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Honda breaks with tradition by rolling out new minivan

Honda unveiled its long-awaited Odyssey minivan Thursday, hoping to grab a share of the growing minivan market in Japan and the United States by promising customers car-like handling and safety.

The Odyssey, which will go on sale in Japan today and in the United States in January, represents a break with tradition for Honda, which has missed out on the hottest segments in the industry by building only passenger cars.

"People are changing in the way they use cars," Honda president Nobuhiko Kawamoto acknowledged at the Odyssey's launching at a Tokyo hotel. "Until now we've done our business with two- or three-door cars, but now we're beginning to tackle cars that families can use."

The standard S-type Odyssey, seating six or seven people, costs 2.055-million yen, or $21,050 without options. The higher-end L-type, with various extras such as nicer upholstery, goes for 2.455-million yen, or $25,150.

Honda's sales pitch focuses on Odyssey's design, which isn't based on a truck but on the Honda Accord passenger car. With the engine in the front of the vehicle instead of underneath, the Odyssey has a smoother, car-like ride, said Honda designer Kozo Kikuchi.

The sleek exterior has something of the air of a station wagon, though the interior, with a center aisle and graded seats, is van-like.

Another feature is the variety of seating arrangements. The back two rows can be laid out into a bed _ long enough for the kids at least _ while the back row can be flipped over so that the seats face toward the rear.

The problem, for American buyers especially, is price.

Though prices for the United States have not been announced yet, it is expected the Odyssey will cost around $6,000 more than comparable Chryslers and Fords.

The reason is simple: the skyrocketing value of the Japanese yen. Honda manufactures the Odyssey only in the Tokyo suburb of Saitama, which means it is paying Japanese workers and using mostly Japanese parts.

With the yen hovering around postwar highs, those salaries and parts are exorbitant when translated into dollar terms. Kikuchi said Honda makes its real profit in the United States on its popular American-built Accord, whereas the Odyssey will not be highly profitable regardless how well it sells.

"The point is to strengthen our dealer lineup with an additional model," said executive vice president Yoshihide Munekuni. "We're not thinking of catching up" with sales achieved by Ford and Chrysler, he said.

Honda expects to sell 36,000 Odysseys a year in Japan and 30,000 to 35,000 abroad, almost all in the United States, Munekuni said.

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