The 2006 Honda Pilot models offer enhanced safety in the form of three-row curtain air bags that come as standard equipment. Curtain airbags are important because they can provide head protection in an accident; head injuries are the leading cause of death in side impacts and rollovers.
The available navigation system has been enhanced for 2006 with expanded voice recognition capability and Zagat restaurant ratings. A rearview camera is included with the navigation package to assist when backing up, a terrific feature that may sound like a gimmick but proves to be quite handy for spotting children on tricycles as well as for easier parallel parking.
The Pilot is the Honda of SUVs, practical, efficient, reliable, and powerful. It's a crossover vehicle, so called because it's built on a car structure and drives more like a car than a truck, with crisp, predictable handling and a smooth ride. It's not designed to tackle the Rubicon Trail or tow a big, heavy boat or haul a load of gravel.
Capable of seating up to eight passengers, the Pilot is not a small vehicle. It's larger overall than a Toyota Highlander or Nissan Murano. It's wider and offers more cargo space than a Ford Explorer.
A 3.5-liter V6 motivates the Pilot with 244-horsepower and is paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. The power gets to the ground through either the front wheels, or via an advanced, full-time four-wheel-drive system. Yet the Pilot delivers impressive fuel economy, particularly in two-wheel-drive form, thanks to a fuel-saving cylinder-deactivation system that disengages half the engine's cylinders when not required for acceleration or towing. As a Honda, it promises quality, durability and reliability.
Safety features that come on all Pilots include anti-lock brakes, front-passenger frontal and side-impact airbags. The EX model adds an electronic stability control system that Honda calls Vehicle Stability Assist.
The LX comes with air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD stereo, power windows, mirrors and door locks, and a rear wiper.
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 six-disc CD changer and steering wheel audio controls. EX can be distinguished by its aluminum alloy wheels and body-colored moldings, mirrors and door handles.
Option packages for the EX include the leather interior ($2,300) with heated front seats and side mirrors. The entertainment package ($3,900) includes the leather package and rear-seat DVD video system. The navigation package ($4,500) adds leather, a satellite-linked guidance system and a rear-view camera. 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 SUV-ness 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 Pilot shares its platform with the Acura MDX sport-utility and Honda Odyssey minivan, both highly successful vehicles. The Pilot shares its engine, transmission, all-wheel-drive system, and brakes with the Acura MDX.
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.
The second- and third-row seats are slightly higher than those ahead. This theater seating improves forward visibility for back-seat 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.
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 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.
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.
The driver benefits from excellent visibility in all directions with as little obstruction to sight lines as you'll find in an SUV. All controls are easily accessible by the driver.
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 hollow 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. 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 features. There's a cup holder 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 cup holders and storage for pocket-sized electronic games or fast food, including a little spot that cradles sauce containers.
The optional rear-seat DVD screen measures a huge nine inches diagonal yet it doesn't take up much space when not in use. 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.
The optional DVD-based navigation system is among the best available. 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 even includes Zagat restaurant guide ratings. 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 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. Three-row curtain air bags provide head protection to outboard seat occupants of every 2006 Pilot in the event of a side impact. 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 3.5-liter V6 engine is more than adequate to propel the Pilot. Acceleration is excellent, particularly in the 30-60 mph range that matters most in daily use. With 244 horsepower to propel its 4400 pounds, the Pilot outguns the V6-powered Toyota Highlander. More important, the Honda V6 produces 240 pound-feet of torque from 3000 to 5000 rpm. The 3.5-liter engine features a broad and flat torque curve, very low emissions and good fuel economy. All Pilots benefit from a drive-by-wire throttle replaces a conventional throttle cable with an all-electronic system that relays throttle pedal position to the engine computer.
The Pilot's five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, even under hard acceleration. Honda's Grade Logic Control system 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.
The front-wheel-drive model is new for 2006. Compared with all-wheel-drive versions, two-wheel-drive Pilots weigh about 175 pounds less, have a slightly wider track and a tad less ground clearance (7.8 inches for the 2WD vs. 8.0 inches for the 4WD), and thus should deliver slightly superior on-road driving characteristics. The Pilot 2WD also features a cylinder deactivation program that shuts down three of the engine's six cylinders when not needed. Combined with the lower weight, the Pilot 2WD produces impressive fuel economy: 18/24 city/highway for the 2WD compared with 17/22 for the 4WD.
Four-wheel-drive models feature Honda's full-time VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management 4WD) with an electronically locking rear differential. Most of the power is delivered to the front wheels, but Honda's system is a bit more proactive than most all-wheel-drive systems in the way it sends some of the power to the rear wheels any time the driver accelerates. A 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. The Pilot does not offer true off-road capability, but it's perfectly capable on gravel, rough dirt roads and two-tracks.
The rack-and-pinion steering provides good feedback. It's speed-variable and smoothly adjusts the amount of power-assist for more feel at high speeds and easier maneuvering at parking lot speeds. The steering wheel returns to center comfortably and intuitively for maneuvers in parking lots and tight driveways.
Ride and handling is more similar to that of midsize cars than it is 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 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. Electronic brake-force distribution improves stability and helps reduce braking distances by balancing the brake force between the front and rear wheels.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reports from Los Angeles; Mark Phelan contributed to this report from Detroit.
Model as tested
Honda Pilot EX 4WD ($30,745)
3 years/36,000 miles
Alliston, Ontario, Canada
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
Leather/Entertainment package ($3,900) includes leather first and second row seats, heated front seats and mirrors, 6-CD disc changer and DVD rear entertainment system with nine-inch drop-down screen, remote and two wireless headphones
Model Line Overview
Honda Pilot LX 2WD ($26,995); LX 4WD ($28,195) EX 2WD ($29,545); EX 4WD ($30,745); EX with leather 2WD ($31,845); EX with leather 4WD ($33,045)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage, dual-threshold front airbags; three-row curtain air bags; driver and front-passenger side-impact airbags with occupant sensing; seatbelt pretensioners; ABS, electronic brake-force distribution
Safety equipment (optional)
3.5-liter sohc 24-valve V6 with VTEC
Specifications as Tested
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; Vehicle Stability Assist
Engine & Transmission
3.5-liter sohc 24-valve V6 with VTEC
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
244 @ 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
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