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The Honda Pilot might at first glance look like yesterday's news—like the kind of ruggedly styled, truck-based SUV that's gone out of favor. But in truth, it's one of the better choices for everyday, on-the-road family use—especially if you're the type to eschew minivans—and the overtly boxy body yields an especially roomy interior.
For 2012, Honda has given the Pilot what amounts to a mid-cycle refresh, doing away with the oddly framed, grille introduced in 2009 and instead substituting a more tasteful grille that we see, simply, as a more vertical take on the brand's passenger-car front ends. Back at that last redesign, the Pilot became even more macho, creased, and imposing, with a chunky look that we liked, other than garish grille, so we'll consider that a victory. Interior themes are also a bit gimmicky and overwrought in a chunky, macho aesthetic.
A five-speed automatic transmission is paired with the familiar 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 in the Pilot, and it altogether keeps with Honda's smooth, responsive, and sweet-sounding reputation for these powertrains, while improving the highway rating on front-wheel-drive models by 2 mpg, to 25 mpg—making it the most fuel-efficient three-row eight-passenger vehicle, according to Honda (now 17/24 mpg with 4WD or 18/25 mpg with front-wheel drive). A cylinder-deactivation system remains to help cut fuel consumption while coasting or cruising, and we've found real-world ratings to be on the high side of those estimates. Handling is much better than the tall silhouette suggests, and once you get past the initial surprise of the tall driving position, you'll find handling to be reasonably crisp, with good maneuverability.
With a carlike unibody design, bolstered structurally with some of the benefits of an SUV, the Pilot is able to draw from the best of both worlds. Ride quality is on the firm side, but the optional four-wheel-drive (actually all-wheel drive) system has a Lock mode and is a champ in deep snow or mud. Four-wheel-drive models can tow up to 4,500 pounds.
The Pilot's interior is roomy and functional, and it's one of few vehicles this size to have a third row that's spacious enough for adults—though headroom is tight in the far back and you'll sacrifice cargo space to use it. Front seats are generously sized and excellent for long road trips, while the second-row seats slide fore and aft for easy access to the third row or to get just the right balance of legroom between rows. Both the second and third rows fold forward and are split 60/40, and overall, the interior just brims with functionality in the form of cubbies and bins. The only common criticism from our editors is that the dash feels cluttered, and there are too many hard plastic surfaces just ahead of the driver. However otherwise the Pilot feels very refined and quiet—and Honda has made further improvements in this area for 2012.
Family safety is probably a top priority for the Pilot's family shoppers, and here it's reassuring but not exactly top-notch. Side-curtain bags cover all three rows, and its feature set is just as good as any vehicle in this class; test results have been pretty good, and the Pilot is a Top Safety Pick, but features like a rearview camera aren't available on base versions.
From a feature standpoint, the big news for 2012 is top-and-center on the dash; Honda has brought the information screen it terms i-MID—a color LCD screen that shows trip computer and audio functions up more in the line of sight. It also includes enhanced steering-wheel controls. But as anyone who's shopped Honda before will know, desirable features are kept for more expensive trims, and that new display is only on EX-L models. The Pilot is available in four different trim levels—LX, EX, EX-L, and Touring—each of which is offered in 2WD or 4WD. You'll need to step up to EX-L or Touring trims to get upgraded leather upholstery. That said, base 2012 Honda Pilot LX models come with rear air conditioning, keyless entry, cruise control, and a seven-speaker sound system, while the top-of-the-line Touring includes a host of tech features, such as a nav system, a rearview camera, a Bluetooth hands-free interface, a USB audio plug, backup sensors, and available rear DVD entertainment. Also for 2012, the navigation system has been updated and includes 15 GB of media storage.