Full 2009 Honda Pilot Review
What's New for 2009
The fully redesigned 2009 Honda Pilot midsize crossover SUV sports more rugged exterior and interior styling along with a more usable third-row seat.
The first-generation Honda Pilot was a trendsetter, spearheading the initial wave of carlike SUVs that gave rise to the crossover SUV craze. The redesigned 2009 Honda Pilot seems designed to set a trend as well -- namely, a trend toward angular, Jeep-like styling in the midsize crossover SUV segment. We're not sure whether it will catch on, but no one will call the Pilot's new look generic. The real question, though, is whether the virtues of the first-generation Pilot -- one of our favorite midsize crossover SUVs -- have been retained.
The answer is yes and no. On the bright side, Honda has made a point of enlarging third-row accommodations so that actual adults can fit back there, in part by adding an extra inch of width and 3 inches of length. Traditional Pilot traits like a well-cushioned ride, a smooth powertrain and optional four-wheel drive are also present and accounted for. However, the 3.5-liter V6, which receives only mild revisions for second-generation duty, feels sluggish compared to other V6s in this segment. Despite this lack of power, fuel economy is about equal to more muscular competitors. More distressing, though, were the long stopping distances we observed at our test track -- this alone makes it difficult to recommend the Pilot.
Another departure from the past that's not entirely welcome is the 2009 Pilot's befuddling array of buttons for operating the audio and climate control systems, as opposed to the no-brainer layout in last year's model. But those attracted to the new Pilot's distinctive styling may be willing to forgive such idiosyncrasies. Maximum cargo volume remains essentially the same at 87 cubic feet, which should satisfy all but the most haul-happy families. Fuel economy, while still nothing to write home about, has improved a smidge.
Competition is stiff in the midsize crossover SUV segment. GM offers the impressive Buick Enclave/Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia/Saturn Outlook quadruplets, while the Ford Flex, Hyundai Veracruz, Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Highlander are equally viable contenders. If we had our way, Honda would have done a little more to distinguish the 2009 Pilot from both the competition and its likable but aged predecessor. It's certainly still worthy of consideration, but unless you're smitten with the new Pilot's tough-guy styling, we'd recommend giving other midsize crossover SUVs a thorough look as well.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Honda Pilot is a midsize crossover SUV offered in four trim levels: LX, EX, EX-L and Touring. Each is offered in front-wheel or all-wheel drive. The LX comes standard with 17-inch steel wheels, an integrated trailer hitch, power side mirrors, keyless entry, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, full power accessories, cruise control, 60/40-split second- and third-row seats and a seven-speaker CD/MP3 audio system with an auxiliary input jack. The EX adds foglights, 17-inch alloy wheels, a power driver seat, an in-dash six-CD changer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, tri-zone automatic climate control and satellite radio. The EX-L upgrades to leather upholstery, heated front seats, a sunroof and a rearview mirror-mounted back-up camera. The high-end Touring model includes a 10-speaker audio system, a navigation system with voice recognition and an integrated back-up camera, Bluetooth, a power liftgate and a USB audio interface.
There are no available options on LX or EX models. Optional on the EX-L is a DVD rear entertainment system that's packaged with a 10-speaker audio system. The DVD system is the only option on Touring models, which come standard with the 10-speaker stereo.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2009 Honda Pilot is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that generates 250 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque -- increases of 6 hp and 13 lb-ft over last year's model. A five-speed automatic is the only available transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard, but all Pilot models are available with an all-wheel-drive system that automatically apportions power to the rear wheels -- up to 70 percent -- when front slippage occurs. This system also has a driver-selectable "lock" feature that routes the maximum 70 percent of torque to the rear wheels at speeds below 19 mph.
Having gained a few horsepower as well as a few pounds, the 2009 Pilot was projected to be about as fleet-footed as its forebear. Imagine our surprise, then, when our test vehicle loped from zero to 60 mph in a leisurely 9.7 seconds -- that's roughly a half-second slower than the previous-generation model despite similar gear ratios. At least fuel economy has increased slightly thanks to Honda's Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system, which shuts down half of the V6's cylinders when they're not needed. According to the EPA, 2WD models should achieve 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined, while AWD models come in at 16/22/18.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. In government crash tests, the Pilot performed flawlessly, scoring a perfect five stars in frontal and side-impact testing.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2009 Honda Pilot's interior layout is attractive in the same rugged way as the exterior, but it drew split opinions among our staff in regards to whether it maintains Honda's traditional combination of intuitive controls and high-quality materials. The center stack is littered with small buttons that are difficult to decipher at a glance, but some found they become intuitive with repeated use. The main information screen/navigation system's central control knob and related buttons are located at knee level, requiring a potentially unsafe downward glance, but some liked that they fell right at hand level and could be operated by feel. The new Pilot's dash consists of roughly textured hard plastic: Some of our editors appreciated the low-sheen rugged look, while others thought they looked cheap and preferred the richer-feeling materials found in competitors such as the Hyundai Veracruz. Gauges are clear and pretty nifty-looking to boot, while the navigation system is one of the best in the business once you've got it up and running. The sound quality of the uplevel 10-speaker stereo is also top-notch.
The ace up the 2009 Pilot's sleeve in this category is its appreciably roomier third-row seat. There are 1.8 extra inches of legroom back there relative to the previous Pilot, and Honda claims that a "95th-percentile adult male" can now ride in the third row without issue. We're not sure how happy that guy's going to be about it, but it's true that the new Pilot's third row isn't the penalty box it used to be. Both the second and third rows are plagued by low cushions, though, which means that even moderately long-legged passengers will be forced to adopt a knees-in-the-air riding style. Overall, rival crossovers like the Flex and GM's Acadia/Enclave/Outlook/Traverse foursome offer superior third-row accommodations.
With an even 8 inches of ground clearance -- up 0.2 inch from the previous model -- the 2009 Pilot should make quick work of light-duty off-road tasks when equipped with all-wheel drive. But most Pilot owners are about as likely to leave the pavement as the Pilot is to receive an official "trail rating." Around town, the 3.5-liter V6's relative lack of low-end torque makes it feel rather flat-footed off the line. Passing power isn't much better, as Honda's VTEC technology uncharacteristically fails to bring the V6 to life at higher rpm. And although the feel of the brake pedal instills confidence, the Pilot turned in an unacceptable braking performance at our test track, requiring almost 150 feet to stop from 60 mph. That's nearly 20 feet longer than some competing crossovers.
Dynamically, the 2009 Honda Pilot feels every bit as big as it looks. There's bountiful body roll, and brake dive is significant even at low speeds. The reasonably precise steering is extraordinarily slow but nicely weighted, and the soft suspension affords a comfortable ride over rough roads and on the highway. The latter traits should endear the Pilot to family-minded buyers.