EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

Until now, Honda has sat on the sidelines while the Big Three nabbed the lion’s share of the mid-size SUV market.

New models from Ford (Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer) and GM (Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy) along with Chrysler (Jeep Grand Cherokee) have undergone engineering refinements to tame their truck-like characteristics. But no matter how good, they are still trucks.

Toyota has offered the Highlander, a minivan-based vehicle that has SUV overtones and all-wheel-drive. GM also offers a minivan with SUV drag in the form of the very popular Buick Rendezvous and less-popular Pontiac Aztek.

These vehicles are car-based, and seem to be growing in popularity. Minivan-based SUV-like vehicles have the refinement of being car-based like a minivan. But they have so far escaped the soccer mom suburban image that has tainted the minivan’s image in the minds of some buyers.

This is the group in which the new Honda Pilot will compete. The Pilot, like the more expensive Acura MDX, shares its underpinnings with the Honda Odyssey minivan. (Honda doesn’t have a truck platform and doesn’t want to invest billions of dollars to engineer one from scratch.)

Still, a week in the Honda Pilot felt more like seven days in a minivan, than a vehicle I’d want to test on the Rubicon trail.

Actually, Honda has planned for this. Its four-wheel-drive system is somewhat different from most. Most four-wheel-drive systems apply power to one of the wheels when slippage is detected. Honda applies power when acceleration is asked for, in addition to applying power when things get slick. Unlike most systems, Honda does offer a lock rear differential, operated by a dashboard switch.

It all works quite invisibly and fuss-free.

There is one drivetrain, a 3.5-liter, 24-valve 240-horsepower V-6 hooked to a five-speed automatic transmission. Like all Honda engines, this one has variable valve timing which enhances performance as well as fuel economy. Indeed, a mix of highway and city driving yielded an impressive 20 mpg. The EPA rates the vehicle at 17 mpg in the city, 22 mpg on the highway.

Despite those good numbers, power is strong and willing. The V-6 engine makes sporting noises, just to remind you of this vehicle’s heritage. Shifts are smooth and right where you want them.

Handling is better on-road than many midsize SUVs. The Pilot is the widest vehicle among its competitors, so stability is excellent. While you can take corners more quickly than you could in other SUVs, tire squeal will notify you that you’re reaching the limit. Road feel is good.

Four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock will bring things to a halt in a hurry, although the pedal actuated with a bit of abruptness.

There’s enough ride refinement to make one forget that this is supposed to be an SUV. The amenities add to that perception.

The Pilot comes in base LX ($26,900) and four EX trim levels. The EX includes base EX ($29,270), EX with leather ($30,520), EX with leather and rear entertainment system($32,020), EX with leather and navigation system ($32,520).

Honda provided the Pilot EX with leather and a rear entertainment system for testing.

It was certainly a pleasant cabin, filled with stuff to keep parents and their brood happily occupied and entertained. Maybe that’s why the Pilot felt like a minivan. But it’s hard to argue with the family-friendly nature of this vehicle.

The front bucket seats are comfortable, firm and supportive for long trips. There is an equally comfy second row and a somewhat accommodating third row, both of which fold to haul cargo, like a minivan.

All the usual power culprits are provided, including windows, locks, mirrors and driver’s seat. The cabin is trimmed with the usual Honda finesse. Everything is easy to use and understand, and is designed with a spare, modern upscale feel.

The climate control is automatic and second row occupants can adjust the temperature themselves. But this is just the beginning of the royal treatment. Rear occupants also get headphones, all the better to keep them entertained.

The entertainment options include movies or music. The AM/FM/Cassette/CD system also has a DVD player. The screen folds down from the ceiling. Mercifully, Honda has provided headphones, so you don’t have to listen to that Blues Clues tape for the 185th time. Or maybe you don’t want to listen to Backstreet or NSYNC or Britney, but your kids do.

The stereo has separate radio station settings for front and rear occupants.

Whether you need this or not depends on how much you enjoy pampering your children.

Front seat passengers get pampered by a huge center console with lots of nooks for storage, including a foldout door that holds your cell phone, pen and other items. Very thoughtful.

Fit and finish throughout the interior was typically excellent in the Honda tradition.

For too long, Honda pedaled the Passport, which is an Isuzu Rodeo with Honda badges. It wasn’t that successful, with sales of just 17,448 in 2001, down 20.2 percent from the previous year.

Honda is hoping to sell 80,000 Pilots this year. Since Pilots are built on the same lines as the popular Acura MDX SUV and Honda Odyssey minivan, supply could be tight, if the Pilot takes off.

The Pilot joins the midsize SUV market just as customers are asking for a more car-like SUV experience. SUV purists may not buy it, but the rest of us will.

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