Yup, the Griswolds are back. Or as near as I can figure, anyway… because this Honda Pilot is surely the Clark clan carrier incarnate. Granted, someone's gone and prized off the Wagon Queen Family Truckster badging, coating its formerly pea-green flanks with something called 'Redrock Pearl'. But make no mistake: despite whatever lip service the Pilot pays to off-road cred, Honda has chamfered what few edges remain on the SUV franchise and produced a whale of a big foul-weather wagon.
As you'll recall, midway through National Lampoon's Vacation, a holidaying Clark swoons over the lyrical curves of Christy Brinkley's Ferrari 308 GTS. Or perhaps it was simply jonesin' for the supermodel's own winsome sheetmetal. Either way, once again Honda strikes out in the opposite direction, faithfully hugging the center line of design. No BMW Dame Edna Everage headlamps, no bloodletting Cadillac creases, no 'Outta my way' Dodge crosshair grilles. Just calculatingly inoffensive, paint-by-numbers SUV. Matter of fact, with its modestly treaded 16" tires and muted cladding, were it not for the high ground-clearance and tall glazing, it'd likely pass for a station wagon. Which, all-wheel-drive aside, is precisely what it is.
Fortunately for Clark and kin, Honda has improved the family mount. Aesthetically, no laughable double-height quad sealed beams mar the front of this Truckster. In their place are large, clear-lensed headlamps capable of lighting up a grapefruit league ballpark. The fake wood appliqués are binned in favor of sober squared-off paneling that avoids the tacked-on cladding that's become the standard SUV's 'See how rugged I am!' costume.
Inside? More of the same. Honda's biggest SUV offers acres of lebensraum for the whole clan– even Aunt Edna and pooch Dinkins. Packaging is well resolved, with the eight-seat Pilot's overall length comparable to many five-seat competitors. The clever sliding/reclining second row affords access fold-flat third, but it's a tight fit back there. For adults, bench-jockeying can devolve into something of an exercise in 'robbing Peter to pay Paul', but with a posse of prepubescent passengers, the third row remains valuable. And no doubt Clark himself would weep for joy at the sight of our EX-L's optional DVD player (and wireless headphones)… ideal for anesthetizing turbulent offspring on those lengthy treks to Wally World.
Interior complaints? A few: The glovebox lid does a spot-on impression of a doctor's mallet swinging down in search of unsuspecting knees; the steering column tilts but doesn't telescope, and better speakers wouldn't go amiss. Oh, and like all column-shift Hondas, the detents between gears on the selector are way too soft, making it easy to choose the wrong one. That's about it.
You'll notice that to this point, I've been mum on performance (along with driving enjoyment). There's a reason for that. While these days Captain Griswold's fortunes have improved markedly, thanks to the Pilot's fluid 255hp 3.5L V6 and well-judged 5-speed automatic, there remains little passion here. Yes, at 0-60mph in about eight clicks, the Pilot is an accomplished accelerator for such a big vehicle. But there's no aural drama from engine or exhaust.
As you'd expect, Christy's Prancing Horse has it all over Clark's Honda when the roads get curvaceous. Unfortunately for the Pilot, however, so do the Toyota 4Runner and a couple of other (admittedly less-capacious) offerings. If one can live without a third row, halfies like Nissan's Murano corner with far greater aplomb, and do so with more style in the process. Blame Honda's safety-first suspension settings or its occasionally overzealous stability control nanny (now standard on EX-L models). To be ambitious in the corners is to be rewarded with more plowing than Minneapolis in January. The ABS-assisted four wheel discs do their thing without drama, at least. None of this is conduct unbecoming of a garden-variety SUV, mind, but it isn't exactly enthusiast's manna, either.
It took a freak late-April snow storm (that dumped some 12" of celestial dander on the family homestead) to save the Pilot from being deemed family-friendly all-wheel-drive Novocain. As it turns out, when the weather is at its worst, the Pilot is at its best. When others white-knuckle away the miles, Pilot pilots can neatly skirt downed tree branches and confidently negotiate reasonable turns of speed on unplowed interstates. Clark would approve.
In the end, however, the Pilot may make a few owners feel like better parents, but it'll make precious few Pistonheads feel like better enthusiasts. Of course, driving purity probably wasn't high on Honda's priority list when conceiving the thing… and judging by the sheer number of 'em clogging suburban parking lots, theirs was probably the right call. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that Clark Griswold still quietly pines for that 'Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon' he originally went shopping for.