The Honda Odyssey gets a lot of minor changes for 2008, and when you account for all of them, they add up to one heck of an argument for buying a minivan. Many companies are getting out of the minivan game entirely right now, while others — like Volkswagen and Hyundai — are just entering it. What I can say to all of them is that they have one model to hold themselves up against: the Honda Odyssey.
Honda's latest ad campaign asks folks to "Respect the Van" — the concept being that minivans are so derided these days that the idea of owning one has to be beaten into potential buyers. The Odyssey is unabashedly a minivan, which means it delivers all of that vehicle's must-haves: three rows of comfortable seats, family entertainment options, a pleasant ride and, in the uplevel Touring trim level I tested, a big scoop of luxury sitting on top.
We're not going to spend a lot of time on the Odyssey's looks. It's a minivan, and no minivan on the market is stunning enough to stand out from the pack. The Odyssey is handsome enough, and for 2008 the taillights and front end get small tweaks to add a slightly modern edge. If you weren't looking closely, though, you'd never notice. For a full list of what changed between the 2007 and 2008 Odysseys, check out a side-by-side comparison here.
There is also a change under the hood, where the 3.5-liter V-6 engine on the top two trim levels has a new version of the automaker's cylinder deactivation system. That means that when you're cruising or decelerating, two or three of the cylinders will shut down to conserve fuel. The old system was only able to shut off three cylinders, meaning this new version will be able to conserve fuel in a wider variety of driving conditions and speeds. This version of the engine is rated at 17/25 mpg, but comes only on the EX-L and Touring trims. The LX and EX models — the more affordable ones — use a 3.5-liter V-6 that doesn't have cylinder deactivation and gets 16/23 mpg. The deactivation was seamless in my Touring test van. Buyers who do a lot of highway driving might see optimal results at the pump if they get this engine.
The interior has some new colors and textures on the instrument panel and new fabric for the base models.
For the Family
The three rows in the Odyssey offer plenty of room. The second row is a configurable bench; it can't fold into the floor like the seats in the Chrysler and Dodge minivans do, but the center seat can be removed entirely, leaving two captain's chairs and an aisle to walk back to the third row. The seats also slide forward easily to allow access to the third row. I'm 5-foot-10, and I fit very comfortably in the third row, even with the second row in its rearmost position. Both rows were finished in black leather in my Touring model and were not only comfortable, they also felt very upscale for a minivan.
A DVD entertainment system is optional on the EX-L and standard on the Touring trim level. It features an integrated remote that pops out of the ceiling DVD unit, plus underfloor storage between the first and second rows to store headphones, DVDs and handheld gadgets.
Do your kids leave bottles and sippy cups everywhere? If so, you'll all love the Odyssey's 13 to 15 cupholders (depending on trim level). And no, we don't know why there's an odd number of them, either.
For the Driver
Moms and dads will get a pretty engaging drive with this minivan. The last time I tested an Odyssey, two years back, I hadn't been exposed to many competitors and I found the braking mushy and the steering pretty numb. After a few years of testing other minivans, I've come to realize the Odyssey is the best of the bunch, and I swear this 2008 tester had firmer braking and more precise steering than the earlier model I drove.
The engine doesn't erupt with a roar or anything, but the Odyssey is Honda-smooth when shifting between gears, which is more important than having a powerful engine when you're out running errands. Making turns and maneuvering the Odyssey in tight parking lots is relatively effortless. I was surprised how easy it was to park in my tandem city parking space, cramped between a fence on one side and a large SUV on the other. On the highway, the ride was smooth and the van traveled over potholed city streets with minimal shuddering through the long wheelbase.
The driver's seat is comfortable and sits high up, giving drivers a commanding view of the road. This SUV-like perch is common in minivans, but often leaves you feeling like you're sitting straight up, like a bus driver. That didn't happen in the Odyssey.
The 2008 Odyssey has four trim levels, and they vary greatly in price. The base LX starts at $25,860 and comes standard with a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, an auxiliary jack for MP3 players, cruise control, remote entry, 16-inch tires with wheel covers and a CD player. Move up to the EX, at $28,960, and Honda adds steering-wheel mounted audio controls, integrated sunshades in the second row, a power driver's seat, a six-CD changer, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors and power-sliding rear doors.
The EX-L comes in three flavors, starting at $32,210. Add the rear DVD entertainment system and it moves to $33,810, then there's a $35,810 version that includes the DVD entertainment system and navigation. All EX-L versions have leather seating, a leather steering wheel, heated front seats, a conversation mirror, a rearview camera, ambient console lighting, a power passenger seat and XM Satellite Radio.
The Touring trim level starts at $40,010 and comes with all that plus the navigation and DVD entertainment systems standard, along with Bluetooth connectivity, a power moonroof, a power tailgate, fog lights and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The Odyssey comes equipped with most of today's important safety features standard, including stability control, antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, three-row side curtain airbags and active front head restraints.
The Odyssey is one of three minivans to earn the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation, along with the Kia Sedona and Hyundai Entourage. That means it earned the Institute's highest crash-test rating in front-, side- and rear-impact tests.
Honda Odyssey in the Market
One comment that kept popping up as fellow staffers, family members and friends got into the Odyssey was that it was the nicest minivan they'd ever been in. The high-quality interior and plush leather seats certainly help elicit such responses, but the superb driving feel, spacious interior, family-friendly features and top safety rating ought to make the Odyssey a slam-dunk decision for minivan shoppers.
The only sticky point left is that those shoppers will be paying more than they would if they opted for competitors like the Hyundai Entourage or redesigned Dodge Grand Caravan, which start at $2,000 and $4,000 less than the Odyssey, respectively. I wouldn't call the Odyssey overpriced; I'd just call it the nicest minivan I've ever driven.
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