Think of the Pilot as the anti-Hummer. Where GM’s military-themed brand is all about excess and flash, the Pilot is a highly useful, people-moving tool without the charisma. Many SUVs of this size offer a V-8; the Pilot makes do with a V-6. Other SUVs have towering ground clearance and huge rims and tires implying supreme off-road capability; the Pilot rides on humble 16-inch wheels and tires that are optimized for on-road comfort and performance. If you envision yourself herding bison up a mountainside, look elsewhere in the SUV segment. If, however, you want a well-rounded SUV for predominately on-pavement driving, check out the Honda Pilot.
The Pilot’s styling conveys its functional honesty in Honda’s trademark manner: clean lines neither excite nor offend, and short overhangs mask the Pilot’s true size, making it look smaller than it is. Perhaps Honda intentionally made the Pilot’s clothes extra plain so as not to lure away buyers of its considerably swankier, crisply styled upmarket cousin, the Acura MDX.
The Pilot interior’s defining characteristic is that it’s surprisingly huge, with its key dimension being its width. Roughly the same overall length as the seven-passenger Ford Explorer, the Pilot is five inches broader and seats one more passenger. And should you need to carry a 4×8-foot sheet of plywood, it’ll fit between the wheelwells of the Pilot.
The dashboard features large, nicely laid-out analog gauges that look like they could’ve come from an Accord, and the steering wheel’s hefty rim bespeaks maneuvers you probably wouldn’t want to try in a 4,400-pound SUV. Last year saw the addition of a dead pedal, a nice ergonomic improvement. Seating capacity is eight, but the three people in the third row better have short legs, as that row gives up seven inches of legroom to the second row.
The base Pilot LX comes well equipped with power windows and locks, cruise control, keyless entry, and a CD stereo. The more uplevel EX adds a power driver’s seat, a six-disc CD changer with steering-wheel-mounted controls, and front and rear automatic climate control. The premium EX-L adds leather, a power moonroof, and heated seats. In line with the Pilot’s practical personality, the list of options is short, with the just a DVD entertainment system for rear-seat passengers or a satellite navigation system (they can’t be had together) available only on the top-spec EX-L model. The navigation system has a tiny six-inch screen that looks like an afterthought; the newer Honda Odyssey minivan has an eight-inch screen–one we hope will appear on future Pilots. The Pilot’s DVD entertainment screen is also modest at seven inches; third-row passengers will need binoculars if they hope to watch anything on it.
The driver and front passenger get front and side airbags, and EX-L models include electronic stability control with traction control and brake assist. Anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are standard on all models, as is tire-pressure monitoring. Front and rear side-curtain airbags are unavailable, representing the one glaring safety omission on this otherwise well-kitted vehicle. Some competitors such as the Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer offer head curtain airbags.
Under the hood is the 3.5-liter V-6 that also sees duty in the Odyssey minivan, the Ridgeline pickup, and, strangely, the Saturn VUE. This engine got a boost from 240 to 255 horsepower for 2005. For 2006, Honda left the power output alone, but boosted the fuel economy by including a cylinder-deactivation feature. Under light-load conditions, such as cruising at a steady speed on the highway, the engine shuts down half its cylinders and runs as a three-cylinder engine. Perhaps more important than the horsepower number in this application is the torque: 250 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm. That rather high torque peak indicates the Pilot’s acceleration traits–the engine launches softly and then really comes on in the mid-range rev zone. This torque curve is good for passing, when the five-speed automatic transmission kicks down a gear or two, but not so good for ultimate towing power, though the Pilot’s 4,500-lb towing maximum is certainly respectable.
Behind the Wheel
The ride from the four-wheel independent suspension is superb, and the Pilot gets around corners like an overgrown Accord. The VTM-4 all-wheel-drive system’s default torque bias is to the front wheels, although as soon as traction is lost, up to 70 percent of the power is automatically shifted to the rear wheels. This means that, even on models without stability control, skids are very rare–even on snow and ice. Last year, the Pilot got a new power steering pump for improved on-center feel, and the fact that Honda is even worrying about steering feel in an SUV is another indication that on-road driving is a priority. If you find yourself on an on-ramp devoid of cars in a Pilot devoid of kids, there’s more fun to be had than in a truck-based SUV like a Chevy Trailblazer. The Pilot is quieter than truck-based SUVs, too. Transitioning to the Pilot from a sedan or minivan is easy, with the command seating position and physical size being the most notable changes. Move to the Honda from a tradition body-on-frame SUV, and it’ll exceed expectations, steering, handling, braking, and even accelerating with more responsiveness and refinement than you’d grown accustomed to.
In the Pilot, Honda has a sophisticated, roomy, and reasonably quick way to get eight people to their destination no matter what Mother Nature throws down on the roads. As an added bonus, the fuel economy’s even decent. The Pilot’s IntelliChoice Cost of Ownership Value Rating is Excellent across the board, owing to its class-leading resale value and Honda reliability. The Pilot is one of the largest unibody SUVs (as opposed to trucklike body-on-frame vehicles like the Nissan Pathfinder), and as such, it occupies a unique place in the market, with carlike refinement and accommodations larger than those of rivals such as the Ford Explorer. True to its mission, the Pilot is a jack-of-all-trades vehicle, ready to adapt from weekday kid shuttle to weekend adventure machine and DYI project hauler. Ultimately, this versatility is the vehicle’s key attraction. Those who want hardcore off-roading or heavy-duty towing should look to a more specialized vehicle; the other 80-plus percentage of us would be well served by the Pilot.
- What’s Hot Seats eight, holds 4×8 sheets of plywoodRefined road manners, packageCylinder deactivation feature boosts mileage What’s Not Boring stylingNo lower-cost FWD modelLess torque than V-8 competitors
With a 15-horsepower increase for 2005, the only real news for 2006 is the Variable Cylinder Management system.
Can leather make you safer? In the Pilot it can, since the stability-control system comes standard on the top-of-the-line, leather-clad EX-L model. The base LX is quite stripped-down, with steel wheels, no smoked glass (a telltale sign of a base-model SUV), and even no outside temperature gauge. For many, the midgrade EX is probably just right. As with all Hondas, options are grouped in trim levels, and only a few minor dealer items are available individually.