We’re bombing along a stretch of northern Kentucky back road, pushing ever harder into wide sweepers and tight switchbacks as lush rolling hills dotted with weathered black barns and Baptist churches whiz by. It’s the type of route more suited to a sports car (note to self: come back here with one), but the 2016 Honda Pilot is handling its business and handling it extremely well for a three-row crossover.
Yeah, yeah, we know. Virtually no one is going to go tear-assing across Kentucky bluegrass country in an all-new Honda Pilot like we are, but what the route so fittingly illustrates is how much more refined the 2016 Pilot is dynamically, how much better its powertrain performs under pressure. If it’s this good out here, then we can only image how good the new Pilot will be trundling along on the suburban soccer-game-shuttling circuit.
Just as important though, if not more so, is what the all-new, completely redesigned 2016 Pilot brings to the segment in the way of safety, efficiency, amenities, and packaging. These are critical areas customers care deeply about when mulling a vehicle like the Pilot, and Honda’s U.S.-based design and engineering teams believe they’ve over-delivered. After a couple of days poking, prodding, and otherwise putting the whip to the new Pilot, we’re struggling to find any reason to disagree.
One glance at the exterior will tell you this isn’t the same old Pilot. A prominent swept-back, three-bar chrome grille, boomerang-shaped LED daytime running lamps, and an aggressively styled fascia lend it a car-like appearance at the front. Along the flanks and at the rear, the Pilot is now more in line with the rest of the segment, with extensive wind-tunnel testing influencing the design approach. Honda officials told us one of the biggest reasons why prospective customers didn’t buy the outgoing Pilot was because its boxy appearance projected a more utilitarian and, by extension, inefficient package.
Among the few familiar components from the previous model is the 3.5-liter V-6, still the only engine option available for the Pilot. While the same basic design, the new six spent a long session on Honda’s Earth Dreams efficiency massage table and came out newly refreshed, with features including direct injection and cylinder deactivation. While power is up (280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, a bump of 30 hp and 9 lb-ft), overall vehicle weight is down by as much as 300 pounds, depending on configuration.
Also helping move the mpg ratings needle up are two new automatic-transmission options depending on trim level: a new-to-Pilot six-speed and a new-to-Honda nine-speed. We spent the majority of our seat time in Pilots equipped with the nine-speed, and it’s unquestionably the box to rock. It never spent any time hunting around, it kicked down with authority when summoned, and it operated more fluidly under hard acceleration than the six-speed. The nine-speed’s flat-panel, center-console-mounted gearshift control is also less obtrusive than the six-speed’s more traditional stalk, and it’s the most efficient transmission, with an estimated 20/27 mpg city/highway for two-wheel-drive models and 19/26 mpg for all-wheel-drive models.
The 2016 Pilot’s other major upgrade in the powertrain department is its all-new variable traction management system, dubbed i-VTM4. Honda is billing it as the most advanced torque vectoring all-wheel-drive system in the class. Thanks to the addition of an all-new electronically controlled and hydraulically actuated rear differential unit, i-VTM4 can distribute up to 100 percent of torque to either rear wheel depending on the situation, a key addition to the more traditional front-to-rear axle distribution and braking-based torque vectoring of other vehicles in its class. Also in the mix is a traction-control management system that optimizes the throttle mapping, transmission shift mapping, stability control, and i-VTM4 torque distribution on all-wheel-drive models. There are Normal, Mud, Sand, and Snow modes for all-wheel drive and Normal and Snow for front-wheel-drive models.
The primary difference we could discern between the all-wheel- and front-wheel-drive models was the front-drive Pilot’s tendency to torque steer when we pegged the gas pedal. It was virtually nil in the all-wheel-drive models with i-VTM4, and out on the twisted Kentucky two-lanes the system seemed to help us hug the line a smidge better during aggressive cornering. Dynamically, suspension and steering feel were superb regardless of model, thanks to its independent front (struts) and multilink rear setup, as well as improvements to damper and spring rates and bigger, 20-inch wheels on upper-level trims (18-inchers are the other rim/tire option). Its upgraded brakes, featuring 12.6-inch ventilated discs at the front, slowed the big crossover down with little drama. The 2016 Pilot felt composed and far from harsh over cracked-up pavement, and its motion-adaptive electrically assisted power steering helps initiate inputs and exhibits a progressive and linear steering feel that rivals many near-luxury sport sedans — not too tight or too light, but just right.
Along with the suspension and handling upgrades, the Pilot benefits from a lighter and more rigid body construction that’s safer, more structurally sound, and uses more advanced materials than before, including ultra-high-strength steel. Confidence is extremely high that the Pilot will ace government crash-test regulations thanks to improvements such as a “three-bone” structure under the front floor, which helps deflect energy away from occupants in the event of a front impact.
So it’s built to keep you safer in the event of a crash, but like many new vehicles on the market the all-new 2016 Honda Pilot features a suite of tech designed to keep you from getting into a smashup in the first place. Called Honda Sensing, the safety and driver-assist group is designed to make driving the Pilot easier and safer. Along a stretch of the I-71 freeway just outside of Cincinnati, we were speeding up, slowing down, and going with the flow thanks to the Pilot’s adaptive cruise control. With the lane-keeping assist feature, you can perform the “look, Ma, no hands” routine for about 15 seconds until the fun-police alert asks you to get your hands on the wheel. Meander out of the lines, and the lane-departure warning fires up.
Turning off a sweeping exit onto another roadway, the traffic in front of us slows considerably, and the adaptive cruise tries but can’t hustle us down quickly enough. Suddenly it’s four-alarm-fire time. The forward-collision warning says pump the brakes before the collision-mitigation braking system does it for us. We happily oblige. Crisis averted. It’s an impressive suite of technologies that will be coming to more Hondas in the future.
Also hugely impressive is the new Honda Pilot’s cabin, which is miles better in materials and execution than the outgoing model, and it’s quieter at speed thanks to myriad improvements on the noise, vibration, and harshness front. Step in and sit down, and the leather seats are arguably the most comfortable in the segment. They do a decent job of lateral support as well. The center stack is dominated by a newly designed, 8-inch navigation and infotainment setup (save the LX trim, which gets by with a 5-inch LCD unit), complemented by a 4.2-inch color screen in the middle of the instrument panel. It uses an Android-based operating system, with Garmin helping with the satellite-based navigation. Other than a little fussiness we experienced with the capacitive touchscreen (you can swipe, tap, and pinch), it’s a superior setup.
Name a contemporary comfort, convenience, or entertainment feature, the Pilot likely has it as either standard or available equipment. Among them: Bluetooth HandsFreeLink; real-time traffic info; Pandora; multiple stereo options; voice text messaging and voice navigation; new generation SiriusXM with playback features; and Apple Siri Eyes Free. Want to see the sky in all rows? Order the Elite and get the available panoramic glass roof. Are the kids not entertained? Get the 9-inch, ceiling-mounted rear entertainment system with available Blu-ray disc capability and multiple inputs including an available HDMI input.
The rest of the center stack is neatly arranged with a minimum of buttons, and all are designed to fall easily to hand, especially the ventilation. You’ll find five USB ports in all, four of which are set up for quick charging. In the center console the storage bin area has been redesigned to more easily store purses, iPads, kitchen sinks, etc.
Dimensionally, the new Pilot has a 1.8-inch-longer wheelbase than before, and much of that room has been used to maximize the space behind the rear seats and in the third row. Open the door to the second row, hop in, and you’ll find either a bench or captain’s chair setup (Elite trim) depending on a seven- or eight-passenger configuration and plenty of room to stretch out in either. At the outside base of the second-row seats you’ll see a small button. Push it, and the seat will roll forward and tilt. It’s a quick trick to aid access to the third row, which is easier to get into due to ingress/egress improvements. Bonus: The third row isn’t a penalty box for adults.
When you want to haul stuff, the cargo area is bigger, better, and more configurable than before. With the third row up, you can fit a massive 82-quart cooler thanks to improvements in the overall packaging. Drop the second- and third-row seats and 109 cubic feet of space opens up; that’s better than any vehicle in its class save the Chevy Traverse (116 cubic feet). The Pilot can also tow if need be, with a maximum rating of 5,000 pounds.
The 2016 Honda Pilot is available in a host of trim levels, from the bare-bones, front-drive LX ($30,875) to the fully loaded, all-wheel-drive Elite ($47,300), which comes with virtually everything you can get for the vehicle. Regardless of trim level, the new Pilot is arguably the new class of the three-row crossover class — especially when you’re kicking some ass along a stretch of Bluegrass State back road.
2016 Honda Pilot Specifications
- Base Price: $30,875
- Engine: 3.5L SOHC 24-valve V-6/280 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
- Transmission: 6- or 9-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 7-8-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV
- EPA Mileage: 18-20/26-27 mpg city/hwy
- Suspension F/R: Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar/multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
- Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs
- Tires F/R: 245/60-R18 105H (LX, EX, EX-L); 245/50-R20 102H (Touring, Elite)
- L x W x H: 194.5 x 78.6 x 69.8 in
- Wheelbase: 111.0 in
- Headroom (first/second/third row): 39.5-40.1/39.9-40.2/38.9 in
- Legroom (first/second/third row): 40.9/38.4/31.9 in
- Shoulder Room (first/second/third row): 40.9/38.4/31.9 in
- Cargo Room (behind third/second/first row): 18.0-18.5/55.0-55.9/108.5-109.2 cu ft
- Towing: 3,500-5,000 lb
- Weight: 4,054-4,317 lb lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: 56.1-58.1/41.9-43.9%
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: N/A