Editor’s note: This review was written in April 2008 about the 2009 Honda Pilot. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Remember when your mother told you that just because everyone else was doing something didn’t mean you had to do it too? It appears Honda took that advice to heart, as the redesigned 2009 Pilot bucks the trend of ever-sleeker styling that’s come to dominate the crossover category.
Instead, the eight-seat Pilot, which goes on sale May 22, embraces a boxy, angular look that came to define SUVs in the ’90s. While it remains to be seen how accepting customers will be of the crossover’s shape, it does have a number of appealing attributes that could easily win over buyers who give it a chance, like a composed ride and improved gas mileage.
The 2009 Pilot features an upright front with a vertical grille and wide rectangular headlamps that incorporate separate lighting elements for the daytime running lights. The rear of the Pilot also features squared-off styling as opposed to flowing curves, and there are some interesting angles in the liftgate near the taillamps. There are also blister-style design cues around the side windows that lend the Pilot a subtle styling touch (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model).
Besides the H badge in the grille, there’s little to suggest that creating a family resemblance between the Pilot and Honda’s small CR-V was at the forefront of its designers’ minds. Some brands try to make the front of all their models look the same — I’m talking about you, BMW — but Honda says these two SUVs serve different buyers.
The Pilot managed to impress on the ride and handling front thanks to its ability to resist body roll when driven aggressively. I drove the Pilot on winding roads in the desert outside Palm Springs, Calif., and even when pushed hard through corners the SUV remained even-keeled. A number of competitors, like the Hyundai Veracruz and Mazda CX-9, aren’t as successful in this respect and more easily succumb to the laws of physics.
The Pilot is equally at home on the highway. The SUV cruises comfortably at 75 mph — the V-6 engine isn’t taxed in the least — and it’s easy to keep the Pilot on course. Steering feel is a little vague when turning the wheel left or right from the straight-ahead position, however.
The Pilot gains slightly more power for 2009 and is more fuel-efficient. It still uses a 3.5-liter V-6, but that engine now makes 250 horsepower and 253 pounds-feet of torque.
The V-6 provides adequate acceleration and motivates the Pilot past slower-moving traffic on two-lane roads without drama. The engine teams with a five-speed automatic transmission, which kicks down readily when more power is needed to accelerate or pass. During the entirety of my drive, the transmission never made a harsh shift and always seemed to be in the right gear.
Like the Accord sedan and Odyssey minivan, the Pilot now features the latest version of Honda’s Variable Cylinder Management system that can deactivate either two or three of the engine’s six cylinders to save fuel when they aren’t all needed. The front-wheel-drive version of the previous Pilot also had VCM, but it was only able to deactivate three cylinders and thus didn’t have as wide of an operating range as the new system. To oppose vibration and unwanted sound when the engine isn’t running on all of its cylinders, the Pilot has active engine mounts and a noise-canceling system. At all times during my test drive, the V-6 operated smoothly.
The front-wheel-drive Pilot gets an EPA-estimated 17/23 mpg city/highway, and the all-wheel-drive model is estimated to get 16/22 mpg. That’s slightly better than the previous Pilot’s 16/22 mpg (FWD) and 15/20 mpg (AWD) figures. To help drivers know when they’re driving in a frugal manner, the Pilot has an “Eco” light in the instrument panel that illuminates when the SUV is achieving its combined gas mileage estimate (about 19 mpg) or greater, according to assistant chief engineer Craig Brazeau.
| Gas Mileage Compared
| 2008 Toyota Highlander
| 2009 Honda Pilot
| 2008 GMC Acadia
| 2008 Hyundai Veracruz
| 2008 Mazda CX-9
Front-wheel drive is standard, and Honda’s VTM-4 all-wheel-drive system is optional. Honda says VTM-4 sends engine power to the rear wheels during acceleration as well as when the wheels lose traction. The system also includes a Lock mode that’s designed to help the Pilot through poor road conditions at low speeds (18 mph and below).
Standard Hill Start Assist is new to the Pilot for 2009. Designed for on-road use, according to Honda spokesman Chuck Schifsky, the system works as an automatically engaging and disengaging parking brake of sorts. When stopped on a hill, HSA will hold the Pilot briefly after you take your foot off the brake to prevent the SUV from rolling in the time between releasing the brake pedal and pressing the accelerator (if you wait too long, you’ll start to roll backward). It operates when the transmission is in Reverse, too.
Honda provided an opportunity for some mild offroading in the Pilot in the California desert. Even though where we drove — rutted dirt roads and up and down some steep hills — was probably more severe than anything a Pilot owner would ever likely attempt, the SUV breezed through the terrain with ease, and HSA performed as advertised.
The Pilot has all-disc brakes. Making smooth stops isn’t difficult in the Pilot; braking response is easily controllable, and it doesn’t take much pressure on the pedal to quickly shed speed.
The Pilot’s cabin has been thoroughly updated, including new styling and more space for passengers and their belongings. The new dash features a mix of styling elements, like white-faced gauges and translucent turquoise trim in the middle of the dashboard, but taken as a whole the design works well. I did notice an uncharacteristic-for-Honda exposed cutline in one of the dash pieces and a slightly misaligned trim piece on the instrument panel hood. Much of the dashboard plastic, though nicely grained, is hard to the touch, which is unusual considering that many automakers are using soft-touch materials in cabin designs.
The Pilot’s front bucket seats have moderately firm cushioning that proved comfortable during the four-plus hours I spent driving and riding in the SUV. The seats are finished in cloth or leather with a two-setting heat function; power seats are optional.
Adults will be equally at home in the second row, which adds 1.1 inches of legroom, according to Honda. I’m 6-foot-1 and had legroom to spare, and that’s with the driver’s seat adjusted for me. The three-place bench is split 60/40, and these sections can slide forward and back and recline independent of each other. My only complaint is that the lever for reclining the backrest is located on top of the seatback, which makes for an awkward reach when sitting. A better solution, which Audi has adopted, is a low-mounted lever on the outside of the seat cushion.
The third row gains 1.9 inches of legroom for 2009. Despite the bump in third-row legroom, it’s still on the small side for adults. Fortunately, young kids are most likely to prowl this part of the Pilot, and for them it should provide adequate room.
With the third row up, the Pilot has 18 cubic feet of cargo room, not counting the 2.8-cubic-foot underfloor storage area. That’s more than the rearmost cargo room in the Mazda CX-9 (17.2 cubic feet) and Toyota Highlander (10.3 cubic feet) but less than the Acadia’s 25.5-cubic-foot space. The sizable well beneath the cargo floor is part of a cargo management system that’s standard on the Pilot. The system consists of a net that can be stretched between the walls of the cargo area about halfway up from the floor. With the net in place, there’s room below it for luggage or a cooler, and the net itself can hold small items. The back of the third-row seat also has a number of grocery-bag hooks.
The third row’s backrest folds forward into the floor, and when it’s down total cargo room measures 47.7 cubic feet. Folding the second row down brings the total amount of cargo space to 87 cubic feet. There’s a slight incline in the cargo floor with both the second and third row folded, but there are no ledges between the sections — it’s a flat floor.
Towing fans will be happy to know that the Pilot comes with a standard Class III trailer hitch, a heavy-duty radiator with twin fans, and transmission and power-steering coolers. Front-wheel-drive Pilots are rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds, while the all-wheel-drive version gets a 4,500-pound rating. The Pilot normally runs on regular gas, but Honda recommends premium fuel when towing more than 3,500 pounds.
A number of standard safety features are offered, including antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, side-impact airbags for the front seats, three-row side curtain airbags, and active head restraints for the front seats. EX-L and Touring trim levels have backup cameras; in the EX-L the image is displayed in a small section of the rearview mirror, while Touring models use the navigation system screen in the middle of the dash to show what’s behind the SUV.
The Pilot also uses Honda’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering technology, which consists of structural elements in the front of the SUV that are designed to meet the frames of both smaller and larger vehicles during a collision and send crash forces away from occupants riding in the Pilot.
The 2009 Pilot received Good overall ratings in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests. Those scores combine with the Pilot’s standard stability system to make the crossover an IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2009.
The Pilot is available with many of the features you would expect to find in a family-oriented crossover SUV, like a backseat entertainment system, but rather than being optional equipment that you can add to any trim level, many popular features are limited to more expensive trims. For example, the Pilot’s power moonroof is only available on the top two trims, EX-L and Touring, and isn’t offered on the base LX or the EX. Similarly, the previously mentioned entertainment system is also only available on the EX-L and Touring. Touring models are the only trim that can have a power liftgate and a USB port that allows the audio system to control an iPod.
While this feature-allocation strategy may be fine for buyers looking for a higher-end Pilot, it doesn’t serve budget-minded buyers who aren’t eager to step up to a higher trim level just to get one feature they’re interested in.
The Pilot was an appealing choice for families in the market for a three-row crossover before it was redesigned, and it remains so in its new, more refined 2009 form. When it was launched for the 2003 model year, the Pilot was one of just a few large crossover SUVs available. Today, however, there are many worthy challengers, like the CX-9 and Acadia, that match up well with it. When automakers redesign a model, they have to be able to — at a minimum — hang with the competition, and the Pilot does that and more in the categories that matter most.