Honda hasn't completely redesigned its midsize Pilot sport utility vehicle since its introduction in 2003, and that's a long time. It shows in some bad ways, but it also shows in the standard features Honda keeps adding to hold buyers' interest. Larger than the company's compact CR-V and youth-focused Element, the Pilot is technically midsized based on its exterior dimensions, but its car-based construction makes for a roomier interior and eight seats in three rows. There are more models in the Pilot's high-capacity crossover class than ever before, including the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Hyundai Veracruz, Mazda CX-9, Saturn Outlook, Subaru Tribeca and Toyota Highlander.
The big change this year is the discontinuation of one trim level and the addition of two others. The base, LX, trim level, is replaced by the Pilot VP. VP stands for value package; though it costs a few hundred bucks more than the LX did, it replaces the black door handles, side mirrors and rear spoiler with more upscale body-colored versions. It also replaces painted wheels with machined alloys, regular rear windows with privacy glass and a single-CD player with a six-disc in-dash changer. Also added are XM Satellite Radio (subscription sold separately), stereo controls on the steering wheel, and roof rails — which are the first step toward a complete roof rack.
For 2008, the new SE (special edition) trim level builds upon the continuing Pilot EX with a moonroof, DVD video system, XM radio, a 115-volt household-style power outlet and ambient console lighting, all as standard equipment.
Only modest bodyside cladding is used on the Pilot, which exhibits a clean look. The hood slopes down to a wide grille flanked by wraparound headlights. Despite some headlight and grille changes for 2006, the overall appearance is practically the same as when the model made its debut. All Pilots now have body-colored bumpers, bodyside moldings, door handles and side mirrors.
Up to eight occupants can fit inside the Pilot, which features 60/40-split folding seats in the second and third rows. Theater seating provides a better view for rear passengers. Cloth upholstery is standard, and leather is available in a variant called the EX-L.
Maximum cargo volume totals 87.6 cubic feet. A 4-foot-wide sheet of plywood will fit flat on the floor. Options include a DVD-based touch-screen navigation system and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
Under the Hood
The Pilot's 3.5-liter V-6 produces 244 horsepower and 240 pounds-feet of torque and runs on regular unleaded gasoline. A column-mounted lever controls the five-speed automatic transmission. A front-wheel-drive model with Variable Cylinder Management can automatically switch the Pilot's 3.5-liter V-6 between six- and three-cylinder modes to improve fuel economy. The front-drive Pilot with VCM saves 1 to 2 mpg compared to the heavier 4WD version.
The Pilot boasts a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, having received top scores in frontal-, side- and rear-impact crash tests. Dual-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats are standard.
All-disc antilock brakes are standard, as is Honda's Vehicle Stability Assist electronic stability system with traction control. Head restraints are installed for all eight seating positions.
Honda did nearly everything right with the Pilot. Carlike traits are immediately noticeable, and the vehicle's slightly heavy feel is mixed with considerable overall refinement.
Performance is strong and confident, if not exactly blistering. Response is quick, easy and seamless from the engine and automatic transmission. The seats are firm and very supportive, and the large speedometer is easy to read.
The Pilot stays reasonably flat in curves, but it's not quite as surefooted as some SUVs on narrow twisty roads. It seems a trifle uncertain through some demanding turns.
The Pilot's need of updating is evident in its interior. Though respectable, the materials aren't as rich as those of some fresher competitors. Also, the second-row seats don't adjust forward and back, and the third row's head restraints must be removed before its backrest will fold flat into the floor. This has all but become a thing of the past.