Playing both sides against the middle is always a risky proposition. But what else can an automaker do when loyal buyers of its popular midsize crossover utility vehicle say they want more SUV style and ruggedness but additional car-like comforts? And demand improved interior packaging without compromising garageability? And want better performance plus increased fuel economy? Oh, yes, and how about adding a premium version with an extra dollop of aspirational luxury? If you're Honda, apparently you just say "okay" and pull the wraps off of the second-generation Pilot.

The Pilot's evolutionary journey involved every facet of the new package. For 2009, the lineup includes LX, EX, the leather-swathed EX-L, and the new, range-topping Touring model, all with standard seating for eight and in front-drive or all-wheel-drive availability. We recently drove several preproduction examples to see how well Team Honda has managed to orchestrate this critical transition game.

In an effort to amp up its SUV cues, the Gen II Pilot got a taller, more-angular front clip accented by a bold brushed-aluminum grille and larger, more powerful headlamps. Despite gaining that extra leading edge and retaining its cargo-friendly squared-off tail, a more effective chin spoiler configuration and cleaner underbody detailing actually helped trim drag numbers by two percent. The Pilot's incremental expansion program also added 2.9 inches to the length and wheelbase, made it 1.0 inch wider and nearly an inch taller. Collectively, the changes upped cabin volume by 4.1 cubic feet.

Although sharing basic design elements with its Acura MDX cousin, the Pilot's redrawn structure is largely unique from the A-pillar back. Like all new Hondas, it incorporates the firm's impact-mitigating/dissipating Advanced Compatibility Engineering construction. Equally important, the high-strength-steel content in the unit body jumped from 13 to 52 percent -- the most in any current Honda -- which contributed to a 25-percent gain in bending stiffness and 41-percent-more torsional rigidity. This ultra-stout foundation anchors a revamped suspension that brings lighter, more aluminum-intensive hardware, 1.4/1.1-inch wider front/rear track dimensions, recalibrated geometry, improved isolation characteristics, and bigger, more efficient ABS discs. Larger 17-inch wheels with upsized 245/60 tires deliver greater on-road grip and superior off-road durability, while a new Hill Start Assist feature joins the already-standard Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control.