The Pilot Gets Tough
If the 2009 Honda Pilot proves anything, it's that things have changed over at Honda. One look at the new Pilot's zany front grille announces that the company has unapologetically embraced vehicular embellishment. The overall shape is only slightly less boxy than that of the Jeep Commander, and there are so many creases and character lines in the sheet metal that the new Pilot reminds us of 4,609 pounds of origami.
Albeit manly, butch, abstract-expressionist origami. Because this full-size crossover wants to prove it's a real SUV, tough enough to take on that whole camping, motorcycle-towing, snow-busting outdoor thing even while preserving its family-friendly nature.
The first-generation Pilot looked like a shrunken version of the 1968 International Harvester Travelall. The 2009 Honda Pilot looks like it's ready to star in a futuristic remake of Soylent Green. Still, under the macho posturing you'll find a simple, solid Honda, which is as it should be.
Bigger, Bigger, Bigger
With seating for eight across three rows, the original Pilot was a pretty big machine. And yet the second-generation Honda Pilot is bigger in every way.
Both the overall length and wheelbase of the Pilot have grown 2.9 inches over the original. This stretch shows up in particular with the relatively easy access to the rearmost bench seat — the second-row seats move forward and with a slight squeeze even our standard 76-year-old test woman was able to scramble back there. The third row also benefits from the new Pilot's additional inch of height and width. It's still not what anyone would call "roomy" back in the third row, but there is 1.9 inches more legroom back there than before and even shorter adults can ride for short trips in comfort.
The longer wheelbase also adds some legroom for the second-row passengers (another 1.1 inches) and provides for a significantly larger rear door opening. For a vehicle this size, ingress and egress on the Pilot is exceptional.
Fold all the seats down (both second- and third-row benches are split 60/40) and the 2009 Pilot offers up a full 87 cubic feet of flat-floored cargo room. With the second row up, there's still a generous 47.7 cubic feet available. And when the third row is up, there's 20.8 cubic feet, or just about enough room to haul home four bags of groceries to our growing small children (which they consumed in about 90 minutes). There is also 2.8 cubic feet of hidden storage beneath the cargo floor for things you'd rather not let the world know you're transporting between the leather shop and your home dungeon.
So the new Pilot is bigger. But at least Honda has made that increase in size pay off where it counts.
A Familiar Mechanical Package
Inside the 2009 Honda Pilot's new wrapper you'll find slightly more evolved versions of the previous pieces.
The structure is still a solid unibody gusseted for light off-road work (it's based on the same platform as the Odyssey and its brother, the Acura MDX). The suspension still consists of MacPherson struts up front and an independent multilink system in back. And the transversely mounted engine in the nose is Honda's familiar 3.5-liter V6. The only transmission offered is a version of the same five-speed automatic used in the previous Pilot and the current Odyssey minivan.
The all-wheel-drive option remains Honda's Variable Torque Management Four Wheel Drive (VTM-4), a clever, space-efficient device that uses a computer to distribute torque to the rear wheels according to inputs from an array of sensors. There is no low range, however. Front-wheel drive is offered as standard and it's probably more than adequate for anyone who'll be using their Pilot for mall prowling instead of expeditionary adventures.
Yes, there's more suspension travel than before. Sure, the VTEC-equipped SOHC V6 now makes 250 horsepower instead of 244 and incorporates Honda's Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system that shuts down half the cylinders under light engine load conditions for better fuel economy. Plus the wheels have grown from 16- to 17-inchers with a commensurate increase in tire size. Yet there's nothing startling in this package. And there's nothing startling in the way it behaves either.
We've Driven Here Before
On the test track, the top-of-the-line 2009 Honda Pilot Touring waltzes from zero to 60 mph in an easygoing 9.7 seconds and traipses through the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds at 81.3 mph. Of course, the transmission is performing hearty, impossible-to-ignore gearchanges that suggest a six-speed transmission (which motivates much of the Pilot's direct competition) would help quicken its acceleration times with some more closely spaced ratios. But in everyday driving the drivetrain's behavior is utterly innocuous.
Unfortunately the new Pilot's expanded size is accompanied by some added pounds. Honda claims that the base model of the 2009 Pilot LX 4x2 weighs 4,319 pounds, a mere 55 pounds over the directly comparable 2008 version. But our scales put this fully equipped 2009 Pilot Touring 4x4 at a thick-waisted 4,609 pounds. And that's just the sort of heft that will tax the P245/65R17 Michelin LTX M/S tires to their limits.
The Pilot proved prone to oversteer in the slalom test, but the steering was quick enough to catch the tail as it rotated around, so the Pilot's 59.4-mph speed is decent for the class. (Its skid pad orbit at 0.76g is also solid.) Under braking, however, the Pilot's nose heads for the pavement and a stop from 60 takes a daunting 149 feet. And fade is apparent as well, with subsequent stops getting longer and longer, the pedal feeling squishier and squishier, and the front brake pads smelling stinkier and stinkier. More aggressive, street-oriented tires would likely chop down this distance, and Honda might want to sic a squadron of tweaking engineers on the brakes and assess the interface with the standard ABS system.
The Riot Inside
The new Pilot Touring's seats are among the very most comfortable in any new vehicle we've experienced — well-shaped, beautifully stitched in leather and easy to adjust to any sort of body type. But they face the wackiest dashboard Honda has ever put in consumer product.
Start counting up the different dashboard surface finishes and you quickly start running out of fingers. There's some backlit blue plastic in the middle that looks like an IKEA kitchen display, black plastic, gray plastic, vanilla-color plastic and white gauge faces. It's a riot of shapes and finishes that only grows more wearying the longer you live with it. Fortunately base LX and uplevel EX versions aren't quite so overdecorated as the Touring, but they're still much more stylized than the essentially (and pleasantly) style-free dashboard of the original Pilot.
Fortunately Honda hasn't lost its touch for locating all the switches logically, and the quality of all the surfaces (no matter what their color) is exceptionally high. There's also plenty of storage including a divisible center console that seems big enough to swallow a Wal-Mart. Like the previous Pilot — and most other Hondas — this new Pilot has an interior that's highly usable and that will likely last for decades in good shape. If only it weren't so nutty in many of its design cues.
The instrumentation is large and easily read, though the light-color gauges do wash out a bit in harsh sunlight. There is a small green "ECO" light that comes on every time the engine cuts down on its cylinder use, as if the Pilot just can't wait to brag about its environmental credentials. But it's really just an irritating idiot light that distracts the driver. When something goes wrong, then the light should illuminate; otherwise, it's just a pain.
With GPS now migrating onto cell phones, it's an open question whether any satellite navigation system is worth any price in any car. Still, however, what Honda has stuffed into the new Pilot Touring's center stack is an impressive conglomeration of electronics.
The stereo sounds brilliant and includes a CD changer, XM Satellite Radio receiver, auxiliary input and a USB port to hook up an iPod (even the iPhone works surprisingly well with Honda's sound system). And the navigation system, white elephant though it might be, works intuitively and easily. The rear-seat DVD player is also well designed and positioned, even if the kids are now watching videos on PSPs and other handheld (and much cheaper) devices.
This may be as good as it gets for onboard entertainment systems. Yet it seems unlikely any of it will be technologically relevant by the end of a three-year lease.
Honda has become the go-to car company for anyone looking for excellent fuel economy in an attractive package. But the new Pilot has the distinction of being one Honda with a thirst for hydrocarbons. The EPA rates the all-wheel-drive 2009 Pilot at 16 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway — slightly better than the 2008 Pilot due mostly to the VCM system. Considering current fuel prices, it's enough of an appetite that people who don't absolutely need the Pilot's eight-passenger capability might consider looking at a CR-V instead.
The 2009 Honda Pilot does everything the original one did and then adds a little extra room for everybody. It rides well, it's quiet, the engine is smooth and it handles decently within its modest limits. The new exterior look doesn't grab us the right way, but at least this doesn't interfere with the essential utility of this massively useful, relatively large SUV.
Our assessment is that most buyers would probably find the less ornate LX or EX Pilots better long-term companions than the Touring. Besides not being burdened with quite so many self-conscious styling gimmicks, the lower-end Pilots aren't encrusted with electronics that are already headed for obsolescence, they offer exactly the same level of mechanical slickness and they cost a lot less than this $40,665 test vehicle.
Honda should, once again, keep it simple.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.