Want to know the shape of today’s three-row family wagons, good for the largest families? Go no further than the Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder; they’re two of the latest crop of space-efficient, capable family crossover vehicles that offer just the right mix of flexible seating space, sprawl-out comfort, cargo capacity, and ride comfort—with all the safety features, interior comforts, and entertainment options that you might expect in such a core family vehicle.
Both models completely bypass off-road intentions or any strong forcus on sportiness, in favor of vast passenger space and comfort, and all of the nuances in packaging, versatility and convenience that matter to big (or growing) families.
The Pilot was up until this past year a carlike crossover that took a boxier, rugged route with respect to design; but for 2016 it’s no longer fronting. The latest 2016 Pilot is more rakish and sleek—a tall wagon, essentially, that’s less bulky-looking than its predecessor. It’s also very well finished, with a front end that appears lean and low, a refreshing counterpoint to the truck-like direction some vehicles in its class have taken. The Pathfinder, a few years back, was a true truck; yet in its current form it’s a refined family wagon above all else. In design it’s just a little more wagon-like than the Pilot, with a beltline that lifts just ahead of the rear wheels and a somewhat understated look from the front and rear.
While we’d put the Pilot slightly ahead to our eyes and sense of proportion, we think it’s going to be an even closer call inside, where these two models seem to diverge. The Pathfinder’s interior is simple and functional, yet aesthetically appealing as a whole and nicely finished—feeling perhaps more influenced by the interiors in recent Infiniti models than the extroverted interior designs in the latest Maxima sedan and Murano crossover. Meanwhile the Pilot’s interior looks a bit sportier and more complex, with a dual-tier layout and, thankfully, a single-screen infotainment system replacing the odd double-screen layouts in some other Honda models.
The Honda Pilot has a 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six- or nine-speed automatic transmissions (depending on the model), and while it manages to ultimately perform better than the Pathfinder, with its 260-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), a lot of peeople are going to appreciate the smooth, easy drivability in most types of driving afforded by the CVT. For those in mountainous terrain, or for leadfoots, the Honda and its traditional automatic transmissions are probably going to be more satisfying.
The Pathfinder has the edge in fuel economy, however; in base form its EPA ratings are 20 mpg city, 27 highway (versus 19/27 mpg at best in the Pilot). The Pilot offers engine stop-start, a feature that automatically shuts off the engine at stoplights and restarts it when you lift off the brake pedal. And so far we’ve seen some pretty great real-world results in both of these vehicles.
We wouldn’t call either of these two models sporty-handling, but the Pilot offers slightly more coordinated handling, thanks to a system that helps brake the inside rear wheel in tight corners, and to an excellent available all-wheel drive system. The Pilot also now comes with a multi-mode system with special settings for snow, mud, or sand. As for the Pathfinder, it drives more like a heavy, softly sprung sedan—especially when you push it hard. We like the weighting of the steering, but ultimately there’s not a lot of grip or inspiration. On the other hand, the Pathfinder is probably the better pick for ride comfort.
Both of these models include some pretty impressive versatility and seat folding arrangements. Yet from a packaging standpoint, lined up side by side, it’s easy to see that the Pilot has a slight edge among these two. With a floor that’s very low—1.2 inches than before—and a rather high roofline, and some very well-designed seating in between, the Pilot makes the most of Honda’s experience with seat folding in models ranging from the Odyssey minivan to Fit hatchback. You can choose from a split-folding bench or captain’s chairs for the second row, and the latter includes walk-through access to the third row. With a single button press, the second-row seats fold forward and slide ahead for access.
The Pilot and Pathfinder both have seats that should do well for most adults in the first and second rows, although the third rows are still a bit tight to get into. The second-row seats in the Pathfinder are slightly disappointing, however, as we’ve noted that they’re particularly short, flat, and low. Family miscellany is well represented here in both models, with plenty of cupholders and bottle holders in both models, plus center-console trays and bins and lots of flexible cargo space.
Infotainment features are good but not great in both of these vehicles, with the Pathfinder’s system looking and feeling a bit dated and the Pilot’s system suffering from a needlessly complex interface. Both systems are bettered by what’s inside rival models from Ford, Chevy, GMC, Jeep, and Dodge, among others.
The 2016 Honda Pilot already holds an edge in safety. It’s been named to the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ list, and we love the LaneWatch system (offered on all from the Pilot EX through Touring trims) that momentarily shows you a wide-angle view alongside the vehicle as you flick the turn-signal lever to change lanes. A Honda Sensing package with loads of active-safety items is also standard on top Touring and Elite models and optional on the EX and EX-L. For the Pathfinder, crash-test ratings have been mostly good, but they’re not top-tier in all respects, and it’s missing all the active-safety wizardry (though blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems are included in the top SL and Platinum).
Honda has been making moves to improve the level of feature content and value for the money in its vehicles, and it shows here in the Pilot. The new 2016 model includes a seven-speaker, 200-watt audio system and five-inch color tousch screen even at the base LX level, although you still can’t get forward-collision warning or the one-touch second-row folding. EX-L models, with their moonroof, power tailgate, and heated seats are probably the best value. The Nissan Pathfinder is a step behind here, too, mostly due to its underwhelmind media interface; although most comfort and convenience content is rivaled.
So is the Honda Pilot or the Nissan Pathfinder the better vehicle for your family? In some fundamental, apples-to-apples ways, at first glance, these two vehicles can appear a virtual tie in terms of packaging, seating, space, and even features. But venture a little deeper into the details and in nearly every way the Honda Pilot earns a slight edge. That’s why it’s our Best Car To Buy Winner for 2016, as well as the clear winner here.
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