James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
It looks like a rolling Pilgrim hat. It looks like a shoebox with a belt buckle on the front. It looks like a Pathfinder with the face of a Pokemon.
In our time with the 2009 Honda Pilot, we thought it looked like a lot of things, many of which involved buckles, but few of which were complimentary. However, we also think the CR-V looks silly and that the Civic's interior is bizarre, and yet those are flying off Honda's shelves. Perhaps we just don't get it, but it's still a safe bet that styling doesn't sell Hondas — it's their consistent well-rounded nature that normally sets them apart from the competition. Other brands may offer more of this or more of that, but Hondas tend to offer the most balanced mix of it all.
So does the completely redesigned 2009 Pilot follow this trend? In many ways, the answer is yes. Driven back to back with its top competitors, the Pilot definitely seems to walk a typical middle ground — some are sportier, some are comfier, some offer more space, but the Pilot strikes a good balance that should make it attractive to a great many buyers. Plus, there are several features that set it apart from the pack.
Unfortunately, there are three nasty strikes against the Pilot that send this big hitter in Honda's lineup back to the bench. What could have been an easy vehicle to recommend instead became one that we can't. We walked away ultimately disappointed by the 2009 Honda Pilot...and it had nothing to do with the fact that it looks like a Pilgrim hat.
Don't worry, you won't have to wade through loads of text to discover what those three strikes are — they all reside within this category. Strike one is the 3.5-liter V6 that packs only 250 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque. That's only 5 lb-ft more and 18 hp less than a V6-powered Honda Accord that weighs 1,000 pounds less and isn't shaped like a wind-splattering box. At the test track, our four-wheel-drive test Pilot went from zero to 60 mph in a leisurely 9.7 seconds, which is about 2 seconds slower than just about every other large-ish three-row crossover.
In the real world, the powertrain feels adequate around town, but it thoroughly hits a wall when charging up an on-ramp or during freeway passing. On even mild hills, the usual two-gear downshift from the five-speed automatic isn't enough to keep up. A dim-witted cruise control system magnifies this, as it plays tag with the desired speed rather than maintaining it.
We could probably live with this lackluster performance if it came with best-in-class fuel economy. It doesn't, so strike two. Even with Honda's fuel-saving cylinder deactivation system (known as VCM) that shuts down two or three cylinders (depending on driving conditions), the Pilot 4WD still nets an EPA fuel economy average of 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined. That's identical to GM's Acadia/Enclave/Outlook triplets that are larger, more powerful and ultimately better-rounded than the Honda.
Most distressing, however, are the braking distances exhibited by our Pilot at the test track. The Pilot came to a halt from 60 mph in 149 feet — that's 15-20 feet longer than most competitors. There's strike three, and we simply cannot recommend a vehicle that stops in such a distressing distance (other than a heavy-duty pickup). In regular driving, the brakes actually feel good, with a firm, reassuring pedal, but it's a false sense of security. Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton pegged most of the blame on the Pilot's mud-and-snow-rated tires that offer little bite on the pavement, but he also noted that there was significant fade after only three stops, in typical Honda fashion.
This is all a shame since the 2009 Honda Pilot is otherwise a rather pleasant crossover to drive. The steering is on the slow side, but it's well-weighted and precise enough with none of the artificial, over-boosted feel of several competitors. Handling in general is good, and at the test track Walton described the Pilot as being (comparatively) playful and enthusiastic. Nevertheless, it does feel rather large and more than one person described it negatively as "trucky."
While the Pilot falls flat on its buckled face in the performance category, it scores big time here. The suspension sops up road imperfections well, without feeling floaty or disconnected from the road. Despite its boxy shape, the Pilot is also noticeably quiet, even at 80 mph on a windy Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Credit lots of sound insulation and tires that are designed more for being quiet than gripping the pavement.
The seats also drew accolades regarding our editors' posteriors. The driver seat offers a good mix of comfort and support, while providing an excellent range of adjustment in concert with the tilt-telescoping steering wheel. Second- and third-row seating is also comfy, with an elevated cushion that supports occupants' legs and provides additional space. And in spite of the elevated seat height, both rows offer excellent headroom. Even a 6-foot-3 editor fit reasonably well in the third row, which further benefits from dedicated air vents.
With 55 buttons and/or knobs, our fully loaded Pilot Touring with rear entertainment system looks as if its dash has been lifted from the space shuttle Discovery. Despite some initial shock, though, the audio and navigation systems' controls quickly become intuitive, with a number of different ways to do any single task — dedicated buttons, multipurpose control knob or voice commands. The climate controls are needlessly busy, however, and the rear entertainment controls certainly don't help the clutter. Get a non-Touring Pilot, and you can drop 20 buttons.
Elsewhere, the interior is a model of versatility and practicality. In particular, the innovative center console features a deep storage compartment separated into three parts (one for cupholders) with a sliding cover that stops at each part and serves as a useful flat surface between the seats when fully closed. There are also two bins in the front doors, a storage shelf above the glovebox and several other compartments throughout the cabin.
In terms of cargo space, the 2009 Honda Pilot can easily hold a set of golf clubs or two carry-on rolling suitcases behind the raised third row. With it lowered, the Pilot can hold 47 cubic feet of stuff, while dropping both rear rows nets 87 cubes — a bit smaller than GM's triplets or the Mazda CX-9, but the boxy shape lends a very useful space. Installing child safety seats — both rear-facing and forward-facing — was easy, and the sliding second row was particularly welcome.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Pilot drew polarizing opinions in this regard. Some think the roughly textured black plastic that covers much of the dash looks and felt cheap, while others appreciate its low sheen and view it as a conscious effort to make the cabin feel more rugged. It also seems unlikely to be a cost-cutting move by Honda (as cheap plastics always are), since the rest of the cabin is of such high quality. For instance, those 55 buttons feel especially well-crafted and substantial. Kudos also should go to the gauges that are both crystal clear and pretty nifty-looking.
Who should consider this vehicle
Someone looking for a family-friendly crossover with a more masculine design scheme inside and out. They should be comfortable with lackluster power, however, and be aware that the Pilot's standard tires contribute to poor braking.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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