Growing up, I thought the Porsche 911 was hideous. Its bug eyes and lumpy lines made me wonder if the designer had accidentally knocked modeling clay off his drafting table and submitted the splatter. This notion persisted until I drove one. Some 130 mph later, I considered the 911 the most beautiful automotive form on earth. Driving the all-new 2009 Honda Pilot EX-L kinda sorta triggered the same type of perceptual realignment. Call it Zen and the art of "challenging" design.
That's not to say I hated the new Pilot's looks at first glance. The effete minivan-ish look of the first generation CUV needed beefing-up more than an anorexic body-builder. So I was ready for something radical. And boy, did I get it. The new Pilot's grill "features" a thick chrome double-D rotated 90-degrees to the right; an affectation that's more Tranformers than transformative. The Pilot's rear end demonstrates the classic SUV refrigerator-on-wheels look, easily confused with the new Liberty (sans trapezoidal wheel wells). Taken as a whole, the new Pilot is like the big-boned girl that people can't decide whether she's an ugly duckling or the next "it" girl (I'm looking at you Scarlet Johansson).
The Pilot might not have turned out exactly as Honda's chief designer Dave Marek intended, but the look certainly projects greater solidity and presence than it's predecessor. Stylistically, the new Pilot harks back to a simpler time, when real men (and their wives) drove SUVs [kidding-ish]. If you think that the new Toyota Highlander looks like a contemporary example of Japanese design running awry of American taste, and that futuristic CUV's such as the Ford Edge and Mazda CX-9 look more at home on the cover of a Journey album than rolling around U.S. highways, they you'll find Pilot's masculine simplicity a step in the right direction. If not, not.
The Pilot's inner confines are free from the pseudo-luxury pretenses that afflict nearly every other car on the road. Aside from the cowhide pulled tight over seats and steering wheel, all surfaces are fashioned from easy-to-clean durable plastic. These are not brittle poor-quality polymers masquerading as chrome or wood, but proud durable materials that know that their primary role is to serve families with messy kids.
The Pilot's front seats are comfortable and supportive enough for non-track trekking. The second and third rows are little more than padded benches that fold flat. Kids are cool, but the Geneva Convention specifically prohibits adults from extended tours of duty. Parents that don't pony-up for the Touring Edition with satellite navigation still avoid smushed tikes and trikes via the Pilot's rearview backup camera, with a display conveniently located in the rear view mirror.
When I tested a Gen One Pilot about two months ago, I was shocked by how poorly it drove and handled. The crossover that once set the standard for SUV-driving dynamics had been thoroughly outclassed by the rest of the industry. Especially notable: the four-wheel independent suspension-equipped, front wheel-drive (FWD) trucklet's tendency to crab-walk its way over bumps.
The '09 Pilot's handling dynamics now boast contemporary car-like excellence. Soccer moms and suburban dads can now schlep kids to school, fetch groceries and commute to work without wrestling with the tiller. The base Pilot's tendency to torque steer, introduced when Honda deleted all wheel-drive (in pursuit of mpg), hasn't been eliminated. But drivers are now unlikely to push the engine above 4800 rpm, where the twist wreaked havoc with the FWD model's steering. By 5500 rpm, the power steering boosts to counteract the torque, and all steering feedback blacks out.
As you'd expect, Honda told their engineers to preserve the Pilot's performance while squeezing more fuel economy from the package. The '09 Pilot is powered by a new 3.5-Liter 24-Valve SOHC i-VTEC V-6 engine that's good for an adequate (i.e. faint praise) 250hp and 253 lb-ft torque. The minor power increase offsets the new truck's extra 84 lbs. (about two percent more), keeping the horsepower-to-weight ratio nearly identical to the outgoing model. In real world driving, anyone familiar with the old Pilots won't discern any difference.
The powerplant features Honda's improved Variable Cylinder Management system (previously only available on the FWD Pilots). While the resulting 17/22 mpg might make Civic drivers cringe, according to the fine folks at the EPA the system delivers up to seven percent better fuel economy in town and 10 percent on the highway. At the least the bump removes a psychological barrier for re-upping Pilots.
The Honda Pilot may not have hardcore towing or off-road ‘wheeling machine skills, but it can do both in a limited capacity. It's best to simply think of the Pilot as a slightly larger eight-passenger version of Honda's excellent CR-V. Rock solid. Safe. Unpretentious. Practical. Reliable. Zen for families that appreciate the finer points of basic transportation.