2009 Honda Pilot

Like it or not, minivans offer the best cargo/passenger-hauling versatility. But they're just not cool. In 2003, Honda addressed this dilemma by recycling a few Odyssey minivan parts to create the Pilot, which lost the minivan's nerdiness but kept all of the benefits of its unibody, front-wheel-drive platform: a stiff structure, seating for eight, and better handling than its body-on-frame peers.

Now, Honda has removed the last visible relic of the Pilot's minivan roots - the column-mounted shifter. The 2009 Pilot looks like a more muscular caricature of its predecessor, with enormous headlights, a menacing grille, and thick C-pillars. It's a bit bigger, too - overhangs are the same, but the wheelbase has been stretched by almost three inches, facilitating access to the nicely sized third-row seats.

All 2009 Pilots use a five-speed automatic transmission attached to a revised 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 250 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to Honda's newest version of VCM (variable cylinder management), the engine can run on either three, four, or all six cylinders, depending on how much power is needed. Active engine mounts and an eight-inch subwoofer cancel out any strange vibrations created when the engine isn't running on all cylinders.

What Honda hasn't been able to cancel out, though, is torque steer - even on models equipped with optional four-wheel drive. That's surprising, because Honda boasts that its VTM-4 all-wheel-drive system sends power to the rear wheels under acceleration. It must not dispatch enough grunt rearward, though, because it's not difficult to squeal the front tires off the line or light up the inside front wheel when accelerating out of low-speed corners.

Other front-wheel-drive crossovers, such as the Toyota Highlander, do a better job of mitigating torque steer and front wheel spin, but the new Pilot does almost everything else as well or better than its peers. It's ten inches shorter than a GMC Acadia but offers almost as much passenger space and feels like it's half the GMC's size from behind the wheel. It seems quieter inside than the Highlander, and its thick-rimmed steering wheel and supportive seats make the Toyota's cockpit feel cheap by comparison.

In fact, the interior is the biggest upgrade for the 2009 Pilot. The materials feel much more expensive and even better screwed together than before - which is saying a lot. The instrument cluster is especially cool, with black numbers floating on a transparent surface and orange needles below. Many of the gizmos you expect to find in a family hauler - navigation, Bluetooth, and a rear DVD entertainment system - are relegated to the top-of-the-range models, but all Pilots have huge, well-designed storage bins throughout the cabin.

We're not sure that consumers will continue to favor boxy SUV styling in the face of ever-increasing fuel prices. However, for families who are too self-conscious to be seen in an Odyssey, the Pilot does a good job of looking tough on the outside while coddling its passengers in comfort.

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