EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Honda often is late to the party with new vehicles, but when it finally shows up, its presence can elevate the quality of the crowd.

So it was with the new Odyssey minivan and the upscale Acura MDX crossover sport utility. Each set a new standard for its category when introduced in the fall of 1999 as 2001 models.

And so it will be with the Honda Pilot, a family-oriented SUV crossover built off the same Odyssey platform as the MDX. “It is 67% MDX,” says chief program engineer Frank Paluch. The similarities are all under the skin, which isn’t a bad thing in this family of vehicles. The Pilot arrives in dealer showrooms this week to replace the Passport, an Isuzu re-badged as a Honda and found wanting by Honda buyers. Most have stopped seriously considering the brand when searching for an SUV bigger and more capable than the CRV.

But the Pilot gives Honda a serious contender in the still-hot compact SUV category. Although Honda Marketing Vice President Dan Bonawitz says he expects most buyers to be Honda loyalists who have been waiting for a vehicle such as the Pilot, the company also expects to woo customers from Ford’s Explorer and Toyota’s Highlander, among others.

Pilot is a crossover. It looks like a standard SUV but is built on a passenger car platform and uses car-like unibody construction rather than the body-on-frame construction of a truck. This is more than an SUV-styled wagon, though.

It won’t traverse the Rubicon, the Lake Tahoe-area off-road route famed for its steep rock walls and deep-carved gullies. But the Pilot will go up steeper, muddier hills and through deeper, dirtier ditches than 90% of today’s SUV drivers are willing, or able, to tackle.

And then, when hosed off, it will take a parent and as many as seven kids to the mall or school or a soccer game, or cart mom and dad and up to six of their best friends (especially if at least three in the group are slim and under 5 feet 7 inches tall) to the opera–grand or Grand Ole, it would be at home in either crowd.

It also will replace that pickup dad’s been lobbying for.

With both rear and middle-row seats folded into the floor, a full sheet of plywood will lie flat in the Pilot’s cargo bay. A stack of plywood, in fact, will fit, or a standard Southern California backyard’s worth of landscaping material or a whole lot of skateboards, camping gear or luggage.

Honda held the press preview of the Pilot in the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains in and around Asheville, N.C., with an off-road course built to show off the Pilot’s capabilities.

A single day of driving, especially in controlled circumstances, isn’t enough to tell whether a new vehicle has what it takes to continue to please past the new-purchase honeymoon, but the Pilot at least can point to two siblings that are doing well in that department two years after introduction.

And after a day of driving, on asphalt and off, I can attest that Honda’s new SUV has plenty of power, comfortable seats, a panoramic view from inside the cabin, lots of room and a fairly rigid body with little roll and sway even on hairpin curves.

It is not a sports car, not even a sports sedan, but on the road it will run with the best of the pack in the SUV-minivan-light-pickup class.

Off-road, it vies for class leadership. It won’t outperform every competitor at every task, but overall it works beautifully doing what it was designed to do–get through a variety of mild-to-moderate off-road conditions with dispatch and aplomb.

The Pilot’s agility comes from its 8-inch ground clearance, wide and grippy P235/70R16 tires, short nose and tail overhangs and Honda’s variable torque management drive system.

Under normal driving conditions, the Pilot operates in front-wheel drive. When one or more wheels start slipping, it starts diverting torque–up to 53% of it–to the rear wheels. nd when the going gets really tough, as in off-road hill climbing or bog slogging, the driver can punch a button on the dash and lock the system into a terrain-handling 50-50 split.

On the minus side, a few things:

* No one will follow you home to ask what that stunning new car is you’re driving. It is a plain-vanilla SUV.

* The rear access hatch is a single-piece tailgate that swings up. When the tailgate is open, the rear corners are low enough to add a crease to the forehead of anyone much over 6 feet 2 inches who isn’t paying attention.

* The Pilot has the same awkwardly placed steering-column-mounted gear selection lever as the Odyssey, so if you have the standard five-speed automatic in low gear you must reach down somewhere between kneecap and shinbone to find the lever.

* Shifting in the two models I drove was notchy, making it difficult to move smoothly between forward gears or to get from park to drive without a little effort. Most people don’t manually shift an automatic except when parking or reversing, so in a regular car the irritation levels would be small. But this is an SUV that uses low gear if you take it through its paces off-road. And on the road or off, we don’t expect Hondas, especially with a starting price of $27,360, to give us even a little bit of trouble.

Just about everything else in the Pilot package is on the plus side.

The vehicle shares its engine and drive train with the Acura MDX, so you get a powerful 3.5-liter V-6 with 240 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque.

The Honda, though, uses regular gasoline instead of premium and is EPA-rated at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway.

It will get a low-emission vehicle (LEV) rating nationally and should get an ultra-low, or ULEV, rating in California, Paluch says.

Its five-speed automatic transmission comes with programming that holds it in lower gears longer when climbing hills to minimize annoying gear-hunting. The ride is softer and the handling less sporty than the driver-oriented MDX, but Honda figures hard-core drivers will spring for the Acura.

The Pilot is a family vehicle, designed to carry kids and cargo and go off-roading and pull a medium-sized boat or small trailer–and do it all in comfort.

Towing capacity is 4,500 pounds, and with a body that’s a bit more than 4 inches wider than its major competitors’, the Pilot beats the stuffing out of everything in the class in cargo space: 90.3 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats folded, versus 80.1 cubic feet in the new Chevy Trailblazer, 81.4 cubic feet in the Highlander and 88 cubic feet in the Dodge Durango. Even with all seats in use, there’s still 16.1 cubic feet of storage.

The door panels are scooped out to increase arm room and add to the feeling of space in the cabin; the rear suspension is designed to fit beneath the body so ther e’s no spring or shock tower intrusion to interfere with the rear seating or cargo area; and the interior is packed with cup holders (nine of them) cubbyholes, map pockets and storage spaces.

In the high-end EX model there’s a child-friendly fold-away activity tray in the second-row seats that has two cup holders, a storage bin for games and special compartments to hold the ketchup and dipping-sauce containers that come with the fast-food meals the kids demand on any drive longer than a trip to the grocery store.

There’s an optional factory-installed entertainment system with a DVD player and flip-down 7-inch screen, a feature Honda also offers in the Odyssey minivan.

Rugged outdoors types might want to pass on the entertainment package in favor of the DVD-based navigation system. It is a satellite-linked system with a touch-control screen and provides both audio and visual cues for the driver.

For reasons known only to Honda’s interior desg ers and marketing specialists, the entertainment and navigation options can’t be combined and are available only on EX models with optional leather upholstery.

The most expensive combo, the Pilot EX with leather seats and the navigation system, is $32,980, including Honda’s $460 destination charge–$5,620 more than the base LX model. The base EX is $29,730.

Standard equipment on all models includes four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes; air conditioning with separate front and rear controls; power windows and locks; cruise control and front buckets.

On the safety side, Honda provides standard driver’s and passenger’s front and side air bags and surrounds the passenger cabin with crumple zones that help dissipate crash-impact energy.

Special blocker brackets on the sub-frame make the Pilot “crash compatible” with standard passenger cars and keep it from riding up over a smaller vehicle’s bumper.

All eight seating positions have three-point belts. The center belts are ceiling mounted and, in a typically Honda touch, retract when not in use to provide an unobstructed cargo area.

*

Final Words: You owe it to yourself to test a Pilot if you are considering a compact or mid-size SUV that will see more highway than off-road duty. And if the Odyssey and Acura MDX are anything to go by, don’t expect to pay anything less than sticker price.

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