EX 6-Speed Transmission Vs. Elite 9-Speed - 2016 Honda Pilot Long-Term Road Test

2016 Honda Pilot Long-Term Road Test

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2016 Honda Pilot: EX 6-Speed Transmission Vs. Elite 9-Speed

by Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing on February 23, 2016

2016 Honda Pilot

You've probably read our gripes about our 2016 Honda Pilot Elite's 9-speed transmission, which can be especially irksome when you need to summon a short burst of even moderate acceleration. To give you what you want, it might need to kick down two or three gears, but it may only dole out one gearchange in the hopes that you'll stop asking and let it get on with the business of saving fuel.

And then there's the push-button shifter that goes with it, which is just plain silly and annoying. There's little need to look at or even consciously think about a normal shift lever, but it's necessary to glance down to find and operate these buttons. And I'm not convinced it's a simple matter of getting used to it. After years in this business, I'm still glancing down at the keyboard to type these words.

The good news is there is an alternative: don't buy the Touring or the Elite. Get an LX, EX or EX-L, each of which comes with a 6-speed automatic and a standard shift lever.

We recently made a few calls and ended up with a Pilot EX to compare with our Elite.

2016 Honda Pilot

Both had all-wheel drive, which made possible a head-to-head fuel economy comparison. On paper, their respective EPA ratings suggested the difference would be small. A Pilot all-wheel-drive with 9-speed transmission is rated at 22 mpg combined (19 city/26 highway).

The AWD 6-speed is rated at 21 combined (18 city/26 highway). With highway mpg all knotted up, the 9-speed's scant 1-mpg overall advantage comes down to better city performance in the EPA lab tests that determine window-sticker fuel economy.

But would that carry over to the real world? Our 9-speed drivability complaints made us wonder. So we drove them around our two test loops, with Cameron and I swapping between them and making sure each one spent equal time in the lead to neutralize any driving style differences. Both climate control systems were set to 75 degrees in full Auto mode.

To keep things even, we switched off the Elite's auto start-stop system, a feature that comes standard with the 9-speed but not offered on the 6-speed. It's not used during the EPA testing and labelling procedure and many people dislike such systems and switch them off. I have plans to look into the "on versus off" difference in a separate test.

Our One Lap of Orange County loop is 102.4 miles of arterial city roads with more than 100 signals. The route steers clear of any freeways and the traffic is not near as bad as the hyper-congested west L.A. roads on which some of our staffers commute. We use it because it's more similar to what goes on in the rest of the country. Typically requiring less four hours to complete, our test results usually settle between EPA city and EPA combined.

Our other standard evaluation loop is known internally as The Loop. Its 116 miles consist of meandering rural two-lane roads through local hills, a couple sections of Pacific Coast Highway, steep upgrades and downgrades, some farm roads, and a stretch of suburban freeway. After about three hours, we usually see results that fall between EPA combined and EPA highway.

Here's how the two Pilots did:

OC Loop
6-speed: 20.8 mpg
9-speed: 21.6 mpg

The Loop (L.A. area)
6-speed: 25.3 mpg
9-speed: 24.8 mpg

Combined
6-speed: 23.0 mpg
9-speed: 23.2 mpg

The end result was pretty much a tie. The 9-speed demonstrated a slight advantage in the more city-heavy loop, as its EPA ratings suggested. But the 6-speed did better on the route with highways and hills. Why? Ninth gear is quite tall and our Elite simply couldn't pull it if there was much of a hill or headwind. Meanwhile, the 6-speed never had any trouble holding onto top gear, which works out to something akin to eighth-and-a-third gear in an Elite (if such a thing were possible, which it isn't) if you do all the underlying math.

Ignoring the equipment differences between the EX and the Elite, I'd take the 6-speed in a heartbeat. A week of using it confirmed how much I prefer the shifter. And the mpg numbers don't show the drivability benefit of the 6-speed, which never calls attention to itself as it goes about its business and always seems to be in the right gear.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 9,133 miles

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