Statistics indicate that the majority of minivan buyers are families with at least a couple of kids. But I know a pair of empty-nesters who are on their fifth straight minivan:

My mother and father.

The last time they had kids living at home, I think Gerald Ford was president. My vibrant mom has most of the world thinking she’s in her early 60s and will have a fit when she reads this. But she and my dad are both octogenarians.

They live sans kids and sans pets. But they haven’t been without a minivan in about two decades.

They love having a vehicle in which they can comfortably transport another couple or two to dinner or a movie. They love the easy access of wide doors and hip-height seats (unless you’re headed to the third row, minivan entry and egress generally demands far less climbing, bending and squatting than a conventional car).

And my parents also love being able to haul as much luggage, bowling ball bags and other stuff as they want back and forth during their seasonal commutes between residences in Florida and New York.

The last two minivans my parents owned — and loved — were Honda Odysseys. They’ve talked about replacing their current one, a 2005, with a 2011 Odyssey such as the one I recently tested.

That might surprise the marketing folks at Honda, who like other minivan makers put some effort into making the redesigned Odyssey look less like a conventional minivan than ever before in order to attract folks who think minivans are stodgy.

Not long ago, minivans were hotter than a samurai sword-maker’s furnace. But the vehicle class cooled: Sales stopped climbing and even tapered off. While some manufacturers stopped making minivans altogether, others have tried to reinvigorate sales by adding more features — such as 16-inch, panoramic video screens — or delivering somewhat radical redesigns.

Honda employed both strategies with the new Odyssey. The one I tested was a top-of-the-line Touring Elite model, equipped with virtually every feature Honda could fit on four wheels.

But it’s not cheap. The Touring Elite’s price tag is just over $44,000, including delivery fees. Even the least expensive 2011 Odyssey, the LX, starts at around $28,500.

That makes the new Odyssey a little more costly (when comparably equipped) than its closest competitor, Toyota’s Sienna, which also was redesigned for 2011.

I love both minivans, which feature similar accommodations, roominess, and versatility. My seat-of-the-pants observation — no skid pads or racecourse testing involved — is that the Odyssey’s handling is a little sportier than the Sienna.

But the Sienna is available with all-wheel drive.

Although Toyota also made a concerted effort to eliminate any suggestion of minivan boxiness in the new Sienna, the Odyssey’s styling is even more unconventional. Honda even boasts about the distinctive lightning-bolt line that flashes across the Odyssey’s flanks.

The Odyssey looks great to me, and the reaction from others during my weeklong road test was overwhelmingly favorable. My mom loves the new look, so I’m betting the new styling, as unconventional as it might be for a minivan, won’t be as polarizing as some auto writers have suggested.

Especially since Honda appears to have ensured that functionality did not make any concessions to form in Odyssey’s redesign. I couldn’t find any area in which the Odyssey’s rakishness compromised any of the traits for which people buy minivans.

For example, according to Honda specs, total cargo and passenger room with the seats up or down are identical for 2011 and 2010 models.

But a new one-touch mechanism on the center-row seats makes it easier to reach the third row this year. Another new feature: The outboard second-row seats can both move 1.5 inches toward the sliding doors, which enables the center row on eight-passenger models to accommodate three full-size child safety seats.

The third-row side windows are bigger this year, too, making the third row seem airier. Since the enlarged window helps create the lightning-bolt streaks on the Odyssey’s flanks, this might be the ultimate example of form and function working in harmony.

There are other upgrades and new features for 2011, such as the available 16.2-inch video screen, refrigerated cold box that can hold a six-pack of soda, HDMI digital audio/video input, and 650-watt, 12-speaker surround-sound audio system.

Of course none of that would matter if the Odyssey was uncomfortable or moved like a turtle with two broken legs.

But the 2011 version is unquestionably the smoothest, quietest and best handling Odyssey ever made. It ranks right near the top of the minivan class in all of those areas.

I was particularly impressed with its ride and handling. Don’t snicker, but its handling is actually sporty, in a Honda-Accord way. This is a minivan that’s actually responsive and fun to drive.

Its suspension is terrific at keeping the Odyssey’s wheels firmly planted even on rough roads and great at soaking up bumps, too. I was impressed with the way ruts and lumps encountered by the tires disappeared before they reached the steering wheel or my butt.

The Odyssey’s powertrain is equally impressive. The 3.5-liter V6 engine is a carryover from last year’s top-of-the-line Odyssey models, but it gets four more horsepower and is now found in every model. It retains the ability to shut down some cylinders during cruising to save fuel.

EPA fuel economy ratings increase across the board. Models equipped with a five-speed transmission (LX, EX and EX-L) improve from 16 city/23 highway to 18/27. Thanks to their six-speed transmissions, the Touring and Touring Elite models are rated 19/28 mpg, up from a best of 17/25 for 2010 Odysseys.

The thought of traveling 28 miles on a gallon of gas in any minivan would have seemed like a fantasy a dozen years ago. Being able to do it as stylishly and comfortably as you can in a 2011 Honda Odyssey just might help minivans remain popular — with both seniors and soccer moms and dads — into the foreseeable future. 

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at:

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