EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Honda is just about the last of the major manufacturers to get into the mid-size sport-utility vehicle market. In most respects, this is good news for consumers.

As you’d expect, the all-new 2003 Honda Pilot is one of the best SUVs on the market. Trouble is, the early production model we sampled in July had some shockingly un-Honda-like quality flaws, including big pieces of loose trim on the center console.

Priced from around $27,000, the Canadian-built, eight-passenger Pilot is not inexpensive. But it comes loaded with equipment and safety features. Our test model, a well-equipped, range-topping Pilot EX, had a sticker price of $32,020, putting this SUV out of the reach of many families who might otherwise be eager customers.

She: So a doctor I know said he wanted to buy a Pilot and asked if I would bring one around when we finally got behind the wheel. No problem. He thoroughly examined it, flipping seats up and down and looking under the hood. He said it was a fine vehicle, but he was surprised it wasn’t totally perfect. He’s as tall as you are and yet he couldn’t reach the folded rear seat backs to get them upright again from the rear hatch. He was lukewarm about the Pilot’s uninspired exterior styling. I left with the impression that he was not yet done with his shopping. The moral of the story seems to be that people have extremely high expectations for Hondas, and if they are only near perfect, it’s not good enough. And I’d describe the Pilot as near perfect. Is that a condemnation?

He: I don’t know. I’d say the Pilot is a pretty fine vehicle. Dynamically, it’s one of the best on the road, which is no surprise, considering it shares much of its running gear with the Acura MDX. I have to agree with your doctor friend that the outside design is pretty insipid and boring. But the cabin is pretty sharp, especially the fancy EX model with the leather upholstery and metallic-looking plastic trim. But I have to tell you I was stunned by the sloppy assembly quality. I saw big pieces of plastic trim coming loose on either side of the console, and other trim pieces here and there that didn’t fit well or were misaligned. I suppose you might chalk that up to this being a brand-new vehicle, but there’s really no excuse — especially not for a brand with Honda’s reputation.

She: Oh, it was nothing that 30 seconds with my glue gun couldn’t cure. I do think the Pilot is going to be a favorite of the school car-pool set. Honda seems very tuned into families with this one. Our EX model had a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, plus a system of double cargo nets on the backs of the front seats — perfect for school supplies and toys. There’s a sensible little table between the second-row seats and nice touches like four flip-down grocery hooks in the rear and lots of tie-downs.

He: I imagine families will also appreciate the high level of safety equipment on the Pilot, including standard antilock brakes and side air ba gs. More importantly, the Pilot doesn’t drive like your typical domestic SUV. Because it’s car-based, like Honda’s Odyssey minivan, you get a much smoother ride. The Pilot has all-independent suspension and variable-assist steering, so you always feel like you’re in control of the vehicle in just about any weather and road conditions.

She: To further bolster my contention that the Pilot is a great offering for suburban families, the full-time four-wheel-drive system does not have a low-range setting or even a transfer case, like you get on more traditional SUVs like Jeeps and Land Rovers. This doesn’t mean you can’t take the Pilot off-road. In fact, it has ample ground clearance and lots of suspension travel. But I think the Pilot is really aimed at moms who want a roomy vehicle to get their kids to school in all kinds of weather. It’ll be just fine for that. I wouldn’t, however, take it on the Rubicon Trail, the Holy Grail of serious off-roaders.

He: I wouldn’t take myself on the Rubicon Trail, with or without a glue gun. We should mention that the Pilot, like the MDX and the Odyssey, comes with a pretty terrific engine — a torquey 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 240 horsepower and comes mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. That combination also returns some impressive mileage figures — 17 in city driving and 22 on the highway. So let’s count up the pluses: Nicely designed cabin with plenty of room for eight passengers, decent ride and handling, lusty engine with reasonable fuel economy. The down side?

She: It’s not a macho image vehicle, like a Hummer H2. In fact, the Pilot is like a grown-up Honda CR-V — with a hefty sticker price to match.

2003 Honda Pilot EX

Anita’s rating: (above average)

Paul’s rating: (above average)

Likes: Family-friendly alternative to a minivan. Supple ride for an SUV. Great second-row seats with table. Built-in purse holder. Useful double nets on front seat backs. Handy rear-seat DVD entertainment system. Fold-flat third-row seats. Loads of features for the money. Great safety features, including standard ABS and side air bags. Nice leather upholstery.

Dislikes: Trim pieces coming loose on center console. Bland styling with little personality on the outside. Excessive driveline noise. Priced beyond the reach of many families. Can’t pull rear seat backs up easily (Anita).

Type:Front-engine, all-wheel drive, eight-passenger utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $32,020; as tested, $32,480 (incl. destination charge).

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 240-hp; 242 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, estimated by AAA Michigan: $1,294 (Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Alliston, Ontario

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