The Pilot is the Honda of SUVs, practical, efficient, reliable, and powerful. That last one is aided by an all-new 255-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 paired with a five-speed automatic transmission and an advanced four-wheel-drive system. The Pilot drives more like a car than a truck, with the crisp, predictable handling for which Honda is known. Yet it delivers impressive fuel economy. As a Honda, it offers quality, durability and reliability.
Capable of seating up to eight passengers, the Pilot is not a small vehicle. It's larger overall than a Toyota Highlander and Nissan Murano it's wider than a Ford Explorer, and it offers more cargo space.
The 2005 model year also brings enhanced safety in the form of a tire pressure monitor, electronic stability control, revised steering and an upgraded air bag system.
The LX comes with air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD stereo, power windows, mirrors and door locks, and a rear wiper. Standard safety features: anti-lock brakes, front-passenger frontal and side-impact airbags.
The EX raises the ante with synchronized front and rear automatic climate control, a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, an outside temperature indicator, HomeLink garage-door remote, a premium seven-speaker stereo with cassette and 6-disc CD changer, steering-wheel audio controls. EX can be distinguished by its aluminum alloy wheels and body-colored moldings, mirrors and door handles. Safety is enhanced by an electronic stability control system that Honda calls Vehicle Stability Assist.
Option packages for the EX include the leather interior ($2,200) with heated front seats and side mirrors. The entertainment package ($3,700) includes the leather package and rear-seat DVD video system. The navigation package ($4,200) adds leather and a satellite-linked guidance system. A towing package and brush guards are available as dealer-installed accessories.
The wheel arches are aggressive enough to offset any impression that this is a toy truck, but subtle enough to be consistent with the Pilot's likely hangouts in upscale neighborhoods and suburban mall parking lots. Large Honda badges on the grille and liftgate make it clear that the company is proud of the Pilot, and expects customers to feel the same way.
Honda has limited the amount of matte-black plastic bodywork that seems to be increasingly popular on sport-utilities, and we appreciate that. Body-colored moldings give the Pilot EX a more refined, upscale look. The Pilot's only nod to this allegedly rugged SUVness is the step on the rear bumper (a good thing) and rubberized plastic guards under both bumpers. Roof rails are standard on the EX, but if you want the crossbars that actually turn them into a true cargo rack, you'll have to get them as an accessory from your dealer.
The second- and third-row seats are slightly higher than those ahead, theater style, improving forward visibility for passengers. The second-row seatbacks recline, albeit with limited range. The second row can slide fore and aft, allowing leg room for the second and third rows to be adjusted according to the size of the passengers. Getting into the third row is aided by the seat design. Flip a lever and the second-row seatback pivots forward while the entire seat slides forward. The seat returns to its original position by pushing on the seat back.
Pilot's seating system is exceptionally versatile for handling a mix of cargo and people. Both rows of rear seats are split 60/40. The second-row seat folds away easily via a single lever and drops the seat flush to the floor. There are no gaps in the cargo floor as with some SUVs such as the Ford Explorer.
In terms of cargo capacity, the Pilot is among the best in its class. With both rear rows folded flat, the Pilot offers 90.3 cubic feet of cargo space. That's considerably more than the GMC Envoy or Chevy Trailblazer (80.1 cubic feet), Ford Explorer (81.3) or Toyota Highlander (80.6) or Nissan Murano (81.6). Moreover, the Pilot's load floor is four feet wide, allowing full sheets of building materials to fit inside.
Up front, the Pilot's bucket seats are spacious and comfortable. The LX model's manual seat adjustments are simple but effective. A driver's foot rest, or dead pedal, is standard on all models for 2005, a welcome addition. All controls are easily accessible by the driver. Visibility is excellent in all directions with as little obstruction as you'll find in an SUV.
In a particularly clever move, Honda made the largest dial in the center of the instrument panel a switch to shift the audio controls from front- to rear-seat audio. Several observers with young children immediately recognized this as the control they would use most, and they appreciated its large size and central placement. The other instruments and controls will be familiar to anyone who has driven a Honda. The company seldom varies much from the layout that for decades has proven to be a model of ergonomics. Most of the Pilot's switches operate with a satisfying, positive action.
All is not perfect inside the Pilot, however. The minivan-like column shifter is spindly and moves in an ovoid path, like that of the Odyssey. The thin, sliding plastic lid over the center console works fine, but is not aesthetically appealing and sounds cheap when you drop a set of keys on top of it. Buttresses on the sides of the center console look like they'll collect detritus. The fold-out cell-phone holder with a power outlet seems at first a nice feature, but blocks the two cupholders in front of it.
Nonetheless, the console provides plenty of storage space in a compartment behind the cell-phone holder (where our cell phone ended up most of the time). A covered compartment located below the Pilot's center stack provides more storage in the space between the console and the instrument panel.
The Pilot is loaded with kid-friendly stuff. There's a cupholder for every seat and pockets on the seatbacks in the first two rows. The EX includes a second-row fold-down activity tray with more cupholders and storage for pocket-sized electronic games or fast food, including a little spot that cradles sauce containers.
The optional seven-inch DVD screen doesn't take up much space when not in use yet it's easily viewed from all of the rear seats when deployed from the headliner. Audio and video input jacks are provided for a variety of electronic accessories, from camcorders to portable VCRs to game consoles. The system includes two sets of cordless headphones, with jacks for three more wired sets. And when the Pilot is equipped with the DVD player, that big control in the center of the dash allows parents in front to override whatever is playing.
Honda's optional DVD-based navigation system is among the best. Its picture-in-picture capability permits the simultaneous display of a large-scale map and detailed route instructions. The database includes 3.7 million points of interest, with restaurants, airports, hospitals, hotels, parks and ATMs. The system will track the Pilot's position with dots on the screen, even in remote areas not covered by the nationwide map. A driver who ventures off road can simply turn around and follow the dots, using them like electronic bread crumbs, back to where he or she started. Unfortunately, you can't order a Pilot with both the DVD video and navigation systems.
Overall fit and finish inside the Pilot is familiar Honda, right down to the new-car smell emanating from freshly molded plastics. There's nothing garish or even particularly luxurious about the Pilot's interior. The aesthetic here is the beauty and simplicity of form following function, and that suits us fine. The panels match precisely throughout, and the materials, including cloth upholstery, are for the most part high-grade.
Passive safety? Safety features include dual-stage, dual-threshold front airbags and front side-impact airbags with occupant position sensing on the passenger side. If there's a smaller child or lazy, leaned-over adult in the seat, the bag won't deploy. Honda claims the Pilot can take a rear-end impact at nearly 35 mph without the rear seat being breached, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives Pilot its highest rating (five stars, relative to other vehicles in the class) for both front and side impacts.
The Pilot shares mechanical features (engine, transmission, all-wheel-drive system, and brakes) with the more expensive Acura MDX, and it shows. The Pilot's road manners seem just a little better than necessary to compete in this class. Pilot was developed primarily for highways and city streets, though its ground clearance, suspension travel and standard tires are fine for light off-highway duty.
The new 255-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is more than adequate to propel the Pilot, which weighs in at 4400 pounds. Acceleration is excellent, particularly in the 30-60 mph range that matters most in daily use. The Pilot outguns the V6-powered Toyota Highlander by 25 horsepower. More important, the engine produces 250 pound-feet of torque from 3000 to 5000 rpm, slightly more than the Toyota V6. The big 4.2-liter six-cylinder in the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy produce 275 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque, but are based on truck chassis and are about 200 pounds heavier than the Pilot. They don't have five-speed automatic transmissions and their fuel economy is slightly lower.
The new Honda engine features a broad and flat torque curve, very low emissions and high fuel economy. The new drive-by-wire throttle replaces a conventional throttle cable with an all-electronic system that relays throttle pedal position to the engine computer. The new system reduces overall weight by incorporating the cruise control system and reduces shift shock by communicating with the transmission during up- and down-shifts.
The Pilot's five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, even under hard acceleration. It benefits from Honda's 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, or to provide engine braking on downhill grades. Fourth and fifth gear ratios have been revised for 2005 to improve fuel efficiency.
The all-wheel-drive system is Honda's full-time VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management 4WD) with an electronically locking rear differential. Most power is delivered to the front wheels, but Honda's AWD is a bit more proactive than most similar systems. Based on a front-drive layout, Honda's system doesn't wait for the front wheels to slip to spread the power around; it sends some of the power to the rear wheels any time the driver accelerates. The push-button differential lock improves traction in extremely slippery or stuck conditions by making sure both rear tires get power. So equipped, Honda rates the Pilot for what it calls medium off-road duty, including 30-degree dirt grades.
Need true off-road ability to climb steep, unpaved hills or traverse bolder fields? The Pilot won't fit the bill. Need to make it down a rough dirt road to a cottage on the lake, or along a forest trail to an undeveloped campsite? Pilot is up to the job.
The Pilot's speed-variable rack-and-pinion steering provides good feedback and adjusts power assist smoothly as the SUV accelerates. The steering wheel returns to center comfortably and intuitively for maneuvers in parking lots and tight driveways.
Overall ride and handling compares better to midsize cars than to truck-based SUVs. The Pilot 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 third-row passengers suffered somewhat from being right over the rear wheels.
Unlike some 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 during simulated emergency maneuvers. The suspension behaves exceptionally well under hard braking and hard acceleration. The nose does not dive too much during sudden deceleration, and the Pilot won't squat back on its haunches in a fast start. This is a plus because, if the need to turn suddenly presents itself during hard braking or acceleration, the even keel maximizes response and reduces the chance of a skid.
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. There's minimal pedal feedback when the ABS operates, removing one possible distraction that a driver doesn't need in an emergency. The electronic brake distribution system (EBD), designed to reduce braking distances by matching maximum stopping force to the wheels with the best traction, performed transparently, as it should.
If what you need more than anything is the family-friendly versatility of a minivan, with the security presented by all-wheel drive and the higher seating position of an SUV, then give Pilot serious consideration. 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.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough reports from Los Angeles. Mark Phelan contributed to this report from Detroit.
Model as tested
Honda Pilot EX ($29,920)
3 years/36,000 miles
Alliston, Ontario, Canada
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
Leather/Entertainment package ($3,700) includes leather first and second row seats, heated front seats and mirrors, 6-CD disc changer and DVD rear entertainment system with seven-inch drop-down screen, remote and two wireless headphones
Model Line Overview
Honda Pilot LX ($27,350); EX ($29,920); EX with leather ($32,120)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage/dual-threshold front airbags, driver and front passenger side-impact airbags with occupant sensing, seatbelt pretensioners, ABS, electronic brake distribution
Safety equipment (optional)
3.5-liter sohc 24-valve V6 with VTEC
Specifications as Tested
Vehicle Stability Assist; air conditioning; cruise control; 125-watt, seven speaker AM/FM stereo with in-dash cassette and CD player and steering wheel controls; power windows, mirrors and door locks; eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support; rear cargo net
Engine & Transmission
3.5-liter sohc 24-valve V6 with VTEC
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
255 @ 5400
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
independent multi-link with trailing arm, gas-pressurized shocks and stabilizer bar
independent strut-type with L arm, gas-pressurized shocks and stabilizer bar
independent multi-link with trailing arm, gas-pressurized shocks and stabilizer bar
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear