Honda's popular minivan - which remains the best-selling import in the class -- has been "significantly updated" for 2008, the automaker says.

Included are new exterior styling, as well as a more fuel-efficient 3.5-liter V-6 engine with the latest version of Honda's gas-saving Variable Cylinder Management system.

The new van's styling "focuses on a bolder, six-sided grille design and a front bumper fascia with crisp lines that add to the vehicle's dynamic and premium appearance," Honda says.

There are new premium features throughout the vehicle, including a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, a four-way power passenger seat, a rearview camera with display in the rearview mirror for models without the optional navigation system, and side mirrors with memory and reverse tilt-down.

Inside, the instrument panel has been updated, and premium fabric is used on the seats, Honda says.

The whole package is designed to make the Odyssey even more attractive to female consumers, the target group for minivans. Honda has a large and loyal following among women, not only for the Odyssey but also for many of its other vehicles such as the Accord and Civic sedans, Pilot and CR-V crossover utility vehicles, and even the Ridgeline pickup.

In fact, most of the Honda line seems to be aimed squarely at women and families, and the Japanese automaker probably has done a better job than most of its competitors in meeting the needs and expectations of those customers.

A large part of Honda's appeal to women, of course, is the legendary dependability of its vehicles. Woman are particularly attracted to vehicles that they can be sure will get them where they want to go, without fear of breakdowns and the prospect of expensive repairs.

Honda's reputation for building so-called appliance vehicles is well-established. I define appliance cars this way: They are just like that refrigerator in your kitchen - plug it in and forget it, and it will run for years without worry.

What Honda vehicles have lacked in styling over the years has been more than compensated by their more-practical attributes.

But lately, Honda has even been taking exterior design much more seriously, creating vehicles that go beyond the company's usual ordinary looks. A prime example is the redesigned 2008 Accord, with a look that is much more-compelling than any of its predecessors'.

Giving a minivan pizzazz is more of a challenge, and sometimes can backfire. That's a lesson as Nissan learned from the radical redesign of its Quest van four years ago. The Quest, an otherwise quite nice product, was a turn-off for many traditional minivan customers because of its looks - both inside and out.

So while the new Odyssey certainly has a more-interesting look, it's nothing radical. The changes throughout the van are more subtle and functional than drastic or unusual. The van also continues to provide something that women in particular seem to find pleasing - lots of places to store things throughout the cabin. My wife loves this about Honda family vehicles such as the Pilot and Odyssey, and even the Ridgeline pickup, a vehicle she aspires to own.

There is a new storage bin in the second-row PlusOne Seat (standard on Odyssey EX, EX-L and Touring models), for instance.

Women also rank safety as a top concern when they're choosing a vehicle - it's much higher on their list of priorities than it is for most men.

To accommodate that concern, Honda has adopted a "Safety for Everyone" policy for its vehicles, which means that important safety features are standard, rather than optional as they are on many other automakers' competing vehicles.

For the Odyssey, that means standard safety features include electronic stability control; antilock brakes with brake assist; advanced dual-stage front air bags; front side air bags; three-row side-curtain air bags with a rollover sensor; and a special front-end design that is meant to help not the vehicle's occupants, but any pedestrian who might be struck by the Odyssey.

Honda says active front seat head restraints and daytime running lights are now standard on all Odysseys, as well.

Thanks to all of the safety features, the Odyssey garnered the highest crash-safety rating - five stars -- for both front and side impacts in tests conducted by the federal government.

Although the optional seats available in the newest generation of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan might have the Odyssey beat for their innovative features, the Honda's seats have some quite useful innovations, too.

The minivan has room for up to eight (seven in the base LX), with the third row a 60/40 split bench "Magic Seat" that folds completely into the floor. (Chrysler's Stow-n-Go seats do this for both the middle and third rows, however; and the newest Chrysler/Dodge vans also offer the Swivel'n'Go middle seat, which can be turned to face the rear, with a stowable table between it and the third seat, so kids can eat or play games while facing each other.)

Among other standard features are dual-zone air conditioning on base models, and three-zone automatic climate control on EX, EX-L and Touring models; tilt and telescopic steering wheel; power windows/mirrors/door locks with keyless entry; and cruise control.

Options include the navigation system with voice recognition and a built-in Zagat restaurant guide; and a rear DVD entertainment system with a pull-down screen. Two engines are available.

The first is an all-aluminum, 3.5-liter V-6, which is standard on the base LX and midlevel EX models. It's rated at 244 horsepower and 240 foot-pounds of torque, and EPA ratings (using the more-realistic 2008 formula) are 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway.

EX-L (the "L" stands for leather) and Touring models come with a 3.5-liter aluminum V-6 engine with the variable cylinder system, rated at 241 horsepower and 242 foot-pounds of torque.

This is the same engine offered in the redesigned '08 Accord. It automatically shuts down two or three of the engine's cylinders to save fuel while cruising at highway speeds. The previous model also offered a cylinder-deactivation system, but it cut the engine down to three cylinders only. Honda found that the engine rarely went into three-cylinder mode; adding the four-cylinder mode to the V-6 will give it more flexibility.

With this system, the V-6 engine has EPA ratings of 17 mpg city/25 highway. To accommodate people's latest toys - iPods and other portable music devices - the Odyssey's stereo system now comes with an auxiliary input jack. The compact-disc player also has been updated to enable it to play music files that are in the MP3 and WMA formats.

There is plenty of cargo space in the Odyssey, even with the third seat in place - 38.4 cubic feet. But with that seat folded into the floor, cargo space expands to 91.1 cubic feet - with room for five passengers still available in the first two rows.

To expand cargo space further, the second-row seats must be removed, one drawback of the Odyssey. Chrysler's Stow-n-Go middle seat folds completely into the floor just as the Odyssey's third seat does. But with the middle seats removed and the third seat folded, the Odyssey has 147.4 cubic feet of storage.

Honda says total interior volume of the Odyssey is 209.8 cubic feet -bigger than the interiors of two Civic sedans combined.

The second-row PlusOne seat is now standard on the Touring model. It replaces the removable center console, and adds an eighth seating position.

Standard on the LX model are 16-inch wheels; EX and EX-L models get 16-inch alloy wheels; and all three have all-season tires.

The Touring model comes with 17-inch alloy wheels and all-season tires. Optional - and a great security feature, especially for women - are the Michelin PAX run-flat wheels and tires.

Prices range from about $26,000-$40,000.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. Contact him at