LINCOLN, Ala. -- The assembly line at Honda's Alabama manufacturing plant in Lincoln, positioned along I-20 about 40 miles east of Birmingham, hums as thousands of workers conspire with robotic machines to stamp and cast, rivet and weld, paint and assemble sleek new 2010 issues of the Odyssey minivan.
This plant also produces Honda's Pilot SUV and the V6 engines that propel Pilot and Odyssey.
Honda's minivan skews to four trims -- LX, EX, EX-L and Touring -- and the 2010 editions are marked by a fresh face plus a high-tech V6 engine option rigged with a more fuel-efficient version of Honda's engine-modification concept which goes by the acronym of VCM, meaning variable cylinder management.
Inside the spacious cabin, there are up to three tiers of seats with options for folding or removing second-row seats and a "Magic Seat" in back which folds into the floor for a slick disappearing act.
Honda introduced the Odyssey in 1995 as cast on a platform borrowed from the best-selling Accord sedan and equipped with the then-novel concept of not one but two sliding slab doors on flanks.
That original Odyssey focused on a sedan-height chassis and user-friendly interior features, as Honda incorporated favored traits of rival minivans and developed creative new concepts driven by Honda's research of the minivan market.
A second design for Odyssey emerged in 1999 on a larger and broader platform but with the floor still set low like a car so you could step inside or climb out easily.
Making a van more like a car has always been the big idea behind the minivan, of course, but until Honda's designs appeared no other automaker dared to structure and equip a minivan with so many car-like comforts.
That overriding concept of making a minivan easy to drive and easy to use explains why Honda's minivan has been so successful in a market filled with keen competition.
The next generational design for Odyssey appeared in 2005 with room for as many as eight riders in an expanded structure with class-capping power and innovations for seat configuration, powertrain performance and personal safety. The unit-body structure maintained the same length as a previous Odyssey but gained more than an inch in width to expand the cabin.
Then in 2008 Honda built upon the 2005 design for Odyssey by adding updated exterior styling and more on-board equipment, as well as a more fuel-efficient version of the VCM V6 engine.
Similar enhancements continue with the Odyssey of 2010.
To mark 2010 issues, check the bold eight-sided grille on Odyssey's prow ringed in chrome and bisected across the center section by parallel wing slats.
Inside, there are up to three tiers of seats.
The first row shows two tall captain's chairs with broader seats to accommodate a variety of American body sizes.
Seats on the second row move around to several positions for flexibility in hauling people and cargo.
The two captain's chairs slip fore and aft by ten inches or slide together to convert into a bench when more floor area is needed on the side.
Three of the four trims add a 'PlusOne' jump seat on the second tier that pops up from the floor and squeezes between the two buckets, forging a three-person bench to achieve the minivan's eight-person capacity.
That jumper also tips forward when not needed as a seat and becomes a console with built-in storage tray.
Second-tier buckets may be removed easily by simply flipping several latches -- and one person can do that job, thanks to lightweight frames.
Reaching second-row seats is also easy: Just open a door, slip aboard and buckle up. Access comes from either side due to the dual sliding doors, and without bending and scooting or crawling.
Reaching the third tier's three-person bench requires more work, but not so to fold it flat into the floor because this thing tips and tucks into a well in the floor. And it's split in 60/40 sections that fold separately.
Behind the third tier is adequate storage space, but with the flexible seat system there are dozens of configurations for people and cargo. Maximum cargo room with second tier seats removed and the third row folded amounts to a cavernous 147.4 cubic feet.
Honda equips Odyssey with responsive handling systems and powerful V6 engine choices plus an extensive list of standard gear for safety.
The standard aluminum V6 engine with 3.5-liter displacement generates 244 hp at 5750 rpm.
Base configuration, with a drive-by-wire throttle and Honda's VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain, produces torque numbers of 240 lb-ft at 5000 rpm.
The top two trims carry a second configuration with 'intelligent' i-VTEC controls and the next generation of Honda's VCM device to conserve on fuel by modifying the number of engine cylinders at work.
Honda's new VCM device on Odyssey can switch from six to four or down to three cylinders, depending on the power demand at any particular moment. And the operation is totally automatic and virtually transparent to a driver, with a dashboard light glowing when the VCM is at work.
This VCM-equipped V6 generates 244 hp at 5700 rpm and 245-lb-ft of torque at 4900 rpm.
Transmission for both versions of the V6 is Honda's excellent electronically controlled five-speed automatic with a lock-up torque converter and grade logic controls.
Brakes include a big disc at each wheel tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with brake assist (BA) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD), a traction control system (TCS) plus vehicle stability assist (VSA).
Passive safety gear consists of frontal and side-impact air bags for the two front seats and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above all three rows.
Base model Odyssey LX stocks seats for seven with cloth upholstery and manual sliding side doors, air conditioning, power controls for windows and door locks, a theft-deterrent system and cruise control. Top tier Odyssey Touring brings fancy features like leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals, power for side slider doors and tailgate, and deluxe audio entertainment equipment.
Honda stretches MSRP figures for the 2010 Odyssey in a broad range from $26,805 to $40,755.