One advantage in making a late entrance into a vehicle segment is seeing what other manufacturers have done. For the '03 model year, Honda has introduced the Pilot, an eight-passenger midsize AWD SUV that resembles its corporate cousin the Acura MDX, Motor Trend's '01 Sport Utility of the Year. Underneath the Honda-badged sheetmetal, as one might expect, the Pilot is essentially a massaged MDX, but we feel it's strong enough to stand on its own to garner a serious look.

Honda bills the Pilot as "the Ultimate American Family Adventure Vehicle," a claim that seems rather self-important at first glance. Any vehicle hinting it's a Swiss Army Knife on wheels (and a lot of SUVs do just that) had better deliver high amounts of utility, comfort, safety, value, and good looks, or risk being laughed into obscurity.

When strength and brawn are needed, many companies start with truck underpinnings, but Honda decided to go in a different direction, using the same comfort-based MDX and Odyssey powertrain and suspension, code-named the Global Light Truck Platform. Built of steel, it employs higher gauge in stress areas, thinner elsewhere to reduce weight, but not at the expense of safety. Honda prides itself on the five-star safety rating and a "good" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the 40-mph frontal offset crash test.

Hauling this 4425-lb SUV is the same 3.5L V-6 240-hp engine found in the MDX. That's an excellent thing. This all-aluminum SOHC powerplant generates its peak at a lofty 5300 rpm, while torque is rated at 242 lb-ft at 4500 revs. It may sound like you'd need to mash the throttle to get smartly off the line, but the reality is that a large amount of torque is available at lower rpms. With a smart, dedicated computer controlling the show, the VTEC induction system adjusts the timing, duration, and lift of the intake valves according to engine speed. The result is good thrust throughout the entire rpm range, with a stirring soundtrack when the accelerator is buried in the carpet. Sixty mph shows up on the speedometer from rest in only 8.2 sec, besting most of its class rivals.

Downstream of the engine is the five-speed automatic front-mounted transaxle, fitted with Grade Logic Control to hold a lower gear on a steep grade for better performance, as well as the VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management 4-Wheel Drive) system. Although clearly not meant to be a rugged off-highway explorer, the system has some valuable features. Power is fed to the rear tires per signals from sensors that, when wheel slip is detected, energize electromagnetically powered clutches that lock the differential to get power to the wheels that need it--in an almost invisible fashion. Likewise, when stuck, pushing the "Lock" button feeds a preset maximum amount of rear-drive torque to both rear wheels, effectively acting like a locking differential. Only effective below 18 mph, it reduces the force directed to the rear wheels gradually as traction is regained. In the real world, this could mean the difference between driving out or hoofing it along the roadside in a rainstorm.