Honda Pilot has been a class act since arrival in 2003, when it impressed family buyers with its refined drivability and roomy, well-finished interior.
Pilot was the biggest Honda ever (the Ridgeline pickup has since stolen that title) and a departure from the automaker’s usual trim and efficient offerings.
Updated for 2006, Pilot gets a sharpened exterior and a restyled interior loaded with features, including an optional navigation system that you can talk to plus a rear-view camera so you don’t back over anything or anyone.
A new two-wheel-drive model has been added, like the one I drove, with a feature to boost economy: the 3.5-liter V-6 shuts off three cylinders at cruising speeds, similar to several V-8s on the market. The effect is seamless, with no sense of added harshness or vibration when the V-6 switches over to three-banger mode.
Honda calls the new quieting technology Active Noise Cancellation coupled with Active Control Engine Mount. Whatever. It seems to work.
I would have enjoyed the Pilot more if the cockpit were more spacious. Usually, midsize and large SUVs have plenty of space behind the wheel for the tall and lanky, but Pilot felt uncomfortably cramped.
Pilot’s new exterior remains conservative, a boxy profile that looks more domestic than muscular. Some people opt for Pilot’s higher-priced sibling, Acura MDX, mainly for its swoopier styling.
Although the top-end Pilot EX-L model I drove costs nearly $36,000, the base LX model starts at a reasonable $27,000 with a decent level of features and equipment.
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The workhorse 3.5-liter V-6 is another sweet engine from Honda, churning out 244 horsepower and using VTEC variable valve timing to keep the power coming throughout the rpm range.
Variable Cylinder Management is the technology that shuts off half of the cylinders during cruising, which gets an EPA rating of 24 miles per gallon on the highway, up from 22 on Pilots without VCM engines.
VCM comes only with two-wheel-drive models, also new for 2006, apparently to differentiate the 2WD as the fuel-efficient version.
The five-speed automatic transmission detracted from the sparkling engine performance with annoyingly sluggish shifting. The column shifter is balky and takes some getting used to.
DRIVABILITY: Despite a soft suspension and cushioned ride, Pilot handles well, though it certainly won’t be mistaken as sporty. The steering is responsive but feels remote.
STYLING: Some sharpened body creases, a bold new grille and revised taillights give Pilot a more purposeful look, though the design stays essentially the same. The no-nonsense styling appeals to many people, but it’s too plain for others.
INTERIOR: A practical design with loads of innovative storage spaces and cubbies, the Pilot is livable as a family hauler, commuter or vacation vehicle. Center console includes a flip-down section with electrical outlet for cellphones or laptops.
The EX-L model comes with all the goodies, including leather seats and trim, a voice-activated navigation system (“Home, James.”) and a reverse camera.
I was disappointed in the driver’s space, wishing the seat would go back another inch or two.
The third-row seats, which flip up from a flat floor, should be reserved only for small children or adults from Munchkin Land.
BOTTOM LINE: A pleasing and fairly economical midsize SUV, backed by Honda’s reputation for quality and innovative products.
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Vehicle type: Eight-passenger, four-door midsize sport utility, front-wheel drive.
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 244 horsepower at 5,750 rpm, 240 pound-feet torque at 4,500 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic.
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches.
Overall length: 188 inches.
Curb weight: 4,356 pounds.
EPA rating: 18 city, 24 highway.
Highs: Overall drivability, attractive interior, expected reliability.
Lows: Tight driver’s position, sluggish transmission, modest handling.
Base price: $31,845.
Price as tested: $34,595.
* The EX-L is the luxury model with a full range of standard equipment, including full air-bag system, leather seating, XM satellite radio, upgrade audio with CD changer, front and rear climate control, vehicle stability assist, full power features, Homelink system, power moonroof, rear spoiler and roof rack.
* Navigation system and rearview camera, $2,200.
* Shipping, $550.
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For more on the Honda Pilot, go to autos.azcentral.com.