New & Used Honda Pilot: In Depth
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The Honda Pilot is a mid-size crossover SUV that wears a rather boxy, trucklike shape, but drives with the comfort and predictability of a family-friendly wagon--with or without optional all-wheel drive.
The Pilot is built in Alabama, alongside the related Acura MDX; it also shares many components with the Honda Ridgeline pickup truck, which is taking the 2015 model year off. A new, completely revamped Pilot is scheduled to arrive for the 2016 model year.
MORE: Read our 2015 Honda Pilot review
When it was introduced in 2003, the Pilot was originally marketed as a more car-like alternative to the mid-size utility vehicles that were then based on trucks. Today, its competitors--think Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, and others--are all based on car platforms.
That first Pilot offered good acceleration from a torquey 3.5-liter V-6 (making 240 to 255 hp), along with a smooth ride, respectable handling, and top-of-the-line safety ratings—including a roster of safety features (standard side and side-curtain bags and stability control) that was ahead of its time. A front-wheel-drive model was introduced in 2006 when the Pilot got a mild refresh.
Today's Honda Pilot
The second-generation Pilot, introduced for 2009, hasn't quite appealed in the same way aesthetically as the first-generation model did. Its exterior seems an attempt to look more macho and rugged—against the grain as more utility models are becoming smoother and sleeker.
But that boxy exterior pays off inside. The Pilot may be the best family option for buyers who need the abilities of a minivan but don't want to be seen in one. The overtly boxy exterior of the Pilot now yields to an interior that's chunky and utilitarian in design—which is to say not very attractive—but offers most of the appointments of a minivan.
The Pilot can fit up to eight passengers in its three rows. It offers a variety of trays, cubbies, and bins for small items throughout the cabin. The latest model's instrument-panel design appears a bit cluttered, and the materials are a bit harder than most other vehicles in this class, giving it a somewhat cheap feel. Today's Pilot moves the shifter to the console from where it was on the steering column before.
Original Pilots had very cramped third-row seating, something Honda noticed and was able to fix for the current model. Tall passengers are much more comfortable back there, and this is now one of the more accommodating third rows as far as full-size adults go. The seat can also fold flat when not in use to expand cargo room.
For the 2012 model year, Honda improved the efficiency of the drivetrain slightly and made some cosmetic changes to the front end and interior. A rearview camera system—still much-needed for some Pilot drivers—was made standard for 2013.
Unlike most Honda products, handling isn't at the top of the Pilot's to-do-list. The suspension is soft and the tires have tall sidewalls, leading to a safe and comfortable ride. The powertrain has gone unchanged for this entire generation, still consisting of a 250-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and five-speed transmission. Despite the modest output and only five gears for the transmission, the Pilot is quick enough and fuel economy is decent for the class.
The Pilot remains one of the safest vehicles in any class, with top crash-test results from both the federal government and the IIHS in frontal and side tests. The rather high seating position and boxy proportions afford a better outward view compared to many other curvier modern crossover designs. Honda has recently announced a series of recalls, affecting the Pilot going many years back, for airbag, parking brake, and fuel system issues.
The Honda Pilot goes mostly unchanged for 2015, though a new Special Edition SE trim is now available as a mid-priced trim. It's offered in five different trim levels: LX, EX, SE, EX-L, and Touring. All five are offered in 2WD or 4WD, but beyond that you need to ante up to one of the top two trims in order to get a lot of the more desirable options and convenience features.
The new Pilot
The next Pilot was recently unveiled at this year's Chicago auto show in February. It is a full reimagining of the model and brings major upgrades and fresh styling that reminds more of an inflated CR-V than the brutish box current model. The powertrain has been upgraded to a new 3.5-liter V-6 backed by a six-speed automatic on base models and a nine-speed auto on the upper trim levels. The available all-wheel-drive system has also been redesigned, and the 2016 model promises improved fuel economy in part thanks to an available engine stop-start feature and standard cylinder deactivation. It will also borrow just about every active-safety feature from the Honda/Acura stable, including a new road-departure mitigation system. This Pilot is much more focused on creature comforts and less intent on looking like a truck, which should work well for it in today's crossover market.