PowerPointing their way through the 2009 Pilot, the marketing folks at Honda used SUV and CUV interchangeably during the presentation and allowed that few of their customers know the difference. We do: The Pilot's a crossover. And while the new Honda is a thorough advancement of the first generation, it remains highly functional hardware for the masses.
One could argue styling is the biggest change. The 2009 has fewer, cleaner lines and a more upright stance (in the vein of Nitro, LR2, or even the Honda Element), simpler lights and appendages, and end views that are much broader than the inch of extra width implies. The rear spoiler and projector headlamps are gone and exhausts now exit one per side.
The basic platform architecture also underpins the Acura MDX, but their relationship is more distant than, say, GMC and Chevy pickups. Honda has gone to great lengths to make sure the Pilot and MDX are quite different. Pilot power comes from a new 3.5-liter V-6 derived from the Accord and its active noise cancellation systems, and, unlike most Honda engines, it makes more torque than horsepower. Neither the six-horsepower gain nor the 3-4-6 variable cylinder management will be noticed for the most part. However, the extra 13 pound-feet, 90 percent of peak torque from 2000-6000 rpm, shorter second and third gears, and weight gain of just 50 pounds will be felt. As a default front driver, the Pilot can deliver about 55 percent of full engine output to the rear wheels when necessary, the VTM-4 system works fluidly and transparently, and Hill Start Assist keeps the crossover stationary when moving your foot from brake pedal to accelerator.
With the tall overdrive in its five-speed auto, Honda couldn't justify a sixth gear that, in all likelihood, would add a lot of hunting because the engine wouldn't pull a taller gear under anything but the lightest load. In addition, the push for more midrange punch from a new trans lost out to if-it-ain't-broke thinking: the VCM gives similar fuel-economy gains that a six-speed would. Our lone complaint here is the lack of manual or sport mode; there's just an OD off switch.
The suspension has been upgraded with aluminum front lower arms and rear hub carriers, hydraulic front bushings, tubular rear anti-roll bar, tighter steering, larger wheels and tires--Michelins are only available on the top model--and there's now more high-strength steel to make a more rigid foundation from which to calibrate. Eight inches of ground clearance, about the same wheel travel, and decent angles allow light off-roading but the "looks like it goes off road" philosophy applies only to bodywork and not the view underneath. On the other hand, DIY types will appreciate that the oil filter is level with the front axle shaft, and campers and extroverts will like the full-size spare option.
Since GMC benchmarked the old Pilot for the Acadia when it came out last year, Honda was happy to compare it (and others) with the new Pilot. Back-to-back drives suggest the Honda matches the Acadia in basic road manners, offering a slightly gentler ride to the Acadia's somewhat firmer responses. The Acadia's 10 inches of extra wheelbase doesn't translate into more people room--even in the third row--but it carries more with seats folded and takes a yard more space to execute a U-turn, and when the road turns bad or to dirt, the Pilot's advantage is roughly 500 pounds less mass. When compared with the Highlander, the Pilot's neither as quiet nor as involving and is more utilitarian insde, but has less body roll and comes across as near equal on the highway.