Honda Pilot proves a superb family vehicle

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

If Honda builds it, you can expect a quality product. The Japanese company has earned this enviable reputation over the past two decades with a string of exemplary vehicles.

So it’s no surprise that Honda’s 2004 mid-sized sport utility vehicle, the Pilot, is a solid and proven entry from head to foot.

It first reached dealer showrooms last year as a 2003. Our original test was two-years ago. Just as a reminder a vehicle similar to the Pilot has actually been sold for several years in the form of the mid-sized Acura MDX. The new Pilot uses the same platform as the Acura which came to market as a 2001 model.  The MDX has been one of the best-selling vehicles in Acura’s history.

The Pilot is endowed with the same V-6 engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, Variable Torque Management four-wheel drive system and three-row seating as the MDX. The Pilot’s V-6 generates 240 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque.

The biggest differences in the Pilot and MDX are in styling, optional equipment and price. The Pilot has a more conservative design; fewer standard features and a price tag $7,800 less than the MDX in base form.

Honda was late to the mid-sized car-based sport utility wars with its own vehicle. But the new SUV was worth the wait for Honda fans. It is exactly what most people are looking for in an SUV. It is not meant for serious off-road duty like traversing the Rubicon, but it’s rugged enough to handle most off-road excursions.

Most importantly, it has excellent bad-weather road manners with full-time all-wheel drive, it is endowed with exemplary power, it offers predictable handling characteristics, and it will transport up to eight people or up to 90 cubic feet of cargo with the seats folded.

Honda had not been without a mid-sized SUV. For several years it sold a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo, a truck-based vehicle, under the Passport name. The Rodeo/Passport was a good vehicle, inherently more rugged than the new Pilot. But that’s old news and the Passport is history. Today the Pilot fits perfectly into the Honda mold with its car-based platform derived from the Odyssey minivan.

The Pilot is in the same size category as the Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer and Chevrolet TrailBlazer. But it more closely resembles the Highlander, a car-based SUV, than any of the others.

Both have a low step-in height for easy entry and exit; both offer a smooth ride and both have a moderate towing capacity of 4,500 pounds. And despite 20 less horses, the Highlander’s performance numbers are close to the Pilot. The Pilot, however, has a third-row seat. The Highlander does not. The third row is not a place where adults would feel comfortable for more than a short trip, but it is a good place to park the kids. And when not in use, the seat folds flat creating an unencumbered cargo area without the need to remove and store it.

The Pilot is wider than any of the aforementioned vehicles at 77.3 inches and will accept the ubiquitous 4-X-8 sheet of plywood lying flat on the floor. The three or four extra inches of girth as compared to competitors also creates a more comfortable arrangement for three people inhabiting the second-row seat.
The Pilot’s Variable Torque Management 4-Wheel Drive (VTM-4) system is unique. The Pilot operates as a front-driver under normal conditions, but when wheel-spin is detected, torque is shifted front to back. If a driver gets stuck in mud, snow or sand, a dashboard switch will lock the rear differential. Lock-up is available at speeds up to 18 miles per hour in either first, second or reverse gears to help resolve the problem. Above that speed, the system unlocks and reverts to the standard all-wheel drive.

The driving experience is delightful. The Pilot has scads of power for all situations with the ability to climb from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour in just over 8-seconds. Rack-and-pinion steering gives the Pilot a confident feel on the road. The ride quality is as good as it gets in a sport utility, akin to a Honda Accord sedan.

As you would expect from a Honda, visibility is good in all directions. And as you would expect from a Honda, the dashboard layout is logical and the switchgear is easy to use.

One exception – the column-mounted shifter is unhandy and it’s easy to slip past D into D3. The trick, according to Honda officials, is to pull the lever toward you and then down and it will stick into D. It works. Dealers should explain that little trick to customers who may otherwise go through their years of ownership of the Pilot cursing the slipping shifter.

Honda obviously learned from other manufacturers and did a great job thinking out the interior design. There are some nice touches. One is a second-row activity tray in the fold-down armrest specially designed for the youngsters. It includes drink holders and a place to put fast food items. Up front between the seats, a console with a sliding lid includes large cupholders, a cell phone pocket complete with power point and additional storage cubbies.

Double cargo nets on the back of the front seats seem a logical place for kids to store books and school gear.

In the rear are four flip-down grocery hooks. And Honda didn’t forget the cupholders. There are nine at strategic locations.

For all trim levels on the 2004 Pilot, the second row is now adjustable fore and aft, and the slide feature has been improved for easier access to the third row. Also standard on all 2004 Pilots are parking brake and seat belt reminder systems - alerting the driver when the parking brake is engaged, or when seat belts are not properly fastened.

The Pilot has only two trim lines, LX and EX. The LX starts at $27,590 with a large number of standard features including air conditioning, cruise control, AM-FM stereo with in-dash CD player and power widows and doorlocks. All Pilots come with antilock brakes and side impact airbags.

Our EX test vehicle with leather and a DVD entertainment system had a federal sticker of $32,480. Slightly higher is the EX with navigation system for $33,360. The navigation system and the entertainment system are not offered together.

There was no need for options on our test vehicle. Virtually everything available on the Pilot was standard equipment.

Honda has come close to building the ultimate crossover sport utility vehicle, a 21st century people mover with a healthy dose of horsepower and the ability to keep its occupants high and dry when needed.

After a couple of years it was nice to pilot the Pilot once again and once again it proved a superbly competent family hauler.

But did anyone expect anything less from Honda?