Honda was the first automaker to offer Americans a car-based SUV with a third row of seats. It didn’t matter that an Odyssey minivan was more fun to drive. Families wanted a third row without the stigma of a minivan or the bulk of a conventional SUV. The Pilot outsold all other midsize car-based SUVs. Then new competitors piled into the segment: Hyundai Veracruz, GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9 and more. Honda lost its place at the head of the class. For the 2009 model year, Honda has responded with a fully redesigned Pilot. Have they done enough to reclaim their supremacy?
The original Pilot was a blandly inoffensive box on wheels. The new Pilot sports a bulkier nose, a higher beltline, more Hummeresque side windows (let us not speak ill of the dead) and a chrome butt strip. The formerly cute ute looks much more like a conventional SUV– except for the clunky grille. (Honda designer Dave Marek says the new design will grow on you; so can fungus.)
If this were a Chrysler, we’d be saying that the interior plastics look cheap. Since it’s a Honda, we’ll say they look “affordable.” As in cheap. Surfaces display the sheen you’d expect from budget grade rock-hard polymers, while the instrument panel includes far too many prominently located cut lines. Want something nicer? Honda invites you to pick up an MDX. Alternatively, you could buy a competitor’s product.
Like a conventional SUV, the Pilot’s windshield is downright upright. The instrument panel isn’t minivanishly deep and visibility is excellent. Although the Pilot’s front seats are larger and cushier than those found in smaller Hondas, there’s less lateral support than Hillary Clinton affords Barak Obama. Also on the downside, the Pilot’s shifter has moved to the left side of the center stack. It’s an improvement over the old column shifter, but the cog swapper’s positioning isn’t ideal for anyone who likes to drive.
The new Pilot has all the width of a full-size SUV. In terms of length and wheelbase, both dimensions have increased by about three inches; remaining about ten inches shorter than competitors. Legroom in the second row is up an inch, third row limb accommodation is up nearly two inches. The second row adjusts a few inches fore-and-aft, but adults will want it all the way back.
Humans up to six feet tall can now fit into the Pilot’s third row, with little room to spare. The wayback seats are positioned above the first two rows, providing occupants with a pleasantly unobstructed view forward. But the chairs are still too close to the floor to provide adults with enough thigh support to prevent Restless Leg Syndrome.
The Pilot’s relatively short exterior length also compromises cargo volume. The Honda can carry eight people or their luggage, but not both at the same time. As with the third row, you’ll find more room elsewhere.
Honda’s secured an extra six horses for the Pilot’s 3.5-liter V6, for a total of 250. The i-VTEC system makes the most of what’s there, stumping-up 253 ft. lbs. of torque. Unfortunately, there’s no noticeable difference in performance. Why would there be? The Pilot’s curb weight has increased to 4500 lbs. (with all wheel-drive). To compensate for the heft’s effect on gas consumption, the powerplant now runs on three or four cylinders while cruising. The resulting 16/22 EPA numbers are competitive, but hardly qualify as a unique selling point.
The Pilot’s automatic five-speed gearbox remains. (Most competitors have a sixth ratio, which enables a shorter first gear for stronger acceleration off the line.) The Pilot’s steering feels a bit firmer than before. Thanks to improved suspension tuning, the Pilot no longer leans like a boat through the turns. But the not-so-cute-ute is about as much of a sporting machine as the [only slightly less expensive] Panasonic EP3005 massage chair.
Disappointingly, the Pilot’s new underpinnings don’t deliver markedly improved ride quality or a vast reduction in noise levels. If you’re looking for a bargain-basment alternative to premium-branded products, this ain’t it.
The new Pilot doesn’t change the game the way the original did. There’s not a single area in which it excels, in a field crowded with excellent products. Of course, the same could be said of the old Pilot, of which Honda sold quite a few. Much like the previous model, the new Pilot is a vehicle for those who will only consider a Toyota or Honda, and want something roomier than the Highlander. Honda bunted. The Pilot’s a base hit.