In the 1990s, Japanese auto makers began awkwardly nibbling the edges of the minivan market.

The first-generation '95 Honda Odyssey had four conventional doors, which made it less of a minivan and more like today's Ford Freestyle cross/utility vehicle. And remember the quirky Toyota Previa? If you're like most consumers, you don't.

Meanwhile, Chrysler Corp. was setting the segment on fire with its Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country minivans.

But the Japanese have learned from their mistakes. The second-generation Odyssey, launched in 1998, did extremely well, and Toyota Sienna deliveries are up dramatically with the debut of the all-new '04 model.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s third-generation Odyssey arrives now in the U.S., and the OEM is eyeing the luxury end of the segment, which for years has been the exclusive domain of Chrysler's Town & Country. It appears Chrysler has cause for concern.

The '05 Odyssey comes in four trim levels, and the Touring model at the top is loaded with premium features: Michelin PAX run-flat tires, leather, power adjustable pedals, power liftgate, tire-pressure monitoring and 6-disc CD changer.

The only options are a second-row DVD player with personal surround sound and an improved navigation system that comes with satellite radio and voice recognition. In year one, Honda expects the new Touring model to make up 15% of 160,000 Odyssey sales.

Pricing has not yet been announced, but Honda warns a modest increase is likely, to about $25,000 for the base LX model and $34,000 for the Touring model.

Regardless of trim levels, the all-new Odyssey is an outstanding minivan. It is well endowed with safety features that are standard on all models, including 3-row side-curtain airbags with rollover sensors, brake assist for added pressure during panic stops and 4-wheel antilock brakes with electronic stability control and traction control.

The Odyssey is the first North American vehicle to employ Honda's new Advanced Compatibility Engineering body structure, which allows the front end to crumple more readily in the event of a collision. But the Odyssey's ability to dissipate crash energy does not diminish the minivan's rigidity on the road — or even the race track.

True, our drive of the new Odyssey included lap time at the new Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, AL — not far from Honda's all-new Odyssey assembly plant in Lincoln. The minivan was nimble, downright grunty on long straightaways and surprisingly flat in tight corners.

Like its predecessor, the new Odyssey employs a front strut/rear double-wishbone suspension and power rack-and-pinion steering. The new Odyssey is firm and stable enough to keep the interest of a driver who prefers sport sedans, yet smooth enough to satisfy traditional minivan buyers.

The Odyssey's 3.5L SOHC V-6 is not new, but its output jumps from 240 hp to 255 hp in the new model. And the Odyssey places Honda at the forefront of the latest powertrain trend. On the Touring and EX with leather models, the Odyssey's V-6 comes equipped with Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), an intelligent valvetrain that deactivates three of the six cylinders during cruising to boost fuel economy from 19 mpg (12.3 L/100 km) to 20 mpg (11.7L/100 km) in city driving and from 25 mpg (9.4L/100 km) to 28 mpg (8.3L/100 km) on the highway.

Inside, even the most discerning gearhead cannot tell when the Odyssey is running on one bank of cylinders, as the system is remarkably responsive to throttle inputs.

Engines with cylinder deactivation inherently suffer from excessive vibration. But the Odyssey has an Active Noise Control system, which uses a controller with a microphone in the cabin to detect the booming associated with cylinder deactivation and then instructs the audio system's speakers to emit “anti-noise” to cancel out the unwanted sound.

The interior is nicely appointed. A stowable second-row “Plus One” seat, positioned between the outboard captain's chairs, allows space for eight passengers. When not in use, the seat folds flat and doubles as a center console.

'05 Honda Odyssey Touring

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 7-passenger 5-door minivan

Engine: 3.5L (3,471 cc) SOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 255 hp @ 5,750 rpm

Torque: 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm

Compression ratio: 10:1

Bore × stroke (mm): 89 × 93

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 118.1 ins. (300 cm)

Overall length: 201 ins. (511 cm)

Overall width: 77.1 ins. (196 cm)

Overall height: 68.8 ins. (175 cm)

Curb weight: 4,634 lbs. (2,103 kg)

Market competition: Chrysler Town & Country; Nissan Quest; Toyota Sienna