Family retainer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am


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THE HONDA STREAM is a practical, mid-sized people carrier that's well-built and moderately priced - so why are there so few on Hong Kong's roads? In the past, the Stream may have been overshadowed by its larger Honda counterpart, the Odyssey. A perennial Hong Kong favourite and proven rival to the popular Toyota Picnic and the best-selling original, the Renault Espace, the Odyssey is a full-sized people mover with a price to match.

Neither a van nor a boxed-out hatch with MPV pretensions, the Stream is one of a handful of cars that can claim to be a proper seven-seater selling for less than $170,000. More akin to the Picnic in size, price and performance, the new 4.5-metre-long, 1.5-metre-high Honda Stream can accommodate seven adults at a push, but literally stops short of the larger and more expensive Espace and the more spacious Alphards.

Honda has retained the 'dolphin' arched roofline but has sharpened the front and added straighter, more contemporary lines. The Stream's inside seems similar, with plenty of room and a clever seating arrangement.

The 2004 Stream has also received some noticeable tweaks to its handling and performance to prove the model is more than just a vague repackaging exercise. Offered in two forms, the base model 1.7-litre Stream comes with a four-cylinder petrol engine coupled to a durable four-speed automatic gearbox ($169,880, via Reliance Motors, tel: 2397 9255). The two-litre model ($199,880), our test car, not only shares a floor pan with the new Honda Accord but also borrows its punchy 16-valve VTEC engine. This is linked to a smooth five-speed automatic gearbox that has a useful three-speed manual function - ideal for hill starts on family outings to the Peak.

The Stream benefits from the Accord's improvements and, once on the road, you can see why Honda has been quick to push the dynamic qualities of its mid-sized people mover. The marque has integrated its tried-and-tested engine and transmission with the Stream's body shell and has beautifully reconfigured the larger model's chassis and suspension settings. The five-speed gearbox has close ratios that suit the torquey engine and help to give the impression that the big car can move quickly - and it does.

Once you've dropped the children off at school, the Stream handles much like a big saloon, and with fine visibility, although you'll have to be careful when parking since that extra half metre in length makes the Stream more unwieldy than most cars. Still, it corners well and holds the road firmly, with or without passengers, and the sports-style seats help keep you - excuse the pun - in the driver's seat.

The Stream is quite heavy though and hard braking downhill, even when unladen, can result in some heavy G-force and even a little tyre screeching in a halt. In fairness, the brakes feel reassuring, despite there being only discs at the front, and the fact the new Stream has received four stars in recent European new-car assessment ratings highlights the quality of this vehicle. Indeed, the safety features (see below) that are offered as standard for a car in this class are impressive. What's more, the Stream manages to look the part from the outside, unlike the Mazda MPV which looks a little dowdy by comparison. From the inside, the Honda offers practicality rather than luxury. Headroom is very good in the front two rows of seats with the back seats remaining the preserve of smaller adults or children. Access to all rows of seats is excellent; the Stream is as versatile as ever with the two sets of rear seats folding flat to allow for luggage, shopping or bicycles; and the overall ambience is pretty appealing.

So why buy a Stream? Well, if you don't want to fork out $238,000 for an Odyssey, want more space than a station wagon for less money, or simply don't like Picnics, then the new Stream should be a wise buy. What the model may lack in dynamism, it makes up for in safety and peace of mind.

What is it? A seven-seater people carrier (two-litre test car: $199,880).

What drives it? A punchy two-litre DOHC four-cylinder VTEC engine with dual transmission.

Safety features? Granny would like it. Anti-lock braking system, electronic brake force assist, front airbags, front and rear crumple zones, side impact door beams, power steering, pre-tensioned front seat belts, rear childproof lock.

How thirsty? One litre of petrol does 12 kilometres in town on a 55-litre tank.

Competition? The Toyota Picnic ($198,450) and the 2.3-litre Mazda MPV ($248,900).