Honda knows the difference between revision and improvement, and you can see the evidence in the 2009 Honda Pilot. It looks different, only the same. Or maybe it's the same, only different. But what you can't see are the dozens and dozens of places within this utility package where the Honda engineers have fiddled with the details.
It's easy to imagine the Honda engineers swarming over the 2009 Honda Pilot, relentlessly improving space-efficiency, utility, fuel economy and performance. It is the Honda Way, the thorough refinement of a mechanical device into a form that is supremely functional, pure and simple.
Only these particular Honda engineers are a bunch of guys from Ohio at Honda R&D Americas, and they've tried to make the 2009 Honda Pilot into the right kind of crossover for Americans.
Die, Minivan, Die As with the first-generation 2003 Honda Pilot, the new Pilot is derived from the platform of the Honda Odyssey, a vehicle that is the responsibility of Honda R&D Americas. This responsibility is a matter of pride for the engineers in Ohio, and they've done the usual Honda thing by asking people what they want from a utility vehicle, only they've been even more scrupulous about it than usual.
These Americans predictably asked for a utility vehicle, not a minivan in a sport-utility wrapper. You know, more like the Honda Ridgeline, which also shares the Odyssey platform. As a result, the Honda engineers have worked hard to enhance the truck-style aspects of the Pilot's personality, from its 4,500-pound towing capacity (3,500 pounds for 2WD models) to a passenger space scaled for full-size humans in all three seating rows.
So the Pilot's wheelbase has been stretched 2.9 inches, body rigidity has been improved and there are lots of clever places to stash stuff. This Pilot will even ford a stream 19 inches deep. (Well, that's probably a lot compared to a minivan.)
And yet the Honda guys have also done their best to maintain all the good things about the Pilot — the smart-size dimensions, the useful packaging and the intelligent mechanical specification.
The Look of Utility The 2009 Honda Pilot tries hard to look more like a utility and less like a minivan. It has a cleaned-up boxlike profile (you'll want to reference the Ford Explorer) that looks bluff and hearty, like an American wearing a simple white T-shirt. Of course, it's matched with a self-consciously truck-style grille that strikes the same note of authenticity as a sumo wrestler wearing a belt buckle from the Salinas Rodeo.
Well, it's the interior that counts in a utility vehicle anyway, and this is the Pilot's strength. This eight-passenger Pilot makes good use of its new 109.2-inch wheelbase — a stretch of 2.9 inches — by affording a doorway to the second-row seat that's 2.6 inches taller and 1.8 inches wider than before. Once you're inside, you'll discover 38.5 inches of rear-seat legroom, an increase of 1.1 inches.
Once you flip the second-row seat forward, access to the third-row seat is wider by 2.6 inches, and Honda has also managed to carve out an adult-size space by raising the hip point of the seat itself, so there are 1.9 inches more legroom and a far more comfortable seating position.
While they were about it, the Honda engineers also managed to carve out some useful storage nooks throughout the interior. The glovebox is divided into three spaces, the center console is spacious (and naturally configured for a mobile phone and the usual audio accessories) and there are bins and cupholders and power outlets and tie-down hooks everywhere you look. There's even a storage box integrated into the driver side of the cargo area, while another 2.8 cubic feet of storage has been created beneath the cargo floor.
Honda says there are 174.5 cubic feet of total interior volume inside this box, although it cheats a little by including the 2.8 cubic feet of under-floor storage. But we're not complaining, because you can flip, slide, fold or tumble almost everything, creating a magic box of miraculous space-efficiency.
The Wheels on the Bus You can't say that driving the 2009 Honda Pilot is particularly memorable, yet it doesn't drive like a minivan, either.
As you'd expect, the Pilot's revised unibody is lighter and structurally more rigid, yet it also reflects a refined appreciation for its physical integrity, so the box feels particularly composed and even quiet. The wheels also have a better sense of where they're going thanks to a track that's 1.4 inches wider in front and an inch wider in the rear, while the front and rear subframes have more structural integrity. Further suspension detailing enhances handling precision while improving compliance and reducing vibration.
The Pilot rides a little more like a truck and less like a soggy old minivan, something Pilot owners had asked for, and it works out. At the very least the Pilot feels like it's had some extensive development miles over a wide variety of American roads, which is not something that can be said of all recent Honda vehicles.
The VCM 6-4-3 With as much as 4,600 pounds to motivate, Honda figures you'll need something useful from under the hood, so its 3.5-liter V6 delivers 250 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 253 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. The power arrives a little farther around the tachometer dial than you'd like, and since there are only five speeds in the transmission with which to find it, you have to work the throttle pedal kind of hard to get there.
The 2009 Pilot's V6 features the updated version of Honda's variable cylinder technology, which switches among six-, four- or three-cylinder modes depending on throttle load to help maximize fuel-efficiency. (The Pilot's previous VCM-equipped V6 switched only between six- and three-cylinder modes, and came only with two-wheel-drive models.) Special ignition timing, engine mounts and transmission calibration help disguise the transitions between different modes, but you can feel a bit of inoffensive surging from the transmission as the VCM goes about its business.
When you step up to all-wheel drive, you can have some VTM-4 to go along with your VCM. The Borg-Warner device engages the rear wheels with a pair of fast-acting electromagnetically operated clutches according to what the computerized controller learns from its wheel-mounted sensors. Up to 70 percent of engine torque can be directed to the rear wheels depending on the amount of tire slip registered. Like so many things from Honda, the system is exquisitely simple and completely affordable, if not exactly trail-rated. There's no low transmission range, but a push of a button directs maximum torque to the rear wheels in the low gears in case you get stuck.
Smart Utility The 2009 Honda Pilot is not a truck (unless you're the kind of person who thinks a Honda Ridgeline is really a truck), but it'll tow a boat or a trailer of ATVs on a family adventure, and you can pick up a lot of stuff from a loading dock at the home improvement store. It's not a car, but you can carry as many people as one of the full-size GM crossovers and still tote enough stuff to keep everyone happy on a vacation, plus there's a new Touring model that delivers all the comfort amenities you might find in something wearing an Acura badge.
In a way, Honda's product planning has been caught between hops here, as the 2009 Honda Pilot has gotten serious about its utility mission just as so many other crossovers have wimped out and simply given in to being little more than all-wheel-drive station wagons. Comfort and fuel-efficiency are the watchwords now, and hardly anyone seems to be talking about cargo volume and all-wheel drive.
Yet the 2009 Honda Pilot sets itself apart from the crossover competition because it values real utility, not just comfort and convenience. It gets there by applying truck-think — appreciation for practical, intelligent function. In the end the Honda Pilot never forgets that trucklike utility is part of its job description.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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