Road Test: 2009 Honda Pilot
Eight Ball: Convincing proof that sometimes mission creep can be a good thing
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.
Inside, this ground-bound space ship offers better accommodations across the board. Its well-formed front buckets gain an extra 20 mm of seat travel, and the driver's perch power-adjusts on all but the LX. The Pilot's pilot also benefits from a steering column that now tilts and telescopes, a shift lever repositioned from column to dash for easier use, and highly legible LED-illuminated 3D-look analog gauges. We did find the Pilot's new center stack layout a trifle busy, especially in Touring trim, which also includes the new hands-free navigation system. No such issues with the superbly redesigned center console that provides twice the capacity of any competitor's, multiple bins, supersize cupholders, 12V powerpoints-even an iPod-friendly USB port and 115V outlet in the Touring. The upgraded climate-control system also merits kudos. Dual-zone in LX but tri-zone in all others, it delivers 25-percent-quicker rear cool-downs and adds an automatic cabin humidity control that prevents window fogging.
Back in second- and third-tier land, the Pilot's 60/40 split/folding bench seats gain 1.1 and 1.9 inches of legroom, respectively. While row two retains 3.0 inches of basic fore/aft adjustability, the subtle stretching program expanded its "walkthrough" spec, which eases access to the wayback spot. Still best for a trio of younger folk, the innermost sanctum now truly is capable of carrying two average adults in reasonable comfort.
Even with eight up, Honda's new hauler boasts a class-leading 20.8 cubic feet of rear stow room, including a 2.8-cubic-foot concealed underfloor bin. Those figures rise to 47.7/87.0 cubic feet with one or both back rows flopped. Loading chores are simplified by a redesigned tailgate that includes a flip-up glass element and raises/lowers at the touch of a button on the Touring. Need to tote a posse of preschoolers? The new Pilot has upper/lower LATCH points in all three second-row seating spots plus an extra kid-parker hold-down in row three. Also in the house are front, front-side, and side-curtain airbags.
One engine now fits all Pilot variants: a purpose-tuned version of the 3.5-liter SOHC i-VTEC V-6 introduced in the 2008 Accord. Besides meeting more stringent ULEV-II emissions standards, the latest tri-mode version of Honda's Variable Cylinder Management system permits it to operate on three, four, or all six cylinders, depending on load. As with original two-stage V-6 previously used only on front-drive Pilots, it's packaged with a vibration-damping Active Control Engine Mount and delivers seamless intermodal transitions. Pony count is 250 compared with 244 in 2008 and its 253 pound-feet of torque tops last year's count by 13 twist units. While that latter commodity now peaks at a somewhat heady 4800 rpm, a dual-stage intake manifold and variable valve timing and lift keeps over 90 percent of it on call from 2000-6000 rpm. Equally critical, this slick V-6 thrives on regular unleaded gas.
Although the Pilot's smooth-shifting electronically controlled automatic still has only five speeds, Honda widened the ratio spread effectively enough to help a slightly heavier (42-103-pound) package upgrade its EPA numbers. Front-drivers net 17/23-city/highway mpg while AWD Pilots are now rated at 16/22 mpg-up from the previous 16/22- and 15/20-mpg stats. Tow ratings are 3500 pounds for FWD and a now-unrestricted 4500 pounds for AWD models and all variants also now come with an integrated Class III hitch and heavy-duty cooling packages. Despite its lack of a low range, the available Variable Torque Management (VTM-4) AWD system does function like a conventional locking rear differential. That, coupled with the Pilot's improved approach/departure angle specs, should grant access to-and egress from-even more challenging soft-roading venues. For pavement people, VTM-4's near-instantaneous torque-transferring capabilities simply impart a more confident feel in rain or snow conditions.
Formal testing on production vehicles may yield a minor surprise or two, but our first encounter with these proto Pilots confirmed that Honda has redefined an already capable package in ways that should spike its desirability index with both core and conquest buyers. It's still no MDX; but those who genuinely prefer comfortable, controlled cruising to high-intensity corner-carving will love the 2009 Pilot's even more surefooted demeanor and improved ride. Despite the added people/cargo space, a slightly smaller turning circle improves its close-quarters maneuverability. And in a time when rising fuel prices loom ominously over all players in its segment, the Pilot's powertrain enhancements deliver tangible economy and emissions benefits. As for the ultimate bottom line, projected pricing of $27,000-$40,000 extend its already well-established value position -- and should further substantiate the Pilot's best-in-class claims against key crossover foes like the Buick Enclave, Ford Taurus X, and Toyota Highlander when it arrives in dealerships in June.
|2009 HONDA PILOT|
|Base Price||$27,000-$40,000 (est)|
|Vehicle layout||Front-engine, FWD/4WD, 8-pass, 4-door SUV|
|Engine||3.5L/250-hp/254 lb-ft i-VTEC SOHC 24-valve V-6|
|Curb weight (dist f/r)||4312-4600 lb|
|Length x width x height||190.9 x 78.5 x 71.0 in|
|0-60 mph||8.0-8.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||17/23 (FWD), 16/22 (4WD)|
|CO2 emmisions||1.01-1.06 lb/mi|
|On sale in U.S.||June 2008|