EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

You would have expected a sport-utility vehicle bearing the Honda name to appear before a sport-ute carrying the Acura moniker from the automaker’s luxury division.

The reasoning is simple. Bring out a low-price Honda, wait a year, then doll it up with leather, inflate the price and call it an Acura.

Not the case.

For the 2001 model year, Acura brought out the high-priced MDX sport-ute and for 2003 Honda brings out the lower-priced Pilot, which comes with optional leather.

So MDX has gotten a two-year lead on Pilot.

But there was a good reason. At the time the MDX came out, luxury sport-utes were the rage and the only offering Acura had was a cosmetically altered Isuzu Trooper billed as the SLX, which was gosh-awful ugly whether draped in leather or bathed in fur. No amount of camouflage could conceal that the SLX rode and handled like a truck.

So conditions dictated MDX first and now, after an appropriate amount of time has passed, the Pilot.

We tested the ’03 Pilot EX, which rides and handles more like a Honda Accord sedan than a cousin to the MDX sport-ute.

While you would expect the Acura offering to be more softly sprung, Honda chose to make Pilot the more pleasant of the pair when it comes to absorbing bumps in the road and sitting flat in tight corners.

You see irregularities in the pavement but don’t feel them as you pass over. There’s some lean when motoring up or down the twisting merger ramp but not enough to force you to ease off the pedal.

Pilot offers the same 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower V-6 teamed with 5-speed automatic as the MDX. Smooth, commotion-free acceleration but not as energetic as we expected, considering 240 h.p. and 242 foot-pounds of torque. Perhaps keeping the mileage rating at an acceptable 17 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway while offering four-wheel-drive is the reason the 3.5 feels like it could use a few more horses up the inclines and, no doubt, when the SUV is full of people and their gear.

Pilot comes with a Variable Torque Management (VTM) 4WD system as standard. You tool around in two-wheel-drive until wheel slippage is detected, and then the system splits torque 50/50 front and rear so all four wheels are performing equal duty. No dials, no levers.

If you find yourself buried in a foot of snow overnight, press the VTM lock button on the dash for an immediate 50/50 torque split to help you get going. Once free and once you’ve reached 20 m.p.h., VTM automatically unlocks.

All Pilots, which are one inch wider than an MDX, come with three rows of seats for up to seven people. That one inch sure makes for good cabin room, with cozy seats and plenty of stretch space in the first and second rows.

But the third-row is a designated Munchkin zone. Adults attempting to rest there will have knees imbedded in the second-row seat backs, providing they can get in the third row.

When you tilt the second-row se at-back forward, the seat bottom glides forward to provide an opening to steerage. But the seat doesn’t move that far forward and creates only a small aisle to slip through. A flip-and-fold seat would allow for a wider aisle.

At least second- and third-row seats have split, folding backs so you can haul long items on one side and hold people on the other.

If you feel you must shop the MDX because the luxury version has to offer more than the blue-collar edition, you’ll find Pilot is loaded with goodies–missing only a sunroof. MDX has one, and that’s a wrong that needs to be righted on Pilot.

As for noteworthy features, consider that Pilot comes with four, count ’em, four power plugs–in the dash, in the center console (where you’ll also find a cellphone cradle that flips down and out for convenient use), on the back of that console for second-row passengers and in the rear side wall of the cargo hold.

But power plugs are outnumbered–9 to 4 by cupholde , 6 to 4 by pop-down grocery bag holders in the rear side walls and 6 to 4 by cargo-net holders in those walls.

However, power plugs outnumber sunglasses holders and fast-food sauce container holders, each 4 to 1. One sunglasses holder is in the overhead console and, in EX models only, one fast-food sauce container holder is in the center fold-down armrest in the second-row seat.

When folded down, that armrest also holds such items as small games, crayons and, of course, the food to which you’d apply the sauce.

When not in use, the cargo net can be tossed into a covered plastic compartment under the rear cargo floor. That deep compartment will hold a wealth of other items as well, including wet swimsuits.

If you need to carry more, second- and third-row seat backs fold flat to enlarge the cargo area, but you must remove the headrests.

The ’03 Pilot tested came with optional ($1,250) leather seats, which are soft, supple and perforated, and neither as slippery in corners or turns nor as unbearably hot after parked in the sun all day as leather can be.

The Pilot comes in LX and EX versions.

The top-of-the-line EX starts at $29,270 (top-of-the-line MDX starts at $39,000) and includes as standard such items as air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD player, dual body-colored power mirrors, power windows, power locks, rear-window wiper/washer/defroster, eight-way power driver’s seat, front and side air bags and steering-wheel mounted audio controls.

The test vehicle also came with the optional ($1,500) DVD entertainment system to keep kids occupied on trips when not busy putting sauce on their fast food.

Don’t dismiss the value of a $1,500 entertainment system to your emotional well-being while traveling 100 or more miles locked in a vehicle with three little kids making the familiar “are we there yet?” plea.

With an entertainment system, the only sounds from the little ones will be the screams of discontent during the brief time it takes to change movies–though sometimes you also might hear an occasional groan from Gramps after he’s watched the same movie for the fourth time, has the dialog memorized and . . . oops. Sorry.

Only other factory installed option is a navigation system at $2,000, which answers the question of whether you are there yet, but not to the satisfaction of little kids.

Pilot is built in Canada alongside the MDX and the Honda Odyssey minivan. Initially, Honda expects to sell 80,000 Pilots annually, but that should rise as some Odyssey output is transferred to Honda’s new plant in Alabama to free the Canadian facility to produce more Pilots and MDX’s.

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