The 2016 Honda Pilot has climbed to the top of the three-row SUV class, delivering all the room, comfort, safety features and versatility that make the potholed roads of parenting just a tiny bit smoother.
Versus the competition:
Major players in the segment include the Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Highlander and Hyundai Santa Fe. Compare them here.
Editor’s note: This review was written in May 2015 about the 2016 Pilot. For 2017, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity are now standard on all trim levels except the base LX. Little else of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the 2016 and 2017 model years.
Most seasoned parents keep an arsenal of secret weapons on hand, ready to spring into action when the wheels start to fall off the family sanity bus — from an emergency snack bag for a meltdown-free car ride to a secret stash of can’t-sleep-without-it blankie replacements. The Honda Pilot should be added to that stockpile.
The 2016 Pilot is completely redesigned, with a radically different exterior design, new powertrains, restyled cabin controls and upgraded interior materials. For 2016, it can have eight seats with a standard second-row bench or seven with new second-row captain’s chairs, which are available only on the top Elite trim, where they’re standard equipment. Compare it with the 2015 model here.
Exterior & Styling
Like the exhausted parents who rely on this three-row family taxi, the old Pilot was getting pretty tired. After six-plus years without many changes, a redesign was sorely needed, inside and out.
Honda caved to peer pressure, replacing the Pilot’s trend-breaking square-ness with the sleek lines and sharp angles that are more akin to the Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander. Some think the new silhouette blends in too much with the rest of the class, but I think it’s sharp, modern and stylish. It should go a long way toward boosting the Pilot’s mainstream appeal.
Newly optional LED headlamps and LED daytime running lights join the standard LED taillights, giving the front and rear ends a premium pop that’s reminiscent of the Acura MDX, on which the Pilot is based.
How It Drives
The previous Pilot plodded along — slow, loud and cumbersome. It moved like — well, like the big brick it was. The new version’s road manners are much more refined, and noise and ride are the biggest areas of improvement. The Pilot’s handling could still use some work, however.
Road isolation is outstanding now; the cabin is very quiet. Wind, engine and road noise are well checked. The ride is also much more comfortable. It’s smoother, with better bump isolation and solid overall composure. Handling is still not a Pilot strength. It floats too much at highway speeds, and body lean around corners is pronounced. The steering is nicely weighted and direct, however, contributing to a more controlled feeling overall than the previous model had.
I drove a Touring trim, which along with the Elite has a new nine-speed automatic transmission in lieu of the lower trims’ six-speed automatic. It handled Kentucky’s rolling hills with authority, promptly and smoothly ticking off shifts for strong low-end power. Unlike some other nine-speeds, it didn’t feel too busy or awkwardly hunt for gears.
Both units pair with a new 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, up from the old engine’s 250 hp. Honda’s cylinder deactivation and engine stop-start systems, combined with the new transmissions and an overall lighter body, make the 2016 Pilot more efficient. Base front-wheel-drive models with the six-speed transmission are rated 19/27/22 mpg city/highway/combined by the EPA, up from last year’s 18/25/21 mpg rating with the five-speed automatic. With the new nine-speed, estimates climb to 20/27/23 mpg for front-wheel-drive models. That’s impressive against front-drive, V-6 base versions of the Traverse (17/24/19 mpg), Highlander (19/25/21 mpg) and Santa Fe (18/25/21 mpg).
The previous Pilot’s cabin was layered in so much hard plastic it practically echoed in there. Honda upgraded the cabin’s materials and design this year, and the results are a huge leap forward in interior refinement and comfort.
My Touring model featured supple leather seats as well as plenty of soft-touch plastic on the dash and door panels, interspersed with chrome trim, dashboard stitching and glossy black plastic paneling. Compared with the Santa Fe’s more upscale cabin, it’s nothing special, but against the previous Pilot it’s a homerun.
The new Pilot is 3.5 inches longer than the outgoing one, increasing cargo and passenger space. Second-row headroom and legroom are generous. My test model had the bench seat, but I sat in the new Elite trim’s standard captain’s chairs; they’re comfortable, and they slide and recline for added flexibility, as does the bench.
Getting to the third row looks easy with either the bench seat or the captain’s chairs, thanks to a new one-touch button that quickly slides the seat forward. But the opening is still small, and the step-in height is still high despite Honda’s widening and lowering the opening this year.
Room in the third row is just OK. I had enough headroom, but legroom is tight unless the second row is slid forward to share the wealth. By the numbers, the Pilot’s maximum third-row legroom (31.9 inches) beats the Highlander’s (27.7) and edges out the Santa Fe’s (31.5), but it’s not as generous as the Traverse’s (33.2). The third row itself is hard, flat and low to the floor, so occupants have to sit in an uncomfortable knees-up position. Unlike some third rows, however, it has one set of lower Latch anchors and three top tether anchors, making it more useful for families with kids in car seats.
All three rows benefit from a bevy of available family-friendly creature comforts, like a pop-down conversation mirror above the front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated second-row captain’s chairs, pop-up second-row sunshades, a first-row moonroof (as well as a large glass panel over the second row), a Blu-ray-compatible rear-seat DVD entertainment system with a 9-inch screen and almost too many connectivity options: five USB ports, an HDMI port, a 115-volt outlet, an auxiliary input jack and a 12-volt outlet.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The control panel in last year’s Pilot had more mismatched knobs and buttons than a discount furniture store. For 2016, there are fewer buttons, making for a more streamlined look, but the tradeoff is that many controls have been absorbed by the new multimedia system and its touch-sensitive panel, which is standard on all but the base trim.
Front and center on the dash, the multimedia system uses an 8-inch screen with tap, pinch and swipe functionality, so it works a lot like a smartphone screen. Audio and navigation functions are controlled through the touch-screen and surrounding panel; I found the screen and panel buttons responsive. Unlike some capacitive-touch-style systems, one press was all it took to engage, and there was no delay in the response, though I did miss traditional volume and station-tuning knobs.
The new available navigation system is powered by Garmin and more helpful than the outgoing nav. The system includes features like area speed limit signs, real-time traffic rerouting and a 3-D buildings-and-terrain display mode. With a logical menu structure and clearly marked “back” and “home” buttons, the system is easy to use.
What isn’t easy to use is the new electronic gear selector, which is standard on nine-speed automatic models. To engage Park, Drive and Neutral, you just push a button; that’s easy enough. For Reverse, however, pushing the R does nothing. You have to lift a tab under the icon, similar to a window switch. It’s awkward. Six-speed-equipped Pilots have a conventional console-area shifter.
Cargo & Storage
The Pilot can swallow just about anything you can toss inside, be it small stuff — like mobile devices, snacks or purses — or bigger cargo, like coolers and strollers. All-wheel-drive models can also tow up to 5,000 pounds, which is similar to the competition.
In front, the center console is large and deep — just right for a medium-size purse. On captain’s-chair-equipped versions, a low-profile second-row center console sits between the two seats and has two cupholders. There are also double cupholders in the rear doors and next to the third row’s outboard seats.
Behind the third row, cargo room is up a bit this year. With 18.5 cubic feet of space, it bests the Santa Fe (13.5) and Highlander (13.8), but again, the Traverse offers more (24.4). The cargo floor is reversible — carpet or hard plastic for easy clean up — and has two positions. In the up position, it covers an underfloor storage area. Flip it down for a deep, uncovered well. If you need more space, the third row folds flat easily with a tug on a strap, increasing cargo room to an impressive 55.9 cubic feet. Fold the second and third rows for maximum cargo volume of 109 cubic feet, which dwarfs the Santa Fe (80) and the Highlander (83.7), but again falls shy of the Traverse (116.3).
The 2016 Honda Pilot has not yet been crash-tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Huge side mirrors, clear rear sight lines and a standard, multi-angle backup camera make for great overall visibility. Also standard on most trims is Honda’s LaneWatch system, which displays a wide-angle rear view of the passenger-side roadway on the touch-screen when the turn signal is activated.
The Honda Sensing safety package is new and combines systems like forward collision warning with collision mitigation braking, which can automatically brake the car in the event of an impending collision, plus lane departure warning, lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. It’s available on EX and EX-L models and standard on Touring and Elite trims. Blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are standard on the Elite trim. Click here for a full list of safety features.
The previous-generation Pilot fit three child-safety seats across its second-row bench. Honda says the new generation should do the same, but we’ve not yet tested it.
Value in Its Class
The 2016 Honda Pilot starts at $30,875 for a base, two-wheel-drive model; all-wheel drive adds $1,800. Prices are in line with the competition and the base Pilot is well-equipped with standards like a multiview backup camera, push-button start and Bluetooth audio streaming, but it’s disappointing that the captain’s chairs are only available on the top Elite trim, which starts at a whopping $47,300; all prices include destination.
The old Pilot came in second-to-last in Cars.com’s recent $40,000 Three-Row SUV Challenge; the new model is sure to make the winner — the Hyundai Santa Fe — more than a bit nervous.
With the 2016 Honda Pilot, parents have a new secret weapon, though it’s not likely to remain a secret for long. Sales of the previous generation are strong, and the new model’s updates will make every family on the block want one.