The auto industry is fond of superlatives, most of which are misleading.
Take the matter of the 2005 Honda Odyssey minivan, whose various characteristics are described by Honda's marketers as "class-leading" and "unmatched" and "first minivan to use" and "first minivan with."
The point here is not to contend that the new Odyssey is a bad or marginal minivan. That would be silly.
What is arguable is that, as Honda's marketers claim, the new Odyssey minivan is better than the rest.
Look at the "class-leading" boast, as in "class-leading utility" and "class-leading third-row legroom." Honda uses the term to refer to minivans as a uniform class, as if all minivans were the same size and same configuration, built for identical families with identical needs. Used that way, "class-leading" ignores the reality that families with taller, more robustly built people probably will find more space for their bodies in the larger Toyota Sienna or Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
In my review of the Odyssey EX-L -- it stands for the EX with Leather, second only to the top-of-the-line Touring model in the four-model Odyssey line -- I enrolled members of a Northern Virginia family, owners of a 2003 Honda Odyssey, to help me form an opinion.
I'm not related to the Odyssey test family. I chose them because of their loyalty to Honda and their devotion to their Odyssey. As I often do, I also sampled opinions from my wife, Mary Anne, and some of her elementary-school teaching peers. It was interesting to see how their real-world assessments stacked up against the marketing hype.
Selected Honda marketing claim No. 1: "Class-leading third-row legroom -- up three inches from 2004 model."
The Odyssey test family disagreed, with the family's two teenagers and a sibling in his 20s saying that their 2003 Odyssey seemed to offer more space.
The test family was wrong on that score. But perception is reality in the consumer world, and no amount of factual cajoling could get them to change their assessment.
Selected claim No. 2: The new Odyssey offers "a more stylish and sophisticated package with the driving character of a luxury performance sedan for unmatched driving enjoyment in the minivan class."
Ria, head of the test family's household, disagreed with the "stylish" aspect of that claim in terms of exterior design. "It looks pretty much like mine," she said. But she was wowed by the interior treatment, especially the "cool" placement of the five-speed automatic gearshift lever atop the center console.
But all five members of Ria's family (as well as my wife and one of her teaching colleagues) agreed that the tested Odyssey -- a front-wheel-drive vehicle with a more rigid body frame, a better suspension system and a more powerful six-cylinder engine than predecessor models -- drove more like a luxury sedan.
"I don't even feel like I'm in a minivan when I'm driving this one," Ria said. "This feels like a big, expensive car." Said Mary Anne: "It handles. It really, really handles."
Everybody liked the new Odyssey's Lazy Susan, cleverly placed beneath a trap door between the front and second-row seats. By rotating the device -- which sometimes got stuck in the tested minivan -- passengers in the front two rows could put away or gain access to small items stored there. But there was much grumbling that Honda, which invented fold-away third-row seats, did not match the new Chrysler Town & Country's fold-away "Stow 'n Go" seats in the second and third rows. The new Odyssey has a tiny, center fold-away seat in the second row. But no one chose to use that seat. It was shunned by even the smallest member of Ria's family, Q (yes, "Q" is his name), who asked: "Why is it there? What is it for?" I had no answer.
But that perceived Honda lapse was forgiven because of the new Odyssey's long list of "first minivan with" safety technologies, such as side-curtain air bags with rollover sensors that protect all three rows of seats.
"First minivan with" also applies to what Honda calls "Variable Cylinder Management," a fuel-saving technology that shuts off one bank of the six-cylinder engine during low-speed driving.
No one in the test family commented on Honda's application of that technology, which is a good thing, because it is supposed to be transparent.
The verdict: The 2005 Honda Odyssey finishes in a three-way tie for first place with the Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Town & Country. All three have compensating strengths and weaknesses; and it's quite clear that the Odyssey borrowed as much from them (such as the second-row roll-down windows first used in the Sienna minivan) as they borrowed from the Odyssey. The Nissan Quest, which gets good marks for styling, finishes a distant second behind that pack. The Ford Freestar finishes third. The Mazda MPV takes the fourth slot.