2003 Honda Pilot First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2003 Honda Pilot SUV

(3.5L V6 AWD 5-speed Automatic)

12 O'Clock High

It's lunchtime at the Honda Pilot national press introduction. At a table is a selection of automotive journalists, Honda public relations managers and me. One of the journalists — between mouthfuls of free steak — is loudly telling the Honda people that the Pilot is "going to get hammered" in reviews because of its transmission shifter.

For reasons that I can discern only as an attempt to justify his own existence, said journalist is making the shifter out to be the worst thing since outboard fuel tanks, or possibly Felicity's short hair cut. The Honda PR mavens nod politely. I'm embarrassed to be grouped in the same profession. Dear reader: If the worst thing an egotistical journalist can say about the Honda Pilot is that it has a balky shifter, you know we've got a pretty good vehicle here.

The Pilot, as you've more than likely come to this story to find out, is a replacement for the Isuzu-sourced Honda Passport SUV. It's about time that the Passport was revoked; we thought so little of it in a midsize SUV comparison test, we ranked it last and wrote that it earned a "G-ticket to Loserville." The Pilot, thankfully, comes from a much more respected and well-to-do family. It's very similar mechanically to the popular Acura MDX, a vehicle itself based on the outstanding Odyssey minivan. Knowing that lineage alone should indicate to you that the Pilot is indeed something quite desirable.

UAFAV. This might sound like some sort of Army munition used to delouse the mountains of Afghanistan, but, in fact, it's Honda's goal for the Pilot — the Ultimate American Family Adventure Vehicle. To meet the challenge, the Pilot is equipped with seating for eight, a powerful V6 engine, a versatile interior, capable road handling and a reasonable level of offroad ability. It's also tempered with Honda's traditional strengths in dependability, quality, safety and environmental awareness. If this story were an infomercial, now's the time we'd cue the "You get all this! But wait, there's more!" sound bite.

Third-row seating is all the rage with new midsize crossovers and SUVs, and the Pilot isn't one to shirk from peer pressure. (Honda is marketing the Pilot as an SUV, but its car-based uni-body construction and lack of a two-speed transfer case incline us to label it as a crossover.) The third-row is virtually the same size as the MDX's, but in this case it has three sets of adjustable headrests and three-point seatbelts. Legroom is tight at 30.2 inches, so it's best to limit the third row to children. Three normal-sized adults would likely find the third row as uncomfortable as eating a cheeseburger at a PETA convention.

The second- and third-row seats are positioned theater-style, meaning that they are elevated to give occupants a better outside view. Legroom for second-row passengers measures 37.4 inches and shoulder room is 61.4 inches. These figures are very competitive for the class. For comparison, a seven-passenger Ford Explorer offers 37.2 inches of legroom and 58.9 inches of shoulder room. The Pilot's second-row seating lacks contouring and isn't overly comfortable, but at least the seatbacks can be adjusted through seven positions of recline via a lever on each seat's upper bolster.

Both the second and third rows are split 60/40. To fold the second-row seat flat for cargo hauling, the user lifts up on a lever located on the upper portion of the outboard seat bolster. The cushion then automatically cantilevers both down and forward as the seatback is folded down to create a flat load floor with no gaps between the seats. The third-row can be folded down also, though in this case, the headrests must be removed to get a flat floor. To store them, Honda has provided a hidden storage compartment beneath a hinged door in the rear cargo floor. The compartment can also be used to store other items, such as an emergency kit or tire chains.

Lowering the seats reveals an impressively large 90.3-cubic foot cargo hold. Because of the Pilot's wide stance, there's sufficient clearance between the wheelwells to place 4-foot-wide items, such as sheets of plywood, flat on the floor. If the second-row seats are in use, cargo capacity is 48.7 cubic feet. With the third row up, there's still enough room for grocery bags, baby paraphernalia or a set of golf clubs. The liftgate is one piece, meaning that it must be completely opened to load items. Some SUVs, like the Explorer, have a rear glass panel that can be opened independently of the main liftgate.

Two trim levels are offered: LX and EX. As is typical of Honda offerings, nearly everything is standard equipment. This includes a heavy-duty climate control system with rear-seat vents and ducts; cruise control; power windows, doors and locks; a rear window defroster; and a CD player. Going with the EX adds alloy wheels, auto-off headlamps, an eight-way power driver seat with lumbar adjustment, available leather seating, keyless entry, automatic climate control, HomeLink and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.

In addition to dual-stage front airbags, all Pilots come with second-row LATCH child-seat anchors, front side airbags and ABS-equipped disc brakes with Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD). There's also a sensor in the front passenger seat that can prevent deployment of the side airbag when a child or small-statured person is incorrectly positioned in the airbag's path. Honda expects the Pilot to earn a five-star rating in front- and side-impact National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, as well a "good" rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's offset frontal crash test.

On EX models with leather (EX-L), a DVD-based navigation system and a DVD entertainment system are available. If the nav system is ordered, the Pilot comes with a center stack-mounted 6-inch LCD display screen. Thankfully, the separate controls for the audio and climate systems are retained, avoiding the common automaker blunder of running everything through a cumbersome LCD interface. Though Honda doesn't offer a reverse parking sensor, a liftgate-mounted wide-angle miniature video camera can be ordered from a dealer. Once installed, the camera will project its field of view on the nav screen any time the vehicle is put in reverse. The entertainment system includes a 7-inch flip-down LCD screen for second- and third-row occupants. It includes remote wireless headphones and video input jacks. Unfortunately, the nav and entertainment systems cannot be ordered together.

Up front, the cabin is simple and well thought out, as is typical for Honda vehicles. The center console/armrest is particularly useful, as it features a deep central bin to hold large items including CDs and DVDs. The front of the console features a hinged door with a removable cell phone cradle and a 12-volt auxiliary power port. In front of the cell phone holder are two adjustable cupholders and netted map pockets. Other storage areas abound, including netted storage pockets and, on EX models, a kid-friendly fold-down activity tray in the second row.

For the adolescent in all of us, the Pilot comes juiced with a 3.5-liter V6. With only minor variations, it's the same mill found in the MDX and Odyssey. And as with virtually every other Honda and Acura vehicle, the engine features the VTEC variable-valve timing system to improve high-end power, low-end torque and fuel economy. The engine makes 240 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 242 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. (The MDX makes slightly more torque at a lower rpm thanks to a more advanced intake manifold.)

So armed, the Pilot is able to, umm, out-fly most crossover competitors like the Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback H6. This isn't a lightweight SUV — it checks in at more than 4,400 pounds. Still, acceleration feels more than adequate. More power can be found in domestic SUV offerings (Ford Explorer V8, GMC Envoy, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee V8 and Dodge Durango), but all are thirstier at the gas pump. The Pilot runs on regular fuel, unlike the MDX, which requires premium. EPA mileage estimates are 17/22 mpg for city and highway.

The engine's power is routed through a five-speed automatic transmission that features programming to hold a lower gear better when climbing or descending a steep grade. Alas, the column-mounted transmission shifter is a bit fussy when selecting driving modes, but owners will likely become quickly acclimated to it. The transmission's gear spacing is fairly wide to improve low-end grunt while still keeping the revs down for top-gear highway cruising. At 70 mph in fifth gear, the Pilot's engine is spinning at 2,000 rpm. An optional dealer-installed tow package adds a Class III hitch and transmission oil cooler to keep the tranny's temperature acceptable during heavy-load conditions. So equipped, the Pilot's maximum trailer towing rating is 3,500 pounds. Honda says that this figure is calculated to include up to four passengers and their cargo, and if a boat is being towed, the rating rises to 4,500 pounds.

From the transmission, power goes to a standard electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system. Called Variable Torque Management 4-wheel-drive (VTM-4), the Pilot's system is the same as the one applied to the MDX. During normal cruising conditions, the Pilot applies power only to the front wheels for better fuel efficiency. To get the most traction possible, the VTM-4 monitors throttle inputs and wheel speeds and then continually adjusts torque output to the rear wheels. This is different from the CR-V's mechanical 4WD system, which must encounter front-wheel slippage before torque is diverted to the rear wheels.

The key to the VTM-4 is a special rear axle drive unit. Like any front-wheel-drive vehicle, the Pilot has half-shafts in front that supply power to the front wheels. But there is also a constantly spinning propeller shaft that runs from the transmission to the rear-drive unit.

Not a rear differential in the typical sense, the Pilot's final drive is a unique hypoid ring-and-pinion gearset. The gearset does switch torque from the propeller shaft's longitudinal orientation to the lateral orientation necessary to drive the rear wheels. But this happens only when the VTM-4's electronics say so. A button on the dash allows drivers to lock torque output manually to the rear wheels (equaling an approximate 50/50 split between the front and rear wheels) to aid extraction from a slippery ditch or a snow bank. The VTM-4 lock also serves to equalize torque between the left and right rear wheels, thereby improving traction.

During the press introduction, we had a chance to drive a Pilot through a moderately challenging offroad course that included steep hills and ditches, embedded logs and wheel-engulfing pits. Even though the Pilot lacks a two-speed transfer case, it fared as well as the Ford Explorer, Chevy TrailBlazer and Toyota Highlander, three vehicles Honda brought along for comparison. The VTM-4 lock feature was beneficial in some low-speed situations where extra traction was required. Like the MDX, the Pilot is intended for "medium-duty" usage, with medium-duty being defined as the capability to support trips into the wilderness for camping or to launch a boat. It has 8 inches of ground clearance and respectable approach, departure and breakover angles. In more challenging situations, vehicles like the Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mitsubishi Montero would all prove superior in their ability to bounce over rocks and power up gnarly hill faces.

On-pavement use is where the Pilot shines. It's quiet and comfortable on city streets, as well as on the highway. When going around corners, the Pilot is predictable in nature and doesn't feel top-heavy. It certainly isn't sporty, however. Suspension tuning is softer than the MDX. As a result, the Pilot isn't as entertaining to drive as its Acura cousin or some other available SUVs. Further debilitating is a lifeless steering rack and 235/70R16 tires that, at just moderate cornering speeds, give up and start vocalizing their discontent.

In the big picture of things, these are minor points. Honda says that its engineers have determined that while some competitors may offer greater capabilities in one or two areas — such as offroad ability or towing capacity — the Pilot provides the best overall balance while maintaining a high level of comfort and stability.

And that's the key. The reason Honda vehicles do well in our comparison tests is not because they excel in any highlighted fashion, but instead because they are so thoroughly balanced and capable in all areas. The Pilot is engineered to meet the typical buyer's needs exactly.

Though we have yet to do a complete road test, we expect the Pilot to be one of the best crossover SUVs available. Its price — in the low 30s fully equipped — further boosts its prospects. If there's a problem, it's that Honda is building just 80,000 of them in the first year. Based on consumer demand for the MDX and Odyssey, we expect the Pilot to be a hot commodity, indeed.

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