The original Honda Pilot was one of the first eight-seat SUVs to use car-based crossover construction, a technique that many automakers have since copied. For 2009, Honda is introducing an all-new Pilot, but rather than sticking to a proven formula, they've taken some risks and made some significant changes. Has Honda taken the Pilot in the right direction, or have they made a wrong turn? Read on. Base prices from $27,595 to $38,395, EPA fuel economy figures 16-17 mpg city, 22-23 mpg highway, 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty, 5 year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty.
Honda has a long history of doing things their own way. Typically, the design of an 8-passenger SUV starts with a ladder frame and a big V8 engine. Not Honda: When they designed the first Honda Pilot, they used car-style unibody construction, resulting in an 8-passenger SUV that weighed less -- and therefore used less fuel -- than most of its rivals. Since 2003, the year that the original Pilot made its debut, several automakers have taken that same approach, and the market is now littered with what we call large crossovers.
The punchline is that while the Pilot was radical enough spawn a host of imitators, Honda's research found that buyers actually wanted something more like a traditional SUV. Honda may march to the beat of their own drummer, but they also know when it's time to change step -- so while the new-for-2009 Pilot uses the same design philosophy, it's also a greatly evolved vehicle, with radical changes including a bigger body and more butch styling.
Let's talk about the styling: The squared-off lines are clearly borrowed from the Honda Element, which is a good thing, at least until you walk around to the front. There you'll find a big silver grille and goggle-eyed headlamps reminiscent of the old Suzuki Sidekick, which I think are rather silly adornments on an otherwise handsome vehicle.
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In the Driver's Seat
The high dashboard and tall, squared-off hood make the new Pilot feel quite a bit larger than the old one. The upside is that the cabin feels much, much roomier; the downside is that it's hard for short people like me (I'm 5'6") to see over the hood, even with the height-adjustable driver's seat cranked all the way up. I found the Pilot tricky to maneuver through crowded parking lots, though other journalists who are taller than I am -- and that's pretty much all of them -- had a much easier time.
The new Pilot is one of the few three-row SUVs to offer a third row big enough for adults, though getting back there isn't particularly easy. The extra third-row space comes at the expense of second-row comfort, which isn't as good as some of the Pilot's smaller rivals. With all seats in place, the Pilot offers a healthy 18 cubic feet of luggage space plus a hidden bin below the floor. 2nd and 3rd row seats can be folded flat, but the floor has a slight incline that can cause cargo to slide or roll to the back.
The Pilot is available in LX, EX, EX-L and Touring trim levels. The LX comes with all the basic creature comforts, including front and rear air conditioning. The EX adds more niceties like a rear-view camera, while the EX-L gets leather seats and other goodies. But a rear-seat DVD player isn't available in the LX and EX models, and a navigation system is only offered on the top-of-the-line Touring model.
On the Road
For 2009, the Pilot gets an improved version of last year's 3.8 liter V6. Power has risen slightly to 250 horsepower and 253 lb-ft of torque, which gives the Pilot more than enough oomph. Despite its bigger size, fuel economy is up by 8% over the old Pilot; EPA estimates are 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway for four-wheel-drive Pilots, 17/23 for front-wheel-drive Pilots. The increase is due largely to the new version of Honda's Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system. While the old VCM system could deactivate three of the engine's six cylinders when power demands were low, the new-gen VCM allows the Pilot's engine to run on 3, 4 or 6 cylinders for even more flexibility. The system is completely transparent -- the only way you'll know it's working is to compare fuel-economy figures with friends who own smaller, thirstier SUVs.
One of Honda's design goals was to make the Pilot a better performer off-road. I got a chance to take the Pilot on a lengthy but fairly gentle off-road course. It won't do the Baja 1000, but if you do need to venture off the beaten (or un-plowed) path, chances are the all-wheel-drive Pilot will take you as far as you need to go.
On paved roads, the new Pilot's ride is much smoother and steadier than that of the old Pilot, though there's still a fair amount of road noise at highway speeds. The ride is surprisingly soft, but the Pilot is responsive and easy to control in sudden swerves and panic stops. Towing capacity is 3,500 lbs for front-drive Pilots and 4,500 lbs for four-wheel-drive models, and all Pilots come with a Class III tow hitch socket.
So did Honda take the Pilot in the right direction? Aside from the goofy front end styling, I think they did. The new Pilot offers even more space yet gets even better gas mileage than the old car. Brilliant. If you need to haul 8 people -- and if you've ruled out a minivan, which frankly does the job better -- the Pilot is one of the best choices on the market. It provides more room than most three-row crossovers, including the Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer, plus better fuel economy and safer, more car-like handling than big SUVs like the Toyota Sequoia and Chevy Tahoe.
But is it the best? Were I the one doing the shopping, I'd have a hard time deciding between the Pilot and the GMC Acadia (as well as the Acadia's near-twins, the Buick Enclave, Saturn Outlook and Chevrolet Traverse). The Acadia isn't as roomy as the Pilot, but it offers better third-row access, a better selection of options, and a much more user-friendly dashboard layout. The lower hoodline makes it easier to drive than the Pilot, particularly for us short folks, and the firm, well-controlled ride is surprisingly Honda-like. (Oddly enough, the Pilot's soft ride is rather GMC-like.) But while the Acadia carries a longer warranty than the Pilot, build quality is an unknown, while Hondas have proven themselves to be virtually allergic to repair shops -- and that's what my decision would come down to. If I was planning to only keep the car for 2 or 3 years, I'd go for the Acadia -- but if I was planning to keep the vehicle for a decade or more, I'd choose the Pilot.