2003 Honda Pilot

Big Bear City, California
There are no kangaroo bars on the . There are no mud-churning off-road tires. No neoprene seat covers. Not even a first-aid kit.Honda describes the Pilot as a “family adventure vehicle.” We can’t help but admire this bit of plain speaking on the subject of SUVs. Yes, for the most part, real Americans use sport-utes as family transportation, not rock-bashing, brush-busting stunt vehicles.

Like the seven-passenger from which it’s derived, the eight-passenger Pilot makes its point with an intelligently packaged interior. There are three rows of seats, and they fold and flop and disappear as if in a little puzzle box, delivering a bunch of useful configurations. The Pilot is about two inches taller and four inches wider than the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, the , and the , so it has a noticeable edge in head and shoulder room (though not rear-seat leg room). The rear seats fold perfectly flat to provide 90.3 cubic feet of cargo capacity. And for all you plywood fanatics, there’s a genuine four feet of space between the rear wheel wells.

Yet there’s more to the design of this interior than just space. Utility is everywhere you look. A well-crafted center console incorporates map pockets, a bin with CD storage, a writing tray with a holder for business cards, a hidden cell-phone cradle, and even cup holders designed to hold your grande-size coffee in place through up to 0.5 g of cornering force. The list of standard or optional features includes a DVD-based navigation system with one of the most user-friendly interfaces in the industry, a powerful rear-seat climate-control system, a rear-seat activity tray for the kids, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with wireless headphones, plus grab handles, map lights, tie-down hooks, and cargo-area illumination.

The same practical intelligence has been applied to the Pilot’s all-wheel-drive system. It’s designed to cope with messy weather, the kind of thing that is always lurking out there in real America. Much of the Pilot’s magic all-weather mobility comes from the simple combination of eight inches of ground clearance, a wide front track of 66.5 inches, and fairly narrow 235/70SR-16 tires. The rest comes from VTM-4, Honda’s clever all-wheel-drive system introduced in the Acura MDX. Most of the time, the Pilot goes down the road in front-wheel drive. But when you put your foot down, VTM-4’s brain tells electromagnetic clutches to engage the drive to the rear wheels, and even more torque is shuttled to the rear if wheel slip is registered. The VTM-4 predicts your need for more traction, so there’s no waiting for a crucial half-second as you slither toward the edge of that snow-covered road. Our experience with the Acura MDX and the Honda Pilot in side-by-side comparisons with other vehicles in ice, snow, and mud shows that VTM-4 has a definite advantage. In short, the Pilot doesn’t just drive through weather; it shrugs it off.

By nearly every quantifiable measure, the Honda Pilot is the best sport-ute for the way real Americans really use SUVs. But when you start talking about qualitative things, the Pilot isn’t quite as impressive. Its appearance (styling would be too strong a word) lacks character, although the color choice is better than Honda usually provides. The interior trim looks down-market. The ride is exceptionally quiet, but the suspension feels soggy, and the steering wheel is dead in your hands, reminding you that the Pilot shares a lot of hardware with the minivan. And while the 240-horsepower V-6 delivers excellent response and good fuel economy, thanks to Honda’s new five-speed automatic transmission, you’re always aware that you’re moving around more than 4400 pounds.

Even so, the Honda Pilot is the right sport-ute for almost everyone. Part all-weather station wagon and part minivan, the Pilot is a reality check on the whole business of sport-utes.

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