2016 Honda Pilot

CINCINNATI, Ohio — What exactly makes an outstanding family crossover? What traits must it possess in our ever-evolving world in the areas of safety, information, and drivetrain? We pondered this question the other day and came up with a short answer — the 2016 Honda Pilot.
The Pilot is vitally important to Honda, pointed out by the work put into developing an all-new third-generation vehicle that will put the Pilot back in the conversation when discussing which is the best full-sized family crossover on the North American market.

No question, the new Pilot is good enough to wade heavily into the conversation. Actually there's nothing so old school about the outgoing Pilot that a small dose of style and refinement and an infusion of modern safety and infotainment technology would not fix. The fix is in. This is it. It vaults the Pilot — which now looks more like its smaller sibling the CR-V than a two-decade-old Land Rover — to the head of the segment class.

We never quite figured the blocky, truck-like design assigned to the last-generation Pilot just as its competition was opting for more rounded and curvaceous styling. But it didn't stop people from purchasing the Honda for its vaunted reliability, roomy interior, and family-friendly features. What the Pilot needed was more refinement, updated stuff and a bit more style to put in the driveway. And that's what Honda has brought to the mid-sized crossover segment for 2016. 

The new Pilot is slightly larger gaining 1.8 inches in wheelbase and 3.5 inches in length while at the same time slightly lighter by as much as 286 pounds. Losing weight while adding on new features and equipment is indeed commendable.

The Pilot is again powered by a 3.5-liter V-6, but it's a new direct-injection version that operates on regular gas and now displaces 280 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque, an increase of 30 ponies and nine more foot-pounds. You can feel it too, especially on the higher trim levels — Touring and Elite — which get a new nine-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters and an automatic stop/start system. The bottom three trims — LX, EX and EX-L — are equipped with a six-speed automatic, but even that's a step forward over the outgoing model which lived with a rather outdated five-speed shifter.

This translates into improved performance in real-world driving. The 2016 Pilot possesses a light and agile feel, more than willing to tackle merges onto a Kentucky interstate highway and equipped to do quick passing maneuvers around slower traffic on the rural, winding two-lanes in northern Kentucky. This new urgency is measured by 0-to-60 times in the lower reaches of 6 seconds and quarter mile times of around 15 seconds. That's nearly two seconds faster off the line than the 2015 Pilot. Probably more importantly to most people is gas mileage, and that, too, has significantly improved, now rated at — according to Honda — 19 mpg city, 27 highway and 22 combined for the front-wheel drive six speed and for bragging rights — 20/27/23 for the nine-speed. Last year's front-drive model was EPA-rated at 18/25/21.

One other thing — when properly equipped the front-driven model can tow 3,500 pounds and with AWD, 5,000 pounds.

The Pilot exhibits a solid persona, drives smaller, and feels less cumbersome than the outgoing vehicle thanks in part to the weight loss, a stiffer structure, relatively precise steering from the new electric setup, and help from the optional "torque-vectoring" all-wheel drive.  But this is still a big SUV so don't expect sports-car-like handling. What you can expect is a suspension system that offers a pleasing ride soaking up road imperfections like a wet sponge on a spilled drink.

It's the living quarters where the Pilot will attract most people who should be immediately impressed upon their first test drive with the quiet cabin  especially in the upper trim levels, which get more sound deadening than lower trims — apparently extra cash brings extra solitude. But the bottom line, all Pilots are better insulated from outside distractions than the outgoing model.

The Pilot can be configured as a seven-passenger vehicle with the second-row captain's chairs or as an eight-passenger hauler with bench seats. A special feature is second-row seats that tilt and slide forward with the push of a button to allow access to the rear. But the pass-through is still small and access to the back seat is best left to the younger and more athletic members of the family. Once ensconced in the rear, passengers will find decent leg and head room.

Interior quality is excellent with soft-touch surfaces virtually everywhere including the dash and door panels. The gauges are clear and attractive and the infotainment system, navigation and climate controls are intuitively operated through the eight-inch touchscreen. Thankfully, climate controls can be accessed without the screen and are easy to use. On the other hand, we wish Honda would include a traditional volume knob for the audio system instead of the aggravating touch-activated control.

Honda preaches safety, and it offers a suite of cutting-edge safety equipment — for a price. We think the Pilot should come with more standard safety. Honda offers the requist safety items across the lineup featured by virtually all manufacturers including antilock brakes, traction and stability control, front and side curtain airbags and a rearview camera. For one thing, blind spot monitoring should be available on all vehicles in this price category.

The Honda Sensing package, available on several trim levels, includes forward collision warning, forward collision mitigation with automatic braking, road departure intervention, and lane departure warning. Also available on higher trim levels are the Honda LaneWatch blind-spot camera, blind-spot warning with cross traffic alert, rear parking sensors and adaptive cruise control.

Prices start at $30,875 including destination charge for the base LX 2WD and max out at $47,300 for the new top-trim Elite w/Navi and Rear Entertainment AWD.

— Jim Meachen