2003 Honda Pilot Reviews and Ratings

Utility 4D EX-L 4WD

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2003 Honda Pilot
Mark Phelan

Honda took its own sweet time getting its first family-size SUV on the market, but a couple of minutes behind the wheel of the 2003 Honda Pilot makes it clear that every moment was well spent.

The all-new Pilot brings Honda virtues to a new class of vehicle. The interior packs eight seats into an overall package so short that the EPA considers the Pilot a compact SUV. However, its competition will be the world's midsize SUVs. The Honda Pilot offers more cargo space than the Ford Explorer, GMC Envoy, and Toyota Highlander.

The Pilot also sets the pace dynamically, with a 240-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 and the same crisp, predictable handling that have made the Honda Odyssey minivan and Acura MDX SUV hits.

Model Lineup
All Pilots feature Honda's patented VTM-4 electronically controlled full-time all-wheel-drive system, a 240-horsepower V6 engine, and a five-speed automatic transmission.

Two models are available: LX ($26,900); EX ($29,270).

LX offers a range of standard equipment including air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM stereo, in-dash CD player, driver and front passenger front and side airbags, power windows, mirrors and door locks.

The EX raises the ante with standard aluminum alloy wheels, synchronized front and rear automatic climate control, a powerful seven-speaker stereo.

Option packages include EX with leather interior trim ($30,520); EX with leather interior trim and rear entertainment system ($32,020); EX with leather interior trim and navigation system ($32,520). Prices do not include a $460 destination and handling charge.

The Honda Pilot gracefully borrows key styling cues from Honda's smaller CR-V sport-utility. The grille and headlights are a careful enlargement of the CR-V's fluid wraparound face, while the body-color moldings give the Pilot a more refined and upscale look.

The wheel arches are just aggressive enough to offset any impression this is a toy truck, but subtle enough to be consistent with the Pilot's likely hangouts in upscale neighborhoods and parking lots. Large Honda badges on the grille and liftgate make it clear that Honda is proud of the Pilot, and expects customers to feel the same way.

The Honda Pilot packs an amazingly large amount of interior room into its small overall package. The middle seats are comfortable for adults, but the third-row seats are strictly for young children or short trips. Both rows of rear seats split 60/40 to fold. With both rows folded flat, the Pilot offers 90.3 cubic feet of cargo space. That compares to 80.1 cubic feet in the GMC Envoy, 81.3 in the Ford Explorer, and 81.4 for the Toyota Highlander, all with the seats folded down.

The Pilot's front seat is spacious, with two comfortable bucket seats and a versatile center console. The seats give excellent access to all the controls. In a particularly clever move, the largest dial in the center of the instrument panel is the switch to shift the audio controls from front- to rear-seat audio. Several observers with young children immediately recognized that as the control they would use most, and they appreciated the its large size and central placement.

The headliner-mounted DVD screen does not take up much space when not in use, and is highly visible to small children in the second- and third-row seats.

The front-seat center console includes a fold-out cell-phone holder with a power outlet. Unfortunately, this was the only interior feature that did not seem to be fully thought out. Whenever the cell-phone holder was in use, it completely blocked the two cupholders mounted in front of it in the console. However, the console provides plenty of storage space, with a compartment behind the cell-phone holder (where my cell phone actually ended up most of the time), and a covered compartment located on the Pilot's centerline provided more storage in the space between the console and the instrument panel.

The other instruments and controls will be familiar to anyone who has ever driven a Honda. The company does not vary much from the layout that decades have proven to be a model of ergonomics.

Passive safety features include dual-stage/dual-threshold front airbags, front side-impact airbags with occupant position sensing on passenger side.

Driving Impressions
The Honda Pilot shares its platform with the Acura MDX sport-utility and Odyssey minivan, both highly successful vehicles. Like the MDX and Odyssey, the Pilot is a joy in daily use. While its flexible and roomy interior belies its official status as a compact SUV, its maneuverability, handling and ease of parking quickly remind you what an extraordinarily efficient package Honda has created.

The Pilot shares virtually all its key mechanical systems engine, transmission, all-wheel-drive system, and brakes with the more expensive Acura MDX, and it shows. Everything about the way the SUV behaves on the road feels just a little better than was necessary to beat the competition.

The 240-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is more than adequate to propel the Pilot. (Curb weight is 4416 pounds for LX, 4439 pounds for EX.) Acceleration performance is excellent, particularly in the 40-60 mph passing range that matters most in a quick run to the grocery store or when running late on the way to soccer practice. The Pilot outguns the V6-powered Toyota Highlander by 20 horsepower. More important, the engine produces 245 pounds-feet of torque from 3000 rpm to 5000 rpm. That compares to 222 pounds-feet at 4400 rpm for the V6 Highlander. GM's midsize SUVs, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada, offer a 4.2-liter straight-six producing 270 horsepower and 275 pounds-feet of torque, but those truck-based SUVs are about 200 pounds heavier than the Pilot.

The automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, even under hard acceleration. The five-speed electronically controlled automatic benefits from Honda's electronic Grade Logic Control system, which monitors throttle position, speed and acceleration to avoid hunting between gears. The transmission's computer controller holds lower gears longer than normal for better performance going up hills and to provide engine braking on downhill grades.

The all-wheel-drive system is Honda's VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management 4WD) full-time four-wheel drive with an electronically locking rear differential.

The speed-variable rack-and-pinion steering provides excellent feedback and adjusts assistance smoothly as the SUV accelerates. The steering wheel returns to center comfortably and intuitively for maneuvers in parking lots and tight driveways.

Ride and handling compares well to the best midsize cars. It is stable at highway speeds, nimble in parking lots, and sufficiently well-damped to run over winter-buckled and pothole-laden urban streets without discomfiting its passengers. The steering wheel transmits road conditions enough to keep the driver informed without jerking the wheel at every pavement disruption. Passengers in the second-row seats found the ride equally comfortable, but the third row suffered somewhat from being right over the rear wheels.

Unlike many SUVs, the Pilot has enough sound insulation to prevent bumps in the road from being transmitted to the interior as noise. Given their cavernous interiors, it's not uncommon for SUVs to become booming echo chambers on rough roads. Even on Michigan's notoriously ragged freeways, the Pilot's interior remained quiet enough to carry on a normal conversation.

The Pilot felt stable and secure in simulated emergency maneuvers carried out in an empty parking lot. The suspension behaved with aplomb under both hard braking and acceleration. The nose does not dive overmuch on sudden deceleration, nor does the Pilot squat back on its haunches in a fast start.

The anti-lock brakes (ABS) performed equally well in simulated panic stops. The brake response is linear, and smooth, providing a reassuring feeling of control even under maximum braking. Pedal feedback from the ABS was minimal, removing one possible distraction that a driver really doesn't need in an emergency. The electronic brake distribution system (EBD), designed to reduce braking distances, performed transparently, as it should. Honda has not provided braking distance figures for the Pilot, but our test vehicle felt on a par with its competition.

Honda Pilot is a reasonably priced, good-looking and practical sport-utility that offers exceptional interior space, power and comfort for the money. Honda expects to sell 80,000 Pilots a year. In a world where many SUVs take up far more space than their utility justifies, and drink far more gas than their performance merits, the Pilot is a breath of fresh air.

Model as tested
Honda Pilot EX ($29,270) (YF1843EW)
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Alliston, Ontario, Canada
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
leather seats, rear-seat DVD entertainment system

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
LX ($26,900) (YF1813EW); EX ($29,270) (YF1843EW)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage/dual-threshold front airbags, driver side airbag, front passenger side airbag with occupant sensing, seatbelt pretensioners, ABS, electronic brake distribution
Safety equipment (optional)
3.5-liter sohc 24-valve VTEC V6
5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with Honda Grade Logic Control

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning; cruise control; AM/FM stereo; in-dash CD player; power windows, mirrors and door locks

Engine & Transmission
3.5-liter sohc 24-valve VTEC V6
Drivetrain type
four-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
240 @ 5400
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS, EBD
Suspension, front
independent strut-type with L arm, gas-pressurized shocks and stabilizer bar
Suspension, rear
independent multi-link with trailing arm, gas-pressurized shocks and stabilizer bar

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

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J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

* The J.D. Power Ratings are calculated based on the range between the car manufacturer or car model with the highest score and the car manufacturer or car model with the lowest score. J.D. Power generates a rating of a five, four, three, or two. If there is insufficient data to calculate a rating, “Not Available” is used in its place.

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