Although Honda claims a major update for its 2008 Honda Odyssey minivan, the results look to us like a minor facelift, just a little work around the eyes and mouth but the same old body. The front of the car exhibits some modern touches around the headlights and grille, but the bulk of the car looks at home in the '90s. For the real updates, we have to look in the cabin electronics and under the hood. This new Odyssey gets Honda's Bluetooth hands-free cell phone system and a new rear seat DVD screen. Likewise, the engine gets added fuel savings from a refined cylinder deactivation system, which can cut the six-cylinder engine down to three cylinders when loads are low.
Test the tech: The Odyssey
"Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy."
Based solely on a loose name reference, we decided to take the 2008 Honda Odyssey on a heroic quest. Then we realized Quest is the name of a Nissan minivan, so we opted for an epic journey. We set a course in the navigation system for Ithaca, but found that the trip from California to New York would cover 2,797 miles and take 39 hours of solid driving. Fortunately, we found an Ithaca Street much closer in Union City, Calif., just about an hour's drive south.
The navigation system shows the trip to Ithaca, N.Y., will take 39 hours of driving.
"...on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower."
Attempting to follow the classical route, we found an address just south of San Francisco for the Purple Lotus Society. We entered it into the navigation system using the car's voice command, which proved tedious as we had to spell out the street name, and the voice command had trouble recognizing our pronunciation of each letter. But after some tribulation, the navigation system guided us to our lotus eaters in about 20 minutes, rather than the 10 days in the original epic. Not finding any flowers to eat, we continued on.
Our journey took us past the mighty Cyclops, which we saw on a distant hill, although it might have just been a big radio telescope. Either way, we escaped it by driving fast down the freeway, where the Odyssey offered a very comfortable ride. It also proved economical, with the trip computer showing mileage on the plus side of 20 mpg. The car has a green Eco light that shows up on the speedometer when cylinder deactivation kicks in. This system can shut down two or three cylinders depending on the driving conditions. Active noise cancellation and a special engine mount system make the engine transitions transparent in the cabin.
Sadly, our crewmen were turned to pigs.
"...when they had drunk she turned them into pigs by a stroke of her wand, and shut them up in her pigsties."
Looking for our crewmen-turned-pigs, we went to Deer Hollow Farm, located in the Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, for which we found an address in the navigation system under the Recreation category. Unfortunately, the location it directed us to, while on the edge of the preserve, wasn't an official entrance and had no parking. We got the name of the road that leads to the Preserve's parking area from a map, then found that road on the Odyssey's navigation system. We input our destination directly on the navigation system map using a little joystick-enter button, our least favorite way of using navigation systems. When we found the pigsties, there was one of our crewmembers looking contented as he drank from a hose.
We reach our destination, Ithaca (the street, not the island or city).
We left him and drove on to Ithaca. The navigation system guided us unerringly to this final destination on our journey, and there was much rejoicing. The Odyssey did in just a couple of hours what took Odysseus 10 years, although we found similar tribulations on the way.
In the cabin
Our skepticism about the update of the 2008 Honda Odyssey's exterior continued in the cabin when we got a look at the navigation and audio systems. Where the new Honda Accord got a controller similar to what we've seen in models from Acura, the Odyssey is saddled with an interface from older Honda models. The navigation system is controlled by voice command, touch screen, and a joystick-enter button. The audio system can be controlled with the touch screen as well, or with the duplicate controls further down on the stack. These audio controls get their own ugly green and black radio display. Although we like being able to glance down and see the current track playing while the LCD shows navigation, the design makes the LCD look like an afterthought, as if the radio controls were already there and Honda shoe-horned in the navigation system later.
The Odyssey's stack includes an old-model navigation system and an audio system down low with an ugly green and black display.
As with all Honda navigation systems we've looked at over the past years, this one works adequately, although the map resolution is poor, doing a poor job of presenting diagonal street names. It doesn't have advanced features, such as traffic reporting or text-to-speech for upcoming street names, but its points of interest database does stand out for offering a complete database of businesses and includes Zagat-rated restaurants. This navigation system didn't show any significant lags in calculating routes or refreshing its maps.
Audio sources in the Odyssey include a six-disc CD changer hidden behind the LCD that can read MP3 CDs, XM satellite radio, an auxiliary audio input, and a DVD drive at the bottom of the stack, although this drive is primarily intended for the rear seat DVD entertainment system. The voice command system works well with XM radio, letting you tell it which channel you want to hear. The audio quality was only mediocre, coming through a seven speaker system, which includes a subwoofer. The sound is fairly strong, as it uses a 360-watt amplifier, but we didn't hear good separation or clarity. The subwoofer added some richness to the sound without overwhelming it.
The roof-mounted LCD is standard in the Odyssey Touring model.
The rear seat DVD system uses a roof-mounted LCD that folds down with a remote controller that stows in the roof. There are wireless headphones so as not to distract the driver while the children are watching SpongeBob SquarePants for the ninetieth time. The position of the DVD drive, down by the floor in the front, isn't great, as it tempts the driver to reach way down to change discs. The drive should either be more accessible for the driver, or mounted in back where it won't offer any temptation for the driver to use it while under way.
The Odyssey includes a Bluetooth phone system, similar to what we've seen in many other Honda and Acura models. In keeping with the more recent of these systems, however, it offers a feature to import cell phone contact lists. As we've seen in other Hondas, the phone voice command controls are mounted on one side of the steering wheel, just above another set of buttons to control other car systems with voice.
A rear view camera helps when reversing, although there are no line overlays on it. Instead, the car has sonar distance warnings for when you are close to objects in front or back.
Under the hood
The 2008 Honda Odyssey's 3.5-liter V-6 delivers its 241 horsepower and 242 foot-pounds of torque smoothly. As we mentioned, this engine uses Honda's cylinder deactivation technology, called variable cylinder management, to turn off two to three cylinders, thereby increasing fuel economy. You only get this engine with the Touring or EX-L trim level Odysseys. The LX and EX versions use an older engine, still a 3.5-liter V-6 but not quite as sophisticated as the new one, with no VCM.
To smooth over any roughness from cylinder deactivation, Honda employs an engine mount system that uses solenoids. These mounts actively dampen vibration from the engine as needed. Going even further, a noise cancellation system listens to engine noise and sends a canceling frequency into the car. The result is a reasonably smooth ride and low engine noise. The suspension isn't the best we've ever felt, but it provides standard damping.
Honda makes its V-6 more fuel efficient with a cylinder deactivation system.
The shifter for the five-speed automatic transmission is high up, near the steering wheel, a good position for the driver. It offers drive mode and two low ranges, plus a special third gear range accessible by a button on its side. Call it a hill climber gear. When we first got into the Odyssey, we attempted a quick launch, but the car bogged down severely to the point we thought something might be wrong with the engine. But subsequent attempts delivered reasonable acceleration for a minivan, so we concluded the traction control stepped hard on our first attempt.
We wouldn't put the Odyssey through any particularly hard maneuvering, but generally it felt very drivable, a good combination between power and handling. Along with traction, it also gets stability control, plus a complete round of airbags around the cabin, including side curtain airbags that cover all three rows.
The EPA rates the Odyssey Touring at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Our total for mixed city and freeway driving came in at 19.4 mpg, not a bad number for a car that can transport seven people. It also earns a ULEV II emissions rating from California's Air Resources Board, one step better than the minimal LEV II rating.
As with its cars, Honda doesn't really offer a set of options for the 2008 Honda Odyssey Touring. Options are differentiated by the trim level, and the Touring trim gets it all, including navigation system, Bluetooth, and even the rear seat DVD screen. This whole package goes for the hefty price of $40,010, or $40,680 after adding the destination charge. By contrast, the bottom of the line LX goes for $25,860, although you don't get any tech in that car.
For the car's rating, we aren't really impressed by the look of the car, and the design of the electronics interface is weak. The buttons are jumbled and redundant functions look more like they are the result of systems being added in rather than a coherent design. Cabin electronics aren't bad--the car has all the major systems we look for--but they don't show off anything innovative, and aren't really up with the current trends. Performance tech in the Odyssey impressed us the most, as the engine delivered more than adequate power smoothly while getting decent mileage.