The 2006 Honda Pilot models offer enhanced safety in the form of three-row curtain air bags that come as standard equipment. Curtain airbags are important because they can provide head protection in an accident; head injuries are the leading cause of death in side impacts and rollovers.
The available navigation system has been enhanced for 2006 with expanded voice recognition capability and Zagat restaurant ratings. A rearview camera is included with the navigation package to assist when backing up, a terrific feature that may sound like a gimmick but proves to be quite handy for spotting children on tricycles as well as for easier parallel parking.
The Pilot is the Honda of SUVs, practical, efficient, reliable, and powerful. It's a crossover vehicle, so called because it's built on a car structure and drives more like a car than a truck, with crisp, predictable handling and a smooth ride. It's not designed to tackle the Rubicon Trail or tow a big, heavy boat or haul a load of gravel.
Capable of seating up to eight passengers, the Pilot is not a small vehicle. It's larger overall than a Toyota Highlander or Nissan Murano. It's wider and offers more cargo space than a Ford Explorer.
A 3.5-liter V6 motivates the Pilot with 244-horsepower and is paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. The power gets to the ground through either the front wheels, or via an advanced, full-time four-wheel-drive system. Yet the Pilot delivers impressive fuel economy, particularly in two-wheel-drive form, thanks to a fuel-saving cylinder-deactivation system that disengages half the engine's cylinders when not required for acceleration or towing. As a Honda, it promises quality, durability and reliability.
Honda Pilot LX 2WD ($26,995); LX 4WD ($28,195) EX 2WD ($29,545); EX 4WD ($30,745); EX with leather 2WD ($31,845); EX with leather 4WD ($33,045)
The wheel arches are aggressive enough to offset any impression that this is a toy truck, but subtle enough to be consistent with the Pilot's likely hangouts in upscale neighborhoods and suburban mall parking lots. Large Honda badges on the grille and liftgate make it clear that the company is proud of the Pilot, and expects customers to feel the same way.
Honda has limited the amount of matte-black plastic bodywork that seems to be increasingly popular on sport utilities, and we appreciate that. Body-colored moldings give the Pilot EX a more refined, upscale look. The Pilot's only nod to this allegedly rugged SUV-ness is the step on the rear bumper (a good thing) and rubberized plastic guards under both bumpers. Roof rails are standard on the EX, but if you want the crossbars that actually turn them into a true cargo rack, you'll have to get them as an accessory from your dealer.
The Pilot shares its platform with the Acura MDX sport-utility and Honda Odyssey minivan, both highly successful vehicles. The Pilot shares its engine, transmission, all-wheel-drive system, and brakes with the Acura MDX.
Up front, the Pilot's bucket seats are spacious and comfortable. The LX model's manual seat adjustments are simple but effective. A driver's foot rest, or dead pedal, is standard on all models.
The second- and third-row seats are slightly higher than those ahead. This theater seating improves forward visibility for back-seat passengers. The second-row seatbacks recline, albeit with limited range. The second row can slide fore and aft, allowing leg room for the second and third rows to be adjusted according to the size of the passengers. Getting into the third row is aided by the seat design. Flip a lever and the second-row seatback pivots forward while the entire seat slides forward. The seat returns to its original position by pushing on the seat back.
In terms of cargo capacity, the Pilot is among the best in its class. With both rear rows folded flat, the Pilot offers 90.3 cubic feet of cargo space. That's more than the GMC Envoy or Chevy Trailblazer (80.1 cubic feet), Ford Explorer (81.3) or Toyota Highlander (80.6) or Nissan Murano (81.6). Moreover, the Pilot's load floor is four feet wide, allowing full sheets of building materials to fit inside.
Pilot's seating system is exceptionally versatile for handling a mix of cargo and people. Both rows of rear seats are split 60/40. The second-row seat folds away easily via a single lever and drops the seat flush to the floor. There are no gaps in the cargo floor as with some SUVs such as the Ford Explorer.
The driver benefits from excellent visibility in all directions with as little obstruction to sight lines as you'll find in an SUV. All controls are easily accessible by the driver.
In a particularly clever move, Honda made the largest dial in the center of the instrument panel a switch to shift the audio controls from front- to rear-seat audio. Several observers with young children immediately recognized this as the control they would use most, and they appreciated its large size and central placement. The other instruments and controls will be familiar to anyone who has driven a Honda. The company seldom varies much from the layout that for decades has proven to be a model of ergonomics. Most of the Pilot's switches operate with a satisfying, positive action.
All is not perfect inside the Pilot, however. The minivan-like column shifter is spindly and moves in an ovoid path, like that of the Odyssey. The thin, sliding plastic lid over the center console works fine, but is not aesthetically appealing and sounds hollow when you drop a set of keys on top of it. Buttresses on the sides of the center console look like they'll collect detritus. The fold-out cell-phone holder with a power outlet seems at first a nice feature, but blocks the two cupholders in front of it.
Nonetheless, the console provides plenty of storage space in a compartment behind the cell-phone holder. A covered compartment located below the Pilot's center stack provides more storage in the space between the console and the instrument panel.
The Pilot is loaded with kid-friendly features. There's a cup holder for every seat and pockets on the seatbacks in the first two rows. The EX includes a second-row fold-down activity tray with more cup holders and storage for pocket-sized electronic games or fast food, including a little spot that cradles sauce containers.
The optional rear-seat DVD screen measures a huge nine inches diagonal yet it doesn't take up much space when not in use. It's easily viewed from all of the rear seats when deployed from the headliner. Audio and video input jacks are provided for a variety of electronic accessories, from camcorders to portable VCRs to game consoles. The system includes two sets of cordless headphones, with jacks for three mo
The 3.5-liter V6 engine is more than adequate to propel the Pilot. Acceleration is excellent, particularly in the 30-60 mph range that matters most in daily use. With 244 horsepower to propel its 4400 pounds, the Pilot outguns the V6-powered Toyota Highlander. More important, the Honda V6 produces 240 pound-feet of torque from 3000 to 5000 rpm. The 3.5-liter engine features a broad and flat torque curve, very low emissions and good fuel economy. All Pilots benefit from a drive-by-wire throttle replaces a conventional throttle cable with an all-electronic system that relays throttle pedal position to the engine computer.
The Pilot's five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, even under hard acceleration. Honda's Grade Logic Control system monitors throttle position, speed and acceleration to avoid hunting between gears. The transmission's computer controller holds lower gears longer than normal for better performance going up hills, or to provide engine braking on downhill grades.
The front-wheel-drive model is new for 2006. Compared with all-wheel-drive versions, two-wheel-drive Pilots weigh about 175 pounds less, have a slightly wider track and a tad less ground clearance (7.8 inches for the 2WD vs. 8.0 inches for the 4WD), and thus should deliver slightly superior on-road driving characteristics. The Pilot 2WD also features a cylinder deactivation program that shuts down three of the engine's six cylinders when not needed. Combined with the lower weight, the Pilot 2WD produces impressive fuel economy: 18/24 city/highway for the 2WD compared with 17/22 for the 4WD.
Four-wheel-drive models feature Honda's full-time VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management 4WD) with an electronically locking rear differential. Most of the power is delivered to the front wheels, but Honda's system is a bit more proactive than most all-wheel-drive systems in the way it sends some of the power to the rear wheels any time the driver accelerates. A push-button differential lock improves traction in extremely slippery or stuck conditions by making sure both rear tires get power. So equipped, Honda rates the Pilot for what it calls medium off-road duty, including 30-degree dirt grades. The Pilot does not offer true off-road capability, but it's perfectly capable on gravel, rough dirt roads and two-tracks.
The rack-and-pinion steering provides good feedback. It's speed-variable and smoothly adjusts the amount of power-assist for more feel at high speeds and easier maneuvering at parking lot speeds. The steering wheel returns to center comfortably and intuitively for maneuvers in parking lots and tight driveways.
Ride and handling is more similar to that of midsize cars than it is to truck-based SUVs. The Pilot is stable at highway speeds, nimble in parking lots and sufficiently well-damped to run over winter-buckled and pothole-laden urban streets without discomfiting its passengers. The steering wheel transmits road conditions enough to keep the driver informed without jerking the wheel at every pavement disruption. Passengers in the second-row seats found the ride equally comfortable, but third-row passengers suffered somewhat from being right over the rear wheels.
Unlike some SUVs, the Pilot has enough sound insulation to prevent bumps in the road from being transmitted to the interior as noise. Given their cavernous interiors, it's not uncommon for SUVs to become booming echo chambers on rough roads. Even on Michigan's notoriously ragged freeways, the Pilot's interior remained quiet enough to carry on a normal conversation.
The Honda Pilot is roomy and comfortable and practical. Its V6 delivers good acceleration. If you need is the family-friendly versatility of a minivan, with the security presented by all-wheel drive and the higher seating position of sport utility, then give Pilot serious consideration. In a world where many SUVs take up far more space than their utility justifies, and drink far more gas than their performance merits, the Pilot is a breath of fresh air.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reports from Los Angeles; Mark Phelan contributed to this report from Detroit.