BUCKHEAD, Ga. -- It's so easy: Steering Honda's Odyssey minivan on a tight course through narrow lanes at a shopping mall off Peachtree Road in Atlanta's glitzy Buckhead suburb, we're hardly working. There's scant room for error on this car-crowded lot, slab-sided fenders and protruding chrome bumpers left and right but traffic moving at the pace of slugs on a sidewalk. Still, our Odyssey inches ahead and, when a parking space opens on the left, we slip effortlessly into place.
Tap a button to open both sliding side doors and all riders tucked inside on two rows of rear seats climb out for a shopping foray. Honda's design for the Odyssey sets the floor at a low level like a car so you may easily step inside or out -- much like you would slip into a family sedan -- rather than having to hoist your body aboard or climb down, as some wagons require.
Honda introduced Odyssey in 1995, as cast on a platform borrowed from the best-selling Accord sedan and equipped with the then-novel concept of not one but two sliding slab doors on flanks. That original Odyssey focused on a sedan-height chassis and user-friendly interior features, as Honda incorporated favored traits of rival minivans and developed creative new concepts driven by Honda's research of the minivan market.
A second design for Odyssey emerged in 1999 on a larger and broader platform but with the floor still set low like a car so you could step inside or out easily. Making a van more like a car has always been the big idea behind the minivan, of course, but until Honda's designs appeared no other automaker dared to structure and equip a minivan with so many car-like comforts.
That overriding concept of making a minivan easy to drive and easy to use explains why Honda's minivan has been so successful in a market filled with keen competition. The next generational design for Odyssey emerged in 2005 with room for as many as eight riders in an expanded structure with class-capping power and innovations for seat configuration, powertrain performance and personal safety.
The unit-body structure maintained the same length as a previous Odyssey but gained more than an inch in width to expand the cabin. And for 2008 Odyssey builds on the 2005 design by adding updated exterior styling and more on-board equipment, as well as a more fuel-efficient version of the Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) V6 engine.
To mark the issues of 2008, look for a bold new six-sided grille on Odyssey's prow as underscored by clean lines of a revised front bumper fascia. Inside, there are up to three tiers of seats in place with options for folding or removing the second-row seats and a 'Magic Seat' in back which folds into the floor for a slick disappearing act.
The first row shows two tall captain's chairs with broader seats to accommodate a variety of American body sizes. Seats on the second row move around to several positions for flexibility in hauling people and cargo.
The two captain's chairs slip fore and aft by ten inches or slide together to convert into a bench when more floor area is needed on the side. Three of the four trims add a 'PlusOne' jump seat on the second tier that pops up from the floor and squeezes between the two buckets, forging a three-person bench to achieve the minivan's eight-person capacity.
That jumper also tips forward when not needed as a seat and becomes a console with built-in storage tray. Second-tier buckets may be removed easily by simply flipping several latches -- and one person can do that job, thanks to lightweight frames.
Reaching second-row seats is also easy: Just open a door, slip aboard and buckle up. Access comes from either side due to the dual sliding doors, and without bending and scooting or crawling. Reaching the third tier's three-person bench requires more work, but not so to fold it flat into the floor because this thing tips and tucks into a well in the floor. And it's split in 60/40 sections that fold separately.
Behind the third tier is adequate storage space, but with the flexible seat system there are dozens of configurations for people and cargo. Maximum cargo room with second tier seats removed and the third row folded amounts to a cavernous 147.4 cubic feet. Honda equips Odyssey with responsive handling systems and powerful V6 engine choices plus an extensive list of standard gear for safety.
The standard aluminum V6 with 3.5-liter displacement generates 244 hp at 5750 rpm. Base configuration, with a drive-by-wire throttle and Honda's VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain, produces torque numbers of 250 lb-ft at 5000 rpm.
The top two trims carry a second configuration with 'intelligent' i-VTEC controls and the next generation of Honda's VCM device to conserve on fuel by modifying the number of engine cylinders at work. Honda's previous VCM system simply cut by half the number of cylinders -- down from six to three -- when boosted power was not needed. By contrast, the new VCM on Odyssey can switch from six to four or down to three cylinders, depending on the power demand at any particular moment. And the operation is totally automatic and virtually transparent to a driver, with a dashboard light glowing when the VCM is at work.
This VCM-equipped V6 generates 241 hp at 5700 rpm and 242-lb-ft of torque at 4900 rpm. Transmission for both versions of the V6 is Honda's excellent electronically controlled five-speed automatic with lock-up torque converter and grade logic controls.
Responsive steering comes through a rack and pinion device, and brakes include big discs at all wheels coupled to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with brake assist (BA) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD), a traction control system (TCS) plus vehicle stability assist (VSA) for all versions. Honda constructs Odyssey in four different trims -- LX, EX, EX Leather and Touring.
Options extend to XM satellite radio service, a DVD-based entertainment system with 9-inch video screen, and a satellite-linked navigation system with voice recognition and rearview camera.
The MSRP chart for Odyssey begins at $ 25,860.