Honda Pilot – a 21st century people mover

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Interstate 95 is among the busiest north-south arteries in the country.

Spend a day on I-95 and you will discover many things about your vehicle such as how it performs in emergency handling situations, how fast it brakes from 75 miles per hour and how quickly it accelerates out of the danger of onrushing traffic.

Spend a day on the asphalt and concrete that stretches from Maine to Miami and you will discover if the driving position is comfortable or unbearable, if the rear seats draw complaints of back pain from your passengers and if the suspension does a good job swallowing up road imperfections.

And you will ascertain if the EPA numbers on the window sticker are only a fabrication of the vehicle’s real-world mileage.

We spent eight hours each way on a trip from eastern North Carolina to Daytona Beach using the I-95 speedway in a 2006 Honda Pilot. And we found again what we had already determined three years ago — Honda’s biggest sport utility vehicle is a competent traveler whether it be for short jaunts or day-long cruising down the busiest interstate east of the Mississippi.

The Pilot doesn’t have the most power, the best towing capability or the largest cargo capacity in its class. But the Pilot performs all tasks in an exemplary manner.

It has predictable handling, satisfying performance, confident braking, a comfortable and quiet interior, impeccable fit and finish and a full arsenal of safety equipment. And if you opt for the optional navigation system, you will have the best setup in the world.

Three adults, five or six travel bags, golf clubs and — on the return — bags of grapefruit and oranges rode comfortably in the Pilot.

One of the co-pilots noted as he was dropped off at his house near the end of the journey, “I like it. Nice ride.” That’s high compliments from a dyed-in-the-wool Chevy truck fanatic.

This is the fourth year for the Pilot, a vehicle Honda felt it needed to keep its customers in the fold when they traded in their small CR-V and were looking for a bigger place to put their family.

It is the kissing cousin of the Acura MDX. Both vehicles are built on the old Odyssey minivan platform.

Although the rather bland but acceptable styling is basically unchanged since the truck hit the streets in 2002 as a 2003 model, Honda has continually upgraded the vehicle. The Pilot did receive freshened headlight, taillight and wheel designs for 2006.

But perhaps the biggest change in four years is in the engine. The horsepower rating of the 3.5-liter V-6 was raised from 240 to 255 last year. And that is a good thing in a vehicle that weighs nearly 4,500 pounds.

Although the engine is the same as in 2005, the published horsepower is 244 under new Society of Automotive Engineers net calculations that went into affect in January of 2005.

According to published stats, the V-6 will propel the Pilot from 0 to 60 in just a tick or two over 8 seconds. We found the performance, which flows through a 5-speed automatic transmission, to be exemplary in all traffic situations.

New for 2006, is a cylinder management system that shuts off three of the engine’s six cylinders during cruising and deceleration. Unfortunately, the system is offered only in the 2-wheel drive version, raising fuel mileage to 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. The all-wheel drive models with the conventional VTEC V-6 are rated at 17/22.

Honda has placed considerable emphasis on safety and has backed it up with a full range of features as standard equipment. For 2006, Honda added side-curtain airbags on all trim levels. Other standard safety features include four-wheel antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and side airbags for front occupants. Stability control comes on the top EX trim level.

The Pilot can transport up to eight people — particularly if three of them are children — in three rows of seats. And when the third row is not in use — as in our case with just three passengers on board — it folds flat into the floor creating 47.6 cubic feet of storage space. With both rows flat, storage capacity rises to 87.6 cubic feet. While the second row affords comfortable room for adults, the third row should be reserved for only small people.

Although we bought oranges, not plywood, the Pilot is wide enough to accept the ubiquitous 4-X-8 sheet of plywood lying flat on the floor.

The Pilot’s Variable Torque Management 4-Wheel Drive (VTM-4) system is unique. It operates as a front-driver under normal conditions, but when wheelspin 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 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 Honda driving experience is delightful.

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

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 cellphone pocket complete with power point and additional storage cubbies. Dual cargo nets on the backs of the front seats seem a logical place for kids to store books and school supplies.

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

The optional navigation system, which now has a 7-inch screen, took us to two programmed destinations without a hitch. In addition to showing virtually every road in America, it is so easy to program that a person who has never encountered a NAV system, can handle the chores on the first try.

And for 2006, a rear-parking assist camera comes with the navigation system.

The Pilot comes in just two trim levels — LX and EX — and even in base 2-wheel drive LX trim most everything people want in a vehicle is standard equipment starting at $27,545.

Our EX with all-wheel drive and navigation comes in at $35,795 for 2006. There are no options.

Unfortunately, buyers must choose between navigation and a rear DVD entertainment system. You can’t get both.

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 on bad-weather roads.