2012 Honda Pilot

RALEIGH, N.C. — Traditionalist SUV buyers, those who prefer their vehicle to look like a box, have found comfort behind the wheel of the mid-size Honda Pilot since its remake in 2009. Not only does it meet their idea of design but like most Honda fans they are looking for traditional Honda reliability and resale value. This appeal was pointed up by 2011 sales figures. More than 116,000 copies of the Pilot were sold, a 14,000 unit gain over 2010.

But the Pilot's shortcomings have been well documented. Several competitors have offered better choices for those shopping mid-sized sport utilities. Much to its credit, Honda has taken notice of criticisms and made numerous changes and upgrades for the 2012 model year while leaving in  place its strengths such as an adult-friendly third-row seat. The refreshed Pilot is, indeed, a better vehicle.

On the cosmetic side, the industrial-strength grille, that reminded us of an oven heating element, has been replaced with a more Honda-like application. Even more noteworthy are interior changes. The dashboard area has been revised with more logically clustered buttons and knobs.

The new layout was much more to our liking and functional. Things like the audio volume and tuning knobs — in this age of sophistication, knobs are still the best design — and the traditional pre-set buttons for easily accessing favorite stations were a pleasant surprise. The radio information area in the navigation screen is easy to read and can be accessed, even while using navigation, simply by pressing an "audio" button. Climate controls are relatively straight forward, and the heated seat controls are clearly marked on the dashboard.

The huge storage area between the seats is still one of the best designs in the business. We particularly like the cover that can be pulled over the storage bins and the cupholders creating a large flat surface. We used it to hold a small birthday cake box on the way back from the bakery, a superior alternative to setting it on the floor or on a rear seat.

We would have been even happier if Honda had replaced the five-speed automatic transmission with a six-speed and perhaps added some horsepower and torque to its 3.5-liter V-6, which still makes 250 horses and 253 pound-feet of torque, unchanged since 2009. But alas, Honda soldiers on with the five-speed and with no performance upgrades.

To Honda's credit, however, it has managed to wring out two more miles to the gallon to make the Pilot one of the most fuel-efficient mid-sized SUVs on the market. It is now rated at 18/25 in front-wheel drive and 17/24 in all-wheel drive.

Our initial road trip in the new model also reminded us how effortless the relatively large sport utility drives. It is also rewarding each time you head out, whether you are alone or are followed out the door by a half dozen people that you can benefit from the Pilot’s utility and comfort.

The 2012 Pilot has been on sale since September with a starting price of $29,280 including destination charge. Our top trim level loaded all-wheel drive test car stickered for $41,630.

— Jim Meachen