference in age, education and income levels between the two consumer groups.

Honda data shows the average Odyssey buyer is 48 years old. Some 93% are married, 69% have a college education and the annual household income is $105,000.

In comparison, Town & Country buyers are 60 years old, with 89% married. Only 47% have a college education, and median household income is $80,000.

The ’11 Honda Odyssey, which offers seven trim levels – LX, EX, EX-L, EX-L with Navigation, EX-L with rear-entertainment system, Touring and Touring Elite – goes on sale in late September.

Pricing ranges from $27,800 for the LX to $43,250 for the top-of-the-line Touring Elite, not including a $780 destination and delivery charge.

bpope@wardsauto.com