Honda Pilot – a solid advancement for a large practical SUV

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

When the cover was pulled off the next-generation Honda Pilot at the Detroit
Auto Show last January, you could almost hear a big “ho-hum” from the assembled journalists as they stifled a collective yawn.

Revealed was a revised version of the Pilot with its typically SUV-like boxy stance.

Journalists obviously, at least to us, were looking for a variant of the new swoopy aerodynamic crossover design popularized by Mazda and other manufacturers in recent years.

What Honda offered was an all-new squared-up crossover that looked very much like a traditional sport utility.

We have learned not to question Honda. It seems every time we wonder in print as to the sanity of the company’s decisions, we get bit.

When the Honda box, called the Element, was introduced a few years ago we enjoyed a good laugh. Honda got the last laugh with a vehicle that caught the imagination of consumers with annual sales of more than 50,000. Since then, the box-on-wheels design has caught fire.

Then a couple of years ago we questioned Honda’s direction when it introduced the new-generation compact CR-V crossover without a V-6 engine option. Everyone it seemed was jumping on the six-cylinder bandwagon. The Toyota RAV4 was example number one.

But now that gas prices are soaring, gas mileage is paramount and with a year of record CR-V sales behind them, Honda again is enjoying the last laugh.

So we would be loath to criticize the Pilot’s traditional styling.

Several months after the auto show when automotive writers got their first chance behind the wheel, Honda officials explained that focus groups of loyal Honda owners told them they liked the typical SUV look. They were perhaps a bit dismayed at the growing trend to give crossovers a more minivan appearance. They favored the beefy no-nonsense stance that the Pilot has offered since it was first introduced as a 2003 model.

So Honda has obliged.

We don’t mind the Ford Escape-on-steroids styling so much as the new funky signature Honda truck-style grille flanked by huge light enclosures. If we were in charge, that grille would have to go. Yikes!

But we discovered in just a few miles that whether the outside is appealing or not, the driving experience is modern and up to date. And that’s what counts.

Honda has tweaked and improved and enlarged the original into a second-generation vehicle that represents a solid advancement.

Performance is substantial if not exciting. The new Pilot has decent on-road feel with accurate steering. Wind and road noise have been virtually eliminated.

The driving position is good. The dashboard is ergonomically designed. And Honda has provided considerable storage room up front including two large right-at-hand cupholders.

In addition to traditional styling, focus groups pointed to the need for more interior space, especially in the third row and cargo area. So Honda responded adding nearly three inches to the length and wheelbase and about an inch in width and height.

Ironically, the blocky styling that Honda owners favor results in a higher roofline than many of the new swoopy entries and yields more headroom and cargo space. We’ll call it Honda's penchant for function over form. And it will carry seven in addition to the driver.

The winners here are second-row passengers who gain an inch more legroom and nearly an inch in shoulder room. Third-row occupants who gain nearly two inches of legroom are equally as thrilled and the family packer has more than two additional cubic feet to work with behind the third-row seats.

We can report that the second row has generous leg room and excellent head room. The third row will accommodate adults, but even with the new-found room the far-back seats are best left to the younger set for anything more than a quick jaunt to the restaurant. 

For the most part the Pilot’s mechanicals remain mostly unchanged. And that’s not a bad thing. The Pilot is still powered by Honda's excellent 3.5-liter V-6. Horsepower has been bumped up six, from 244 to 250, and torque is up 13 foot-pounds to 253.

An interesting advancement comes in cylinder deactivation technology. In the previous vehicle the engine could switch between six and three cylinders under light stress. The new engine can run on three, four or six cylinders. According to Honda, there is more opportunity for the engine under light loads to operate on fewer cylinders.

The object of cylinder deactivation is to increase gas mileage and Honda has succeeded. EPA mileage of 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway for all-wheel drive and 17/23 for the front drive version is up one-to-two miles per gallon over the 2008 edition.

Unfortunately, in our brave new world of skyrocketing gas prices, manufacturers are going to have to find ways to squeeze out even more mileage.

The new Pilot is highlighted by a well-thought-out interior. Gauges are clear and easy to read with a three-dimensional floating appearance and an instrument panel-mounted shifter is a giant leap from the old ungainly column shifter.

We applaud Honda for keeping climate and audio controls handy and not embedded in the navigation screen as in so many vehicles. Even the radio readout, including XM song and artist information, is available without delving into the ‘nav’ screen.

Storage areas abound. A huge lid covers a storage tray and drink holders at the front of the center console. A locking center bin provides more than a half cubic foot of space.

Inside the bin is a standard auxiliary input jack for the audio system and a 12-volt auxiliary outlet. The top line Touring model adds a 115-volt outlet and a USCB connectivity port for an Apple iPod or removable memory stick.

While the Pilot is not inexpensive, Honda has held the line on prices for 2009 models.

Prices start at $28,265 for the front-drive LX and climb the ladder through five trim lines to $40,665 for an all-wheel-drive Touring with navigation and rear entertainment.

Our test vehicle was a top-of-the-line edition giving us the opportunity to test all of the Pilot’s available goodies.

Whatever model suits your needs and pocketbook, you can rest assured Pilot will provide a rewarding driving experience and come with a long track record of dependability and the best resale value in the business.


Base price: $28,265; as driven, $40,665
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 250 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 253 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: four-wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 109.2 inches
Length: 190.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,608 pounds
Turning circle: 38.6 feet
Luggage capacity: 18 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 87 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 21 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 22 mpg highway, 16 mpg city
0-60: 8 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9, and Ford Flex

The Good
* Honda has not lost sight of the utility part of the equation
* Well-designed dashboard, switchgear
* History of dependability and great resale value

The Bad
* Despite slightly improved gas mileage it's disappointing

The Ugly
* We will never learn to like Honda's new truck grille design