The Honda Pilot is a mid-size SUV, a crossover that uses carlike unit-body construction and suspension for better fuel economy and handling. We found the Pilot a well balanced vehicle with good carrying space, nice road manners, and decent comfort.
An eight-passenger Honda Pilot can handle four adults and four kids easily. It has useful cargo space beyond the third-row seats so you needn't fold any seats down to fit a week's worth of groceries. And with six cupholders in the second row alone, eight door cargo pockets and the ability to carry a 4×8-foot sheet of building material flat inside, finding a place for everything isn't an issue.
The majority of Pilots are all-wheel-drive models that allow another 1000 pounds in tow rating and provide better acceleration and climbing in snow. However, with the same tires and brakes, they don't stop or change direction any better than the front-drive version. If you don't tow near the maximum and live in temperate climes, the Honda Odyssey offers more room and similar flexibility and features for about the same tab as an equal-level Pilot.
In footprint and operation the Pilot is one of the most efficient eight-seat crossovers around, and offers models suitable for hard-core outdoor adventurers who define camping as a sleeping bag to those who wouldn't consider adventuring unless there's a Four Seasons within an hour's drive. And if you ever get tired of it, 95 percent of a Pilot can be recycled.
The Pilot was completely redesigned for 2009 and continues into 2010 with essentially no changes.
Honda Pilot's styling was inspired by an ultra-rugged laptop computer, and while the new Pilot is certainly more rugged looking than its predecessor, it's also much cleaner with fewer indentations and carving in the body panels, more integrated lines, and a boxier shape that serves usefulness as well as it caters to image. Surfaces that aren't sloped inward at the roof pay dividends in head space and big-box cargo loading, and the three inches of extra length have gone between the axles and into the cabin.
With substantial chrome trim and eyebrows in the headlight housings, fog lights much higher in the bumper, and a hatch that tapers more to the sides than forward at the top, the Pilot looks wider it is. Viewed from dead astern the mid-size Pilot appears as bulky as the full-size Toyota Sequoia.
Panel crimps define the wheel openings, aiding the rugged look without adding width or bolt-on parts that might promote rust. The third-row side window has been separated by a thick chunk of sheetmetal, to no apparent detriment in driver vision or third-row comfort. The rear wiper has been parked off the hatch glass because that now opens separately, the hatch has a hefty pull handle with touch-point releases and is powered on the Touring model, and the bumper has a good cover so sloppy loading won't mar the paint.
All Pilots come with a Class III tow hitch and coolers required for towing; only a wiring pigtail will be needed from the dealer. The top tow rating remains 4500 pounds on 4WD and 3500 pounds on front-drive models, but the 4500 is no longer limited to boats or low-profile trailers. Roof rails are standard on higher trims and you'll probably be using the back bumper and door sills without a step stool or small ladder to load items six feet up.
In its most basic form the Pilot is derived from the same platform as the Acura MDX big crossover, yet the two do not share an engine, many features, or end-user purpose and philosophy. As a result, they differ dramatically in use.
Regardless of trim level, the Honda Pilot interior appears well thought out and assembled, with functional touches at every turn and a luxury factor that increases alongside price. In simple terms the base LX will do everything a Touring will do except reposition your seat and mirrors or open and close the power tailgate.
The cloth upholstery on LX and EX we found to be comfortable in temperature extremes. The cloth is a subdued design with just enough pattern to hide stains that become part and parcel of any eight-seat vehicle. One may desire more features from higher-priced models yet the basics are all here, including power windows and locks and air conditioning for front and rear. Just like the priciest Pilot, door armrests have soft cushioned elbow pads and there's no cheap feel in frequently felt surfaces. All trims offer four interior colors dependent on paint hue. Premium models are upgraded with nicely textured leather, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever, and more upscale door panel trim.
The front seats deliver good support for long-term comfort and bolsters on the seatbacks provide lateral support without imposing thigh cushions you'd have to climb over for every entry or exit. The power driver's seat on the EX adjusts in one more plane than the LX and is easier underway for minor improvements in finding the ideal position and height, yet we had no fatigue or wish for more after hours in an LX.
The middle-row seat provides essentially the same room as the front seats, including good toe space under the front seats. This seat split-folds 60/40 with the short cushion on the right side for easiest loading, both sides slide fore and aft for maximum flexibility or keeping that baby seat closer, the climate control is handy at the back of the console, and each door has two cupholders in the armrest and dual pockets below. Although it appears as merely a fixed cushion above the center armrest, the center headrest easily lifts and extends to a useful height.
The third row is easily accessible: One lift of the lever at kid's-eye height in the center row backrest tilts the seat and slides it forward for third-row access. As with all crossovers this is the restriction point as the rear seat offers good space and getting there is easy for limber kids and slender adults. Like the middle row, this seat splits to fold flat, has three usable headrests and offers storage on both sides. The optional rear-seat entertainment system is much the same as the top-ranked setups in the Odyssey and Acura MDX.
At least in LX and EX trims this is a jump-in-and-go kind of ride. No fumbling about looking for where to put the key (or a start button), a one-touch tilt-and-telescope function to put the wheel where you want it, and generally intuitive controls; for example, the intermittent wiper settings are defined by the number of raindrops to match precipitation to wiper speed. Stability system and park sensor (Touring) defeat switches are to the left of the driver so hooligans bent on embarrassing mom won't turn them off at an inconvenient moment.
Gauges appear as a clear overlay with black markings floating above a white background and red needles swinging between the layers. A foot-operated parking brake rides above a good dead pedal to rest your left foot on without pointing toes, and the shifter is next to the wheel on the left side of the central control area.
On most Pilots this area features an info display at the top for miscellaneous data, silver-trimmed audio controls, black-framed climate controls, a box-shaped bin at the bottom and an omnidirectional vent on either side. On the Touring it gets busier and ventures beyond that jump-in-and-go realm that frequently accompanies audio-video store showrooms on wheels.
At the top is a shaded navigation screen for the system that operates with voice recognition and delivers electronic breadcrumbs to retrace your off-road route back to pavement. Below that are a slim display for temperature data, the audio and climate controls, seat heat switches, a much smaller MP3-player size bin, and the interface jog dial for the navigation system.
That controller works like many, with a central function knob that moves in almost any direction to work through menus and lists. It's neither as infuriating as some systems nor as easy as the best, and some of the six hard keys surrounding it were difficult to read in daylight with or without sunglass, polarized or plain. Altogether there are about 50 buttons and switches in the center stack and another 13 (plus horn) on the steering wheel, so some familiarization is in order.
Above the glovebox is a segmented tray; the glovebox is deep but the door drops with surprising weight so keep knees clear; each door has two pockets in it as well, and it seems every bin/cubby/box has a rubberized floor to minimize noise and sliding contents. The center console could conceal an ultra-portable notebook or small purse if you configure it properly.
Pilot pilots will find the cowl line higher than usual for Honda vehicles but the view out remains good, the style lines in the hood somewhat helpful at defining the sides of the car in motion. With rear pillars too far away to be impediments, center rear shoulder belts and headrests stowed until needed, and good rear-wiper coverage, seeing out of a Pilot is a non-issue. All but the LX have a wide-angle mirror above the rearview mirror for keeping an eye on the passengers, but some lighter-colored dashboard edges make a minor-nuisance reflection in the side window glass by the mirrors.
The cargo area has as assortment of tie-down points and bag hooks. The cargo floor can be flipped up and latched against the third-row seatback, and the net inside it attached at the side, for a carrying basket/shelf capable of holding 22 pounds. This net is a few inches below the hatch-glass windowline, and since that now opens separately, small items can be loaded through the window opening without lifting the entire hatch. Below the cargo floor is more storage area but it is flat to be useful for carrying heavier objects when the net is deployed. There is also a compartment on the driver's side big enough to hold small service parts and a one-gallon jug for windshield washer refills or whatever.
There is perhaps no better demonstration of packaging efficiency than folding all the back seats flat and laying a 4×8-foot sheet of plywood, which is more than half as long as the whole car, flat on the floor, closing the hatch, and driving off with it completely out of the weather.
On the road, the Honda Pilot feels balanced, with sufficient power and brakes, decent ride quality and handling, and on 4WD models the ability to leave the pavement or tackle pre-plowed snow. Most owners won't go as far as a Pilot will go, but the rugged looks match vehicles that will go farther on a bad trail, so travel is best kept to scenic byways and mountain motorways.
The 3.5-liter V6 takes on a characteristic Honda growl when you push it and you'll need to be towing or accelerating uphill on an on-ramp to require such grunt. For the most part the engine is in the background, never silenced, never rough and never annoying. It now uses Honda's Variable Cylinder Management to switch off two or three of its six cylinders to save fuel; the ECO light on the dash shows when you are getting best economy and does not necessarily mean the Pilot is running on only three or four cylinders. Like the all-wheel drive system, the VCM is transparent to the driver and requires no action on his or her part, and apart from some front-tire spin under heavy acceleration from rest the front-drive model drives just like the all-wheel drive.
Among the host of three-row crossovers in the 3.5-liter to 3.8-liter V6 class, there isn't a wide range between the slowest and fastest and the Honda feels right in the middle. Where the others may enjoy a slight advantage is with six speeds in the transmission, and/or the ability to address each of them separately or in a Sport mode for quicker response. The Pilot shifter offers an OD Off switch which locks out the top two gears, so if you want fourth to control speed on long hill descents or winding roads you're out of luck. Toyota's Highlander and Mazda's CX-9 come to mind as better in these respects, and to a lesser extent, GM's Acadia/Enclave family.
Since the Pilot is among the lightest of the eight-seat crossovers the suspension can be tuned for ride comfort without requiring undue stiffness for control. It swallows up most road surfaces with aplomb and never bottomed out on dirt road whoop-de-doos when driven sensibly but briskly. No single noise source stands out and normal conversations are quite possible at highway speeds. The Michelin tires on the premium model may last longer or prove better in severe snow but you'd need instruments far more sophisticated than your behind to show any other advantage. The stability assist is one of the lesser intrusive such algorithms and if it comes into play you probably won't notice as you'll be busy wondering how you got into a bad situation.
Relative to some other recent crossover redesigns, the Pilot seems to ride a bit softer than the GMC Acadia and its GM siblings and has less body roll than the Highlander, though the Acadia may enjoy a slight advantage in steering feel. The most sporting drive in the segment is Mazda's CX-9 though we wouldn't venture as far from the beaten path in that as we would in a Pilot, and the Pilot is more maneuverable than any of them.
Brakes perform as well as they should be expected and all electronic braking aids are standard. If you see something bad about to happen, just stand on the pedal as hard as you can and keep steering you might just drive around it.
The 4WD models use all-wheel drive: They work full time and offer no low-range gearing. The 4WD models deduct 1 mpg from EPA ratings.
The Honda Pilot offers plenty of cargo and people versatility in an efficient package, with towing capacity for light loads and the available confidence of all-wheel drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report after his test drive of the Pilot around Riverside, California.