2003 Honda Pilot
A better idea from Honda
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.
On-road, the Pilot has a softer, less-sporty feel than its MDX cousin. While the Acura enjoys a heavier emphasis on sportier ride and handling, the Honda is more softly sprung, striking a good compromise between comfort and road-gripping manners. Utilizing an independent suspension on all four corners, it delivers a well-damped drive on pavement, yet maintains an impressive suppleness when the road ends and the rough stuff begins. Rack-and-pinion, with torque-sensing power steering, communicates what the front tires are doing with little vibration feedback. The suspension is well suited for soft-road forays, which is exactly the type of use Pilot buyers will be expecting to see.
Were you to cover all the name badging in the interior, most people would still identify it as a Honda by the feel and intelligent layout of the controls. The column-mounted shift lever might be a minivan touch, but it frees up the center floor space, allowing Honda to include the CR-V-esque flip-up center table. Supportive seats, plenty of storage for small items, and quality materials are a Honda hallmark, and the Pilot follows the pattern. Due to the narrow window pillars and large glass area, visibility is impressive for 360°.
Nowadays, a midsize SUV needs to have a third row of seats to be taken seriously and certainly allows the Pilot to call winner against the Toyota Highlander, but understand that most of these third-row seats are surely for children. Still, a clever design allows the fold-flat, disappearing third row to seat three real-world adults (with short legs). Something not even the MDX could do with its third row. Also, the seat is 2 in. higher than the other rows, allowing better vision for those lucky passengers. Cargo capacity, listed at 90.3 cu ft, is significant for a vehicle of this size. That compares quite nicely to others in this category and to even larger ones outside the competition (Highlander 81.4; TrailBlazer 80.1; MDX 81.5; Explorer 88.0; Tahoe 104.6). In addition, Honda is offering a clever DVD screen that hides in the interior ceiling, but has the head unit and controls where front passengers can adjust volumes. In fact, given the layout, rear passengers can watch and listen to the DVD with headphones, while others in cab can listen to favorite radio stations. And because the DVD player is not incorporated with the screen, the driver's rear visibility is not dampened when the screen is down. Figure that to be about a $600 option.
If a buyer can live without the sport-sedan reflexes of the MDX, the Pilot offers all of the excellent mechanical bits for thousands less. Base price for the Pilot is expected to start at $26,500 and work its way to the low $30s with all the options. This is value with a capital V.
2015 Honda Pilot SpecificationsVIEW ALL
|Fair Market Price||$26,940|
|Editors' Overall Rating|
|Mileage||18 City / 25 Highway|
|Horse Power||250 hp @ 5,700 rpm|
|Torque||253 ft lb of torque @ 4,800 rpm|