EXPERT REVIEW

Boston.com's view

At Honda these days, they’re singing a variation of the song, “We Are Family.”

Interestingly, the notion of family is aimed at two distinct automobiles, one of which Honda has developed as it plays a game of catchup (unusual for Honda) and the other as it looks to leapfrog the competition through bold innovation (typical of Honda).

Today, we’ll deal with the catch-up vehicle, the 2003 Honda Pilot, the company’s first full-size SUV. Honda bills it “the ultimate American family adventure vehicle.”

And from its surprising offroad capacity to its activity bin for children that just invites the slopping of ketchup, mustard, and french fries, they make a strong case.

(The innovative rig is the Honda Element, which I’ll go to California and drive at its introduction in a couple of weeks, and it is aimed at a different family: 20-somethings who Honda says travel in “families” for skiing, climbing, sur.ng, mountain biking, and other adventures. They’re calling this one a college dorm on wheels. I’ll let you know how that turns out.)

In the meantime, Honda passed up on what must have been millions of dollars in pro.ts in the 1990s surge of full-size SUVs.

They gave us the CR-V, which really was just a small box. They gave us the Honda Passport, which (again, unlike Honda) was really an Isuzu Rodeo.

Now comes the Pilot, running on the platform, and with the power train of, the Acura MDX. Both owe their lineage to the Honda Odyssey minivan, so the roots are stable and durable.

I drove the Pilot last May at its introduction in North Carolina and came away surprised at how good it was offroad. I put it up slopes, up and over and down berms, and through muck and water and rocks and logs with which most Pilot owners will never challenge their car. It handled it all with ease.

But I was anxious to get it into a real world setting-a week of hauling kids, groceries, sports gear, and bags for the recycling center.

It proved a paradox. It is huge inside-seats eight and feels very wide-yet did not feel like a big SUV in the way a Toyota Sequoia or Ford Explorer might. Indeed, it felt a lot like the Odyssey on the road.

Honda built the Pilot for a simple reason. They were losing customers. “We knew what customers were leaving Honda . . . and what they were going to buy,” Frank Paluch, Pilot project leader, said at the car’s North Carolina introduction.

Mostly what they were buying were Toyota Highlanders (a station wagonlike SUV) and the Ford Explorer. Both are aimed at families, yet Highlander does not offer a third row of seating (yet) and the Explorer has been hurt by safety questions that might cause trepidation for some families. (Though the redesigned Explorer is a brilliant step from the truck that caused all the problems).

Honda steps in not only with its superb reputation for safe vehicles, it also offers a third row of seating. And it will haul eight while getting better than 20 miles per gallon.

Despite its offroad capabilities, it is not billed as a thumper of woods and trail. It has no skid plates, and though its 106.3 wheelbase is shorter than all competitors, it is still too long for serious offroading. It has no low-range transfer case, relying instead on a torque transfer system that sends power front to rear (it is usually a front-wheel drive vehicle) as needed. There is no center or rear differential to lock. Instead, the rear axle halves can be locked at low speed for better use of any torque sent back there.

Its suspension-struts up front, swing arms in the rear-is tuned for a soft yet solid ride. It’s softer than the MDX, stiffer than the Highlander.

This means that, on the highway, only slight body roll is induced in lane changes and only moderate body roll occurs i hard cornering on back roads. The car handles it well and there is no nse of control slipping away even when it is pushed beyond where a tall vehicle like an SUV should be pushed.

It shares the MDX’s 3.5-liter, SOHC, 24-valve engine. That plant cranks out 240 horsepower and 242 lb.-ft. torque. Coupled with a .ve-speed automatic transmission (silent and seamless in its shifts), it is an excellent choice to move more than two tons of car down the road. And, even full of people, it does it with surprising speed and power.

Let’s say it’ll haul a family.

And that family gets hauled in surprising comfort and crazily delightful ergonomics.

The seating is stadium style, with each row of seats a little higher as you move back in the car. The rear seats are for kids, not big adults. The middle and rear rows fold flat leaving a spacious cargo area.

Views out the front, sides, and rear are expansive for the driver.

And talk about amenities. There are more nooks, crannies, tie downs, and storage bins than you can imagine. This thing seats eight but has nine cupholders. Go figure.

There are six “map” holders-two in the front doors, four in the rear of the seats-that could easily .nd use as holders of magazines or coloring books.

The front, center seat console has a sliding lid that reveals a cellphone holder with adapter, more storage space, and cupholders, depending on con.guration. A center seat console is available and is aimed at kids-it’s here that Honda invites the spilling and slopping of condiments and other sticky detritus of childhood.

High-end models offer either a navigation system or DVD player (rear seats screen) to keep the kids enthralled on long trips. You can’t get both navigation and DVD player, however.

Honda was a long time coming with this SUV, but I’ve got to say they did it right. It won’t draw gawks on the highway-from the outside it’s neither funky nor imposing in size-yet from the inside, it’s all about family funk and lots of room.

2003 Honda Pilot EX-L

Base price: $30,520

Price as tested: $30,980

Horsepower: 240

Torque: 242 lb.-ft.

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Overall length: 188.0 inches

Width: 77.3 inches

Height: 70.6 inches

Curb weight: 4,426 lbs.

Seating: 8 passengers

Fuel economy: 19.8 miles per gallon

Source: Honda North America; fuel economy from Globe testing.

Nice touch

The ease of entry. I don’t know how they built a rig in which you feel like you are sitting so high yet which you can seemingly slide into like a sedan.

Annoyance

The sharp edges on the backs of the steering wheel mounted controls. Several times as my .ngers passed over these plastic buttons, I felt like I was getting sliced.

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