2016 Honda Pilot Debuts at Chicago Auto Show

New model shoots for best-in-segment fuel efficiency.

CHICAGO — The third-generation, three-row 2016 Honda Pilot crossover/utility vehicle is arguably the star of this year’s Chicago auto show. It’s more important than any sports, luxury, or concept car because the Chicago show claims to be the biggest in North America for public attendance. So for the next week, there will be tens of thousands of families from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa perusing this new seven- or eight-passenger model before it goes on sale this summer.

These families will be pleased to find curvy lines replacing the boxy, truck-like design of the outgoing Pilot. The 2016 Honda Pilot now looks more like a tall, three-row station wagon, in the current idiom of family CUVs. It is obviously styled to look like the CR-V’s big brother, and why not? The Honda CR-V is not only the best-selling compact CUV in America; it’s the best-selling CUV of any kind, with sales of 335,019 last year. Honda must dream of selling half as many Pilots. Last year’s sales totaled just 108,857, easily trumped by the Ford Explorer (189,339), the Toyota Highlander (146,127), and even Honda’s own Odyssey minivan (122,738).

To make sure that, at the very least, Odyssey owners trade in for a Pilot and not the Ford or Toyota, Honda has redesigned its family utility from top to bottom, including a new 3.5-liter, direct-injection, single-overhead-cam V-6 with i-VTEC variable valve timing and variable cylinder management (shutoff of three cylinders at cruising speeds), and the ZF nine-speed automatic transmission used in the Acura TLX and MDX.

The nine-speed will only come in pricier Pilot trim levels; a six-speed automatic is the standard transmission. As with the Acuras, the nine-speed Honda Pilot ditches a conventional gearshift for buttons on the center console, with paddle-shifters for manumatic control, and start-stop technology, the first in a North American Honda.

Honda hasn’t given many details on the new powertrain, such as horsepower or torque figures, or how many trim levels you have to go up before you get the nine-speed. We can tell you that, as usual, front- or all-wheel drive (about 65 percent of current Pilot buyers take it this way) will be available across the board, regardless of trim level or transmission. Honda also says the new Pilot will have best-in-class EPA fuel mileage figures.

With a new mix of high-strength steel, aluminum, and magnesium, the 2016 Pilot will be up to 300 pounds lighter than the model it replaces, even though the top trim level will have a large, glass panoramic sunroof. That top trim spec also will include two heated second-row captain’s chairs in place of the base and midlevel models’ bench seat; the captain’s chairs reduce seating capacity from eight to seven. There’s also a new one-touch fold-forward second-row feature to allow for easier access to the third row, and the floor panel behind the third row can be flipped over for either a carpeted surface or a hard-plastic surface.

The 2016 Honda Pilot is 3.5 inches longer and rides on a 1.7-inch longer wheelbase. A new bonus: It can accommodate an 82-quart cooler on the floor behind the unstowed third-row seat.

The Chicago show car has the panoramic sunroof and captain’s chairs, and a very nicely finished interior, with soft plastics and a clean, techie look that wouldn’t be out of place in an Acura MDX. Like other commodity brands, Honda is pushing its top-trim models ever closer to premium territory.

Keyless pushbutton start will be standard across the Pilot board, with a new remote-start feature. There’s a new 8-inch capacitive center touchscreen and new-generation optional Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System, up to five USB ports (four of them with 2.5-amp chargers capable of quickly recharging Apple iPads), a new “tech locker” to stow all those iPads, and a 9-inch VGA display second-row DVD player with Blu-ray capability for the kids. The 2016 Honda Pilot doesn’t have an in-car wireless Internet connection, however, because the automaker expects the connectivity technology for phones, tablets, and other devices to change before the average owner trades in for a new model.

The usual plethora of active safety technology to reduce driving responsibility will include a standard multi-angle rearview camera, plus available lane-watch display, blind-spot indicators, lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, lane-keeping assistance, rear cross-traffic monitor, adaptive cruise control, and road-departure mitigation.

Built on Honda’s global midsize light-truck platform, which already underpins the Acura MDX, the 2016 Honda Pilot’s architecture will also be the basis of the new Ridgeline pickup truck that Honda will relaunch in 2016.

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19 City / 27 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

17 / 84 cu. ft.