EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 2003 Honda Pilot

Not that champagne corks will pop or cone-shaped pink hats be passed around, but Honda has officially joined the SUV party. For all Honda owners out there, there is joy in Mudville. Finally, a true family off-road or on-road option for all the families that have made the Japanese automaker such a winner. Finally, their own legitimate sport utility vehicle.

It’s been a lonely last decade for Honda, having to sit on the sidelines and watch as the rest of the world drove by in its brand-new sport utility vehicles. Honda is just about the last of the major manufacturers to get into the wildly popular mid-size SUV market. With the 2003 Pilot, Honda’s saying it’s well worth the wait.

Larger and more expensive than Honda’s mini-ute, the CR-V, the Pilot replaces the Passport, actually a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo. If anything, the Pilot is a good lesson in economics. Built on the same production line in Ontario, Canada, as the Odyssey minivan and the more expensive MDX sold by Honda’s luxury division Acura, all three trucks share some chassis and beneath-the-skin components.

Both the Pilot and MDX qualify as one of the new breed of car-like SUVs that are winning many converts these days from the more truck-like models. Minivan-based SUV-like vehicles have the refinement of being car-based like a minivan. But so far, they have escaped the soccer mom suburban image that has tainted the minivan’s image in the minds of some buyers.

The Pilot plan is simple: Build a vehicle with a limited list of factory options.

There is no optional five-speed manual Transmission, two-wheel drive or a sunroof, none of which was a priority for this buyer group – active, outdoorsy families with college-educated parents about 40 years old, with three kids and a household income of about $85,000, Honda says.

And at its core, the Pilot is not an image vehicle, but a good working-class meat-and-potatoes ride. No glitz, just the Honda-efficient basics; the work ethic of the Odyssey without the emotional baggage of driving a minivan. And it has many of the useful features of a minivan, including eight seats with three rows and a kid-friendly environment.

Under the hood, the Pilot’s engine feels dead-on for this vehicle – not underpowered, not needlessly overpowered. It’s a V-6 that displaces 3.5 liters and produces 240 horsepower, enough for jackrabbit starts and easy passing. All aluminum, with 24 valves, the Pilot’s engine has Honda’s “VTEC” variable valve control system and runs with the silkiness that typifies a Honda six-cylinder.

Mileage is a little better than the competition’s but still typical of mid-size SUVs – which is to say you’ll make no friends with your Project Green friends if you buy a Pilot; 22 miles per gallon is about the best you’ll get, by EPA estimate.

Storage is ample, with a decent-sized glove box, large door pockets and a center console with, from front to rear, a large open shelf, a covered compartment co ntaining two cup holders, a flip-out holder for a cell phone and a covered storage bin/armrest.

Safety features include dual-stage front air bags, side air bags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 5 mph bumpers, three-point belts and headrests at all seats.

Pilot runs in front-wheel drive until wheel sensors detect slippage and route drive power to the rear wheels, from zero to 50 percent. An electronic locking differential gives added traction in deep sand or snow, and the owner can be confident in crossing flooded streets or streams up to 19 inches deep.

And with eight inches of ground clearance, it is capable of going where Honda owners don’t usually travel, if they so choose.

The five-speed automatic transmission does well. Suspension is independent, and steering is rack and pinion.

Pilots begin at $26,900 with freight and increase from the base price up to $32,980 for a version that includes leather upholstery and a navigation system. A version slightly less expensive than the one with the navigation system comes instead with a DVD entertainment system for rear seaters. (One note: You can’t have both because their hardware takes up the same spot in the dashboard.)

The base model comes quite well equipped with air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control and a four-speaker stereo with CD player.

And it is inside the Pilot that will make it a family favorite in the garage. There are nine cup holders – nine! – and an activity tray in the back of the center second row seat. Fold it down as an armrest and there’s a hard tray surface for coloring.

The back seats are raised so each row gets a good view, which also helps reduce motion sickness. The overhead grab handles with integrated reading light are an industry first.

Both second and third rows have 60/40 split folding seatbacks and will expand a cargo area that is 4 feet wide and about 6 feet long. The second row seatbacks fold nearly flat for about 71 inches of length, so those 8-foot sheets of plywood can just stick out under the tailgate.

With all three rows of seating in place, cargo room in the Pilot is a scant 16 cubic feet – enough for about eight grocery bags. But with its two rear rows of seating folded, the Pilot carries more cargo than the Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Toyota or Jeep.

And that’s serious competition.

But for the first time, Honda might finally be ready.

Rating: 4

High Gear: One of the best crossover SUVs in just its first year out, the Pilot offers an excellent choice for active families in need of versatility: cargo room, power and affordability.

Low Gear: Towing capacity and V-6 can’t match torque of domestic competitors’ bigger engines. High demand will leave little room for price negotiation.

Vehicle type: All-wheel-drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger sport utility vehicle.

Notable standard equipment: Bucket front seats; cloth upholstery; split-bench, folding rear seat; rear heating ducts; five-speed automatic; power door locks, windows and mirrors; cruise control; speed-proportional power steering; tilt steering; front, rear and third-row cupholders; 16-inch steel rims; all-season tires; front and rear air-conditioning; AM/FM in-dash single CD player stereo; four speakers; four-wheel ABS; traction control; front side-mounted air bags.

Competition: Jeep Liberty, Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota RAV4

Engine: 240 horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6

Torque: 242 foot-lbs. @ 4,500 rpm

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Length: 188 inches

MPG rating: 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway

Manufactured: Canada

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; powertrain warranty is three years/36,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is five years/unlimited miles.

Base price (LX, 4WD): $26,900

Price as tested (includes options, destination and delivery charges): $32,520

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