- The boxy look's been banished
- Lavish new interior light-years ahead of the old
- Better seats, better cargo space
- Android interface, lots of ports for plugs
- Gas-mileage gains
- Maybe not as distinctive in styling
- 9-speed automatic can get confused
- Blind-spot monitors only on most expensive model
- One-touch seats only on EX-L and pricier models
The 2016 Honda Pilot has axed its hard edges: it's once again a smooth, capable family wagon, one that raises the bar for refinement.
Honda's Pilot was a pioneer in the race to reformat rugged SUVs into something more prosaic, more useful—more liveable on a daily basis. When it was new in 2003, the Pilot got the driving height and all-weather traction of the SUV right, and wrapped it in an airy Honda-like body with lots of seats, superb visibility and, truth, frumpy looks.
That was fine—a huge hit, even—until a 2009 reskin gave the Pilot a much thicker, squared-off body meant to drag it into the sport-ute mainstream. Just when everyone else was climbing out of the water, introducing sleek-looking crossover SUVs with lots of curves.
After that styling misstep in 2009, the 2016 Pilot eschews the squared off look of the previous model and gets softer corners, but ladles on a more rewarding driving experience, tons of safety features, a more useful interior, and up-to-date infotainment features, not to mention its plushest Elite trim yet.
All told, the 2016 Pilot isn't just the best Pilot yet, it's the best three-row crossover SUV we know—better than Explorer, Pathfinder, Highlander, and Traverse, in a few or many ways, depending on which one you compare.
To us, the Pilot's the prettiest of them all, the freshest look. The rounded new shape is softer and more appealing than the box it came from. There's an elegance to the profile, even if it's a look we've seen on other 'utes—the Pilot still balances its glass to metal better than anything similar. The low front end and horizontally themed grille play handsomely off each other. From some angles, we're convinced the Pilot is the result of some hanky-panky between a Subaru Forester and Chrysler Pacifica.
Inside, the new Pilot couldn’t be more different from the old blocky, plasticky design. It’s very well finished, with elements from the current Accord, and some touches from the CR-V. On some versions, there’s a huge panoramic roof that opens up the cabin to a flood of natural light.
The Pilot’s known for its versatility, and that’s in full force in this new version. Three rows of seats have space for up to eight passengers. The front seats are just about ideally shaped, and with step-in height about an inch lower than before, the Pilot is an even better bet for smaller or older drivers. The middle row is adult-friendly, and for the first time, you can get a version with two captain’s chairs and a pass-through. The seat reclines for long trips and has its own tray table and cup holders.
In the back, the third-row seat is accessed by folding forward the second-row seat by pushing a button, a nice touch. Step-in room is slim, but the back seat has enough space for two adults with a surprising amount of head room and leg room. The seat is close to the floor so leg support isn’t great—but the fact that big people can sit back here makes the Pilot one of the most useful people haulers around.
Cargo space is abundant in the Pilot. There are cupholders everywhere, and a console big enough for an iPad. The third row folds down for a flat cargo floor. There’s a reversible cargo panel for dirty stuff like soccer cleats and beach chairs—and this cargo well behind the third row can hold an 82-quart cooler. Capri Sun for everyone!
Soft-touch surfaces and styling details that have transformed this Pilot. It’s much, much more luxurious than before, even in base trims—so much so, we think Elite versions compare very well against vehicles like the Buick Enclave, even the closely related Acura MDX.
Performance with the Pilot’s updated V-6 is strong. With 280 horsepower, it’s paired with either a 6-speed automatic or a new 9-speed on Elite models. Front-wheel drive is standard, all-wheel drive is an option—and the Pilot can be outfitted with a traction management system that can help it pull out of mud pits or snow with ease. The Pilot also will tow up to 5,000 pounds. The Pilot works fine with the 6-speed, and it pulls strongly with its new 9-speed automatic. There's some surging as its downshifts to a stop, but in sport mode it's an energetic performer with a great engine note.
There isn't a plusher ride or more relaxed steering in this size class. The Pilot feels mature and luxurious at the wheel. The all-wheel-drive system has torque vectoring that lets it turn in more sharply to corners—the quicker cornering is at odds with the softly sprung ride delivered by the plushest version with 20-inch wheels. It's unusual, since larger wheels and tires usually corrupt a soft ride. This could be the result of the early-prototype tuning on the cars made available to us for testing. It's easy to get used to—but you might be just as happy with the firmer-riding front-drive version with the standard 18-inch wheels and tires.
Fuel economy is as high as 23 mpg combined, among the best in class thanks to a 300-pound weight loss, cylinder-deactivation technology, and stop/start.
Safety ratings are among the best in the Pilot's class—it's earned a Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS, and five stars overall from the NHTSA. The Pilot offers blind-spot monitors, a LaneWatch camera with a wide view down the right side of the car, a multi-rearview camera, and forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking.
Standard features include Bluetooth with audio streaming, touchscreen audio, power features, cruise control, and air conditioning. As you move up in price, you can add satellite radio, leather trim, a DVD entertainment system, and heated and ventilated front seats.
Pricing for the Pilot starts at $31,045 for the front-wheel-drive Pilot LX; the EX has a base price of $34,480. At the top of the lineup, the all-wheel-drive Pilot Elite with navigation carries a base price of $47,470—where it overlaps the lower-priced versions of its corporate cousin, the Acura MDX.
By the numbers, the base Pilot with front-wheel drive and the 6-speed automatic is rated at 19 miles per gallon city, 27 highway, and 22 combined. Adding all-wheel drive drops it to 18/26/21 mpg. Touring and Elite models with the 9-speed and front-wheel drive are rated at 20/27/23 mpg, and with all-wheel drive, 19/26/22 mpg.
2016 Honda Pilot
The new Pilot does a 180-degree turn away from rugged SUV squareness; the smooth new shape is as pretty as an Enclave.
The Pilot was introduced back in 2003 with a contemporary shape—a little boxy, but with softened edges and slim roof pillars. It was a Volvo wagon for people priced out of Volvos, and it was fine. Then Honda went overboard with ersatz-SUV styling, and in the teeth of the anti-SUV recession of 2009, it launched the boxy second-gen crossover SUV.
Now the Pilot's making a big U-turn, and it's not only legal, it's legitimately good-looking. The Pilot emerges from its wholesale renovation with a more organic, rounded shape that makes the most of a lower front end, a three-light sideview with everything in common with Santa Fe and Rogue and Traverse, and a nicely finished rear end that avoids the pitfalls of understyling seen on the Chevy three-row 'ute. Put plain, the Pilot's now elegant and sculpted, without looking too dressy or musclebound.
Inside, the new Pilot couldn’t be more different from the old blocky, plasticky design. It’s very well finished, and trimmed in materials that have let us forgive Honda for the last Pilot's misadventures. We see design elements borrowed from the current Accord sedans, as well as some of the more utility-minded touches from the CR-V. All the lines and materials are subdued, save for the big touchscreen on upper trim levels. And at the top of the range, the Pilot gets its first-ever panoramic roof option, a glassy panel that opens up the rear two rows of seats to natural sunlight.
2016 Honda Pilot
Gutsy V-6 acceleration and clean-living steering put the Pilot in the top echelon of three-row crossover SUVs.
The Honda Pilot offers only a V-6 engine, with a choice of automatic transmissions and front- or all-wheel drive. It doesn't need more: the Pilot makes the most of its mechanicals, delivering energetic acceleration, great gas mileage, and handling that's dialed in better, in a more engaging way, than most in its sleepier set.
The Pilot's engine is a revamped version of Honda's direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6. It's stronger than the related engine in last year's version: it's up 30 horsepower, to 280 hp, and torque is up 9 pound-feet, to 262 lb-ft. Wound up toward redline, it has a lovely, pure engine note that underscores Honda's reputation as an engine maker first, car company second. We'd put acceleration easily below seven seconds to 60 mph.
With the Pilot, the choice in transmissions comes by trim level. Buy a Pilot LX, EX, or EX-L, and you get a 6-speed automatic; Touring and Elite models come with a new 9-speed automatic. We wouldn't turn away from the pricier models because of their transmission, but we did prefer the 6-speed. It has a narrower spread of gears, which means it's a little less adept at low-speed launches and high-speed cruising as the 9-speed—but the shift action was cleaner. Just once or twice we felt the transmission hanging on for a moment, deciding which gear to choose next—something that happened far more often in the 9-speed automatic, which also surged at times when it sought a gear lower than we might have chosen manually with its paddle shift controls.
With the 6-speed, there's still a shift lever on the console. With the 9-speed, a swath of buttons replaces that lever, but those shift paddles also come standard. The 9-speed also has a Sport mode and shift logic that anticipates downhill gear changes, and can hold specific gears when cornering. Clicking the left paddle twice will also let the 9-speed double-downshift, to make the most of the engine's energetic thrust and sound. You don't even have to be in Sport to use the paddles: click on them and the transmission goes into a temporary manual mode, reverting back to automatic gear changes in a half-minute, to save fuel.
The engine and gearboxes do much to give the Pilot its meaty acceleration, but weight loss plays a part, too. The Pilot's made up now of a lot more high-strength steel, which can mean lower curb weight. Honda says here, in fact, it does: the new Pilot is up to 300 pounds lighter, weighing in at between 4,054 and 4,317 pounds, when some rivals ping the 5,000-pound mark.
Ride and handling
The Pilot's beautifully composed handling changes somewhat depending on the trim level and wheel-and-tire package, but few crossover SUVs deliver its combination of a compliant ride and relaxed steering. The Pathfinder? A little too relaxed and underdamped, while the Explorer is firmer and has heftier steering. The Pilot carves out the best middle position, with quicker electric steering than before, a straightforward build-up of steering weight off-center, and a fairly small turning circle of 39.4 feet.
The Pilot rides on an independent suspension, struts in front and multiple links in the back for precise body control. Its dual-path shocks damp lighter bumps to a gentle audible thunk, while the secondary action in the shocks rounds off the edges of deep potholes. The Pilot also uses its brakes to help the SUV corner better, by applying an inside front brake in tighter corners.
The result is a crossover SUV that feels luxurious and mature behind the wheel, an Acura MDX in everything but name. We did feel a sizable difference in two Pilots driven back to back, one with 18-inch wheels and all-wheel drive, the other an Elite with 20-inch wheels, all-season low-profile tires, and all-wheel drive. Oddly, the Pilot with bigger wheels felt much more softly damped—it's usually the opposite, where big, heavy wheels corrupt a softer ride. Engineers tell us it could have something to do with a damping rate selected to minimize the impact of the bigger wheels, and that it could change by the time vehicles reach dealers. Regardless, it wasn't a negative: that Pilot felt composed even with a more pillowy ride than the tauter one we drove on 18-inch wheels.
Common to both versions was the new Honda all-wheel-drive system with built-in torque vectoring. The system can split power from the front to the rear wheels—up to 70 percent to the rear—but also can split power between the rear wheels, via a set of electronic actuators and hydraulically actuated clutches. It's a setup similar to the one on the Acura MDX and RLX, and we can only assume, the upcoming Acura NSX sports car. Here's how it works: when the vehicle measures acceleration, cornering grip, and degree of rotation, it shifts power to the rear wheels and between them, using the electronics to tell the axles to turn more on the outside rear wheel. It's a system that delivers very quick response—so quick, it can take some time to get used to driving it on a bigger, taller vehicle.
Finally, most versions of the Pilot come with a traction-management system like the one on Ford's Explorer or the Land Rover Discovery Sport. It lets drivers choose a mode—normal, snow, mud, or sand—and sets up the drivetrain for ideal traction, whether it means starting in second gear, speeding up throttle progression, or disabling traction control. It and the Pilot's 7.3 inches of ground clearance give it serious all-weather capability, but like its towing capacity, it's somewhat limited, and hardcore users will probably be better served by other vehicles if they want to venture deeply off-road, or to tow more than 5,000 pounds.
2016 Honda Pilot
Comfort & Quality
Commodious seating for adults—even in the way-back—makes the Pilot the minivan alternative without penalties.
The Pilot's a crossover SUV with the emphasis strongly on crossover. Interior space and comfort rivals Honda's own Odyssey minivan, with seating for up to eight passengers, and fold-down seats in the second and third rows.
By the numbers, the Pilot gains 1.7 inches of wheelbase, to 111.0 inches; it's 3.5 inches longer than last year, at 191.0 inches long. However, the track is slimmer (from 67.7 to 66.3 inches), and height is also down 70.7 to 69.7 inches. The net is about the same interior volume, according to Honda, with more space devoted to frontal crash structure, third-row seating and cargo space.
The Pilot's front seats have improved much in the changeover to 2016. There's more definition and bolstering in the seat bottoms and backs, even on the mid-line EX-L. The driving position is ideal, especially for a vehicle of this height, with commanding visibility balanced by a not-too-high driving position. The only flaw we could find in the arrangement of the cockpit was the joining of the dash to the center console—there's a wide seam where we'd rest a knee.
The Pilot has thoughtfully located controls and storage for the driver and front passenger. We love the circular steering-wheel controls for audio and phone, and the shallow phone bin in front of the deep cupholders, within easy reach of a USB port. On 9-speed models, the lack of a shift lever gives a little better sense of space in the cabin. The console's best feature is the apparently coffee-proof lid that slides open over a deep bin that'll hold an iPad or a small camera bag.
Second-row seating comes in the form of a split-folding bench or a pair of captain's chairs on upper trims; between those buckets is walk-through access to the third-row seat, and a floor-mounted tray and set of cupholders. Also on upper trim levels (EX-L and above), there's a one-touch button that folds forward the second-row seats and slides them toward the front of the vehicle, opening up better access to the third-row seat. Honda says there's 1.5 inches more clamber-in room, and the floor sits 1.2 inches lower than before.
It's still a little slim on space, for adults to climb in the back—but once they're back there, the Pilot provides amazing space for fullback-sized people. Head room and leg room are about the best we've been in, and even if the seat cushion sits right on the floor, it's still a surprise to be able to fit large passengers in the third row.
Storage space is commodious behind any row of seats. The space behind the third row is 18.5 cubic feet, or about as much as the trunk on an Acura RLX. Behind the second row, there's 55.9 cubic feet, and behind the front row, 109 cubic feet of space—enough to move more than a half-dozen rubber tote bins and still leave an unobstructed view through the rear glass.
Depending on which Pilot you buy, you'll either have a relatively quiet driving experience with a fair amount of rich V-6 snarl—or a little less of it. Soft-touch trim is everywhere, correcting the major faux pas of the last-generation Pilot. There's a finer attention to detail everywhere—and at the EX-L trim level, an acoustic windshield blots out some noise. Touring and Elite models get acoustic glass on the front doors, too, and tucked inside them, the Pilot delivers a cabin where the front and second-row passengers can talk with ease.
2016 Honda Pilot
The Pilot's earned a Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS, and the NHTSA gives it five stars.
The Pilot is built on a new platform—one shared with the latest MDX. It's already earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating, and it's also achieved five-star ratings from the NHTSA, though that overall rating has a flaw or two, notably in a four-star front-crash rating.
All Pilots include the usual airbags and stability control, as well as a wide-angle rearview camera. A LaneWatch camera is added on the Pilot EX through Touring trims: it displays the right-side view down the vehicle on the dash display when the turn signal is clicked right, or the turn-signal-mounted button is tapped.
Honda also programs the Pilot to shift into Park if the driver's seat belt is unlatched, and if the driver door is open.
On EX and EX-L Pilots, a Honda Sensing package of newer safety technology is offered; it's standard on Touring and Elite models. It includes adaptive cruise control; lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems with automatic emergency braking; active lane control; and road-departure mitigation, which uses sensors and cameras to determine if the Pilot is leaving the pavement, then tries to pull a car back on the road with stability, braking, and steering inputs.
On the Elite model, the LaneWatch camera is deleted in favor of blind-spot monitors with rear traffic alerts—a system we prefer for its superior information and field-of-vision alerts (with LaneWatch, you must divert your eyes to the car's display screen).
2016 Honda Pilot
LaneWatch, advanced all-wheel drive, and one-touch fold-away seats are a boon for any big Pilot family.
With everything that's new on the Pilot, it's no surprise that pricing has crept up a bit on base models, or that Honda now offers the most expensive Pilot ever.
Pricing for the Pilot starts at $30,875 for the front-wheel-drive Pilot LX; the EX has a base price of $33,310. At the top of the lineup, the all-wheel-drive Pilot Elite with navigation carries a base price of $47,300—where it overlaps the lower-priced versions of its corporate cousin, the Acura MDX.
The Pilot LX comes standard with power windows/locks/mirrors; cruise control; air conditioning; cloth upholstery; a 5.0-inch color audio display with AM/FM/USB port; and 17-inch wheels. This base model can't be equipped with some features we think are essential in a family wagon—features like Honda's one-touch second-row seat and a forward-collision warning system.
The Pilot EX is really where you should start your Pilot pricing. It adds a power driver seat; three-zone climate control; a LaneWatch right-side camera; remote start; satellite radio; two more USB ports; and Pandora audio streaming and texting capability. The Honda Sensing safety package is an option: it includes forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems.
The Pilot EX-L strikes the best balance of value and features. It sports leather upholstery; a power moonroof; a power tailgate; heated front seats; and the one-touch second-row seat. Move into the next trim, the Pilot Touring, and you'll get Honda Sensing standard; a navigation system; Blu-ray DVD entertainment, mounted in the roof for a better view from both back seats; 20-inch wheels; parking sensors; memory seats; two more USB ports, for a total of five; an ambient lighting; stop-start; and a 115-volt outlet.
On the most expensive Pilot Elite, you'll find LED headlights; a second panoramic roof panel over the rear seats; rear heated seats; front ventilated seats; a heated steering wheel; automatic high beams; HD radio; and second-row captain's chairs. You'll also get Honda Sensing, but in this trim it drops the LaneWatch camera in favor of more conventional blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alerts—a system we prefer for its all-around accident prevention.
On the accessories list are black 20-inch wheels; a tent; a trailer hitch; rear parking sensors; roof rails; a roof box; bike mounts; and all-season floor mats.
Audio and infotainment
A quick walk through Honda's infotainment options shows a much better configuration for connected families. The base Pilot LX gets a seven-speaker, 200-watt audio system with a 5.0-inch color touchscreen interface. The EX and EX-L trims get a larger 8.0-inch display and the Android-based Display Audio interface, with its big tiles and icons and generally friendly operation. The Touring and Elite sport a 10-speaker, 540-watt premium audio system.
The Pilot's SiriusXM audio system has some useful time-shifting capability. You can create a custom channel that blends several stations into one, while it buffers songs so that repeat playback is possible. The system can also drop in alerts on the display for team scores and weather alerts.
Apple's Siri Eyes Free is also included in the Pilot's Display Audio system: just hold down the steering-wheel "talk" button and you'll be able to ask Apple devices for all sorts of information, using the audio system as a conduit.
The Pilot's navigation system is Garmin-based, and includes live traffic reports, 3-D map views, and on-the-go rerouting.
The Pilot can have up to five USB ports, four of which will charge an iPad, and an HDMI port can pipe in content to the rear DVD entertainment system. Honda's almost alone in sticking by these systems—it says the roof-mounted systems are more easily viewed from the back two rows, and that the placement leads to less carsickness.
2016 Honda Pilot
Mileage doesn't improve as much as we'd hoped with the new 9-speed.
Gas mileage is better in the new 2016 Honda Pilot, but the margin of improvement for Pilots with the 9-speed automatic is a little less than we expected.
Honda says this year's SUV earns fuel-economy ratings up 2 miles per gallon highway across the board. While the 9-speed automatic on some models undoubtedly helps get to that number, the 6-speed automatic on more basic models does just as much on the highway cycle, with a smaller 1-mpg improvement on the city cycle.
The transmissions have to share credit with the Pilot's weight-loss program anyway. The overall weight is down as much as 300 pounds from the previous generation. The engine's designed to shut off three cylinders under light power demands, to save fuel, and some versions also get a stop-start system to shut off the engine entirely at stoplights.
By the numbers, the base Pilot with front-wheel drive and the 6-speed automatic is rated at 19 mpg city, 27 highway, 22 combined. Adding all-wheel drive drops it to 18/26/21 mpg.
Touring and Elite models with the 9-speed and front-wheel drive are rated at 20/27/23 mpg, and with all-wheel drive, 19/26/22 mpg.
Real-world fuel economy may end up beating these numbers, as Honda's stop-start system shuts off the engine at stoplights. It can be turned off, but it resets itself to on with every full power-up. Regardless, the Pilot's numbers are still an improvement over most of its rivals: the Chevy Traverse/Buick Enclave/GMC Acadia are rated at a low 19 mpg combined; and the Hyundai Santa Fe, which is 21 mpg combined.
Some competitors equal or best the new Pilot, but with an asterisk. The Toyota Highlander is rated at 22 mpg with gas-only power—though its hybrid tops the category at 28 mpg combined. Nissan Pathfinder's best combined rating is 23 mpg for non-Hybrid models, 26 mpg for the rare Hybrid. The 2015 Ford Explorer with the turbocharged four is pegged at 23 mpg combined, but it's only offered with front-wheel drive, and for 2016 it's updated with a newer turbo inline-4 that is rated at 19/28/22 mpg.