Thanks to a few small changes inside, outside and under the hood for 2012, the Honda Pilot remains a top performer among large SUVs with three rows of seats.
When compared with six other vehicles in our $37,000 SUV Shootout — including some newer and more recently redesigned models — the Pilot took first place. The secret of its success is doing virtually everything well and offering more standard features than we've come to expect in a Honda at this price.
The Pilot starts at $28,470 for the LX trim level and also comes in EX, EX-L (the "L" is for leather) and Touring trim levels. The car we used in the comparison test was an EX-L with one option added, for a total of $36,170.
New for 2012
The Pilot's enhancements for 2012 prove that little things mean a lot. Adding 1 mpg to its gas mileage in the city and 2 mpg to its highway figure made the Pilot the second most efficient model in our Shootout, with an EPA-estimated 18/25 mpg (21 mpg combined) with front-wheel drive. The smaller Kia Sorento is rated 20/26 mpg (22 mpg combined). The all-wheel-drive Pilot rates 17/24 mpg (20 mpg combined).
None of our editors are wild about the Pilot's boxy styling, but a few of the previous model's detractors celebrated the grille's new horizontal cross-members. (Apparently all an automaker has to do to win praise for a mundanely conservative grille is supplant it for a few years with a giant branding iron.)
The standard alloy wheels on EX and higher trim levels are now 18 inches rather than 17, which looks nicer but likely will translate to more expensive replacement tires.
Honda addressed two of my complaints in the space of a square foot by redesigning the dashboard's center control panel. The cheap-looking silver plastic has been replaced by a darker, patterned material, and order has come to the previous model year's dizzying hodgepodge of buttons. The controls are more logically laid out, and knobs have replaced some of the ventilation-control switches. Even the multifunction controller, which comes on higher trim levels, has fewer buttons and functions.
A Family-Friendly Ride
All these improvements rest on a strong foundation. Though the Pilot is one of the shorter models in its class measured from bumper to bumper, its boxy shape pays off in interior space, and it's one of only two models in our test that seats eight. It also has a feature we found critical in this SUV class: sliding second-row seats. There are two benefits: the flexibility to apportion legroom between the second and third rows (or choose between passenger space and cargo space), and ease in accessing the third row. The second row's tilt-and-slide motion is just easier than some competing models' fold-and-tumble routine. That being said, the Pilot's third row isn't the easiest to get into overall. Though headroom is workable for adults, the floor is relatively high, so even if the second row is scooted forward enough for those adults to fit, their knees will be raised.
We were thrilled to see that three child-safety seats fit in the second-row seat. Visit MotherProof's Car Seat Check for full details on the second and third rows.
The Pilot is the undisputed leader when it comes to storage nooks and pockets, with cubbies and bins practically everywhere you look. There are bi-level pockets on the front and rear doors, though they don't incorporate the now-common bottleholders. The glove compartment isn't very large, but the center storage console provides ample covered storage space and expertly houses audio ports and power sockets.
Opinions were mixed on the issue of interior quality. The important touch-points are soft, but some editors objected to the hard surfaces elsewhere. I'm not fond of the gauges, whose attempt at dimensionality is undone by the cheap white-plastic-under-glass effect. Cloth upholstery is standard. Our test Pilot EX-L had quality leather in the first two rows (vinyl in the third), and the front seats provided notable comfort.
We like how bright and open the cabin feels, though when you check your blind spot you'll find the C- and D-pillars are a bit thick, and the second-row head restraint comes between the driver and the right-rear quarter window. The third-row head restraints drop deeply into the backrests, but if a passenger leaves one raised, you'll be sorry. These things are tall and obstructive and resemble droid heads, which might come in handy if a clone war breaks out at the mall. Otherwise, they just block your rear view.
The EX-L and higher trim levels come with a new "intelligent Multi-Information Display," which includes a backup camera. We were impressed by the display's 8-inch size — roughly that of a navigation screen without the added expense. The Toyota Highlander's non-navigation backup display is comparatively wee. The i-MID screen also impressed with its large, readable type — including music information — and simple menus and iPod integration.
Cargo & Towing
The Pilot's boxiness pays off once again in the cargo hatch. With 18 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the third row and a total of 87 cubic feet with all the rear seats folded, it has more room than the Dodge Durango and Ford Explorer, though less than the large Chevrolet Traverse and Mazda CX-9. The Highlander, which is shorter than the Pilot, beats it with 95.4 cubic feet of maximum volume but is tighter behind the third row, with just 10.3 cubic feet. The Pilot and Highlander stand out because their rear windows can be opened independent of their liftgates, which is helpful especially when there's little clearance behind or above the truck.
Having 2,000 pounds of towing capacity with front-wheel drive and 4,500 with all-wheel drive, the Pilot's limits are on the higher side of SUVs in this class. Heavier, rear-wheel-drive models, such as the Dodge Durango, tend to have higher towing capacities. The Durango starts at 5,000 pounds with a V-6 engine.
Driven to Adequacy
The area where the Pilot rates only adequate is in some driving aspects. We found ride quality to be firm and occasionally unsettled, and there was more wind noise than in some competing models. We concluded, however, that the average family buyer wouldn't object, and we were all happy with the Pilot's drivetrain. It's quick when it needs to be, falls into the background otherwise, and the automatic transmission suffers little of the hunting and delays we see far too often these days. It may be "only" a five-speed, but that doesn't seem to be hurting its performance or mileage.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Pilot earned the top score of Good in frontal, side and rear crash tests. It scored a disappointing Marginal rating in the rollover test, which means that its roof wasn't strong enough to support four times the vehicle's weight. Of the 23 models in IIHS' Midsize SUV class subjected to this test, 13 scored Good, three scored Acceptable and seven rated Marginal. Because it's a relatively new test, older models tend to fare worse until they're redesigned.
The Pilot has frontal airbags, front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags and curtain airbags that cover the side windows along all three rows of seats in a side impact or rollover. As is federally required of all 2012 models, the Pilot has standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. For a list of all standard safety features, click here.
All Pilots have power windows, with one-touch up/down for the front doors, and power locks with remote keyless entry. Also standard are air conditioning, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, cruise control and an AM/FM/CD stereo.
The EX adds a power driver's seat, three-zone automatic climate control, HomeLink, XM Satellite Radio (subscription required), fog lights, roof rails, alloy wheels and body-colored side mirrors and door handles (in place of the LX's black). New for 2012, the Pilot EX adds Bluetooth hands-free cellular and audio streaming and 2 gigabytes of digital music storage.
In addition to leather, the Pilot EX-L adds heated front seats, a power passenger seat, a moonroof, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a USB jack for the stereo, and i-MID with a backup camera. It's also the first trim level that can be had with a navigation system or a backseat DVD video system.
The Pilot Touring includes leather, the navigation system and the rear entertainment system, plus it adds a few more features, including driver's seat-position memory, sonar parking sensors, and a premium stereo with additional speakers. Typical of Hondas, the Pilot offers few separate options, so with the addition of all-wheel drive for $1,600, the Pilot Touring tops out at $41,630, including the destination charge.
To select a trim level and compare features, click here.
Pilot in the Market
The Honda Pilot was one of the first car-based SUVs of its size, and though nine years on the market doesn't guarantee relevance, Honda has kept the model competitive in the face of growing challenge. There were other SUVs in our Shootout that we singled out as the sporty one, the roomy one or the smooth one, but the Pilot rose to the top because it represents an excellent balance of features, performance and other characteristics, even without excelling at any one. What solidified its position was our test vehicle's equipment levels, which Honda has wisely reinforced to keep up with the new, more competitive market.
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