Pilot flies high among intermediate SUV contenders

With the passing of time, Honda's models have increased in size.

The Honda Pilot received a new front grille last year. It complements the vehicle’s rugged

Honda had forged its reputation on a lineup of small, dependable and fuel-efficient vehicles.

But with the passing of time, its models increased in size, along with the North American waistline and the propensity for our smaller families to carry far too much stuff.

But that’s another discussion, and for those buyers who still need to haul several kids and hockey bags, the intermediate sport utility – a rugged alternative to the bland minivan and gas-guzzling, full-size SUV – seems to be the vehicle of choice.

It’s a competitive segment that includes Chevy Traverse, Dodge Durango, Toyota Highlander and the redesigned Ford Explorer, and one in which the Honda Pilot – my tester for the week – has completed its best year ever in Canada, selling 5,807 units.

Although launched as a 2003 model, the Pilot is still only in its second generation, with a redesign that took place in 2012.

This gave the Pilot a new look up front with the clunky six-sided grille insert replaced by a more sophisticated three-bar design. Lights and turn signals were tweaked, and a new, more aerodynamic front air dam added.

All models received bigger 18-inch alloys, and inside the cabin, the instrument panel was redesigned and given a more intuitive button layout.

Also new is a standard equipped eight-inch colour multi-info display.

What hasn’t changed is the size, with the second-generation Pilot having virtually the same footprint as its predecessor.

This SUV also sits pretty much in the middle of its competition, with Traverse, Durango, Highlander and Explorer having similar dimensions.

Ditto for cargo space, with the exception of Traverse, which has significantly more room than the others. Still, Pilot’s 2,464-litre maximum cargo hold (1,351 litres behind the second row) is ample for most needs, and was a huge help in clearing out my father’s basement.

And unlike some three-row SUVs I’ve driven, the Pilot offers usable space behind the third row – 589 litres.

Honda is a master in carving out bins, nooks and crannies for all your loose items, and in the Pilot, this begins with its large, multifunctional centre console.

The look is clean, with a lid that rolls back to reveal a deep well, handy storage tray and two cupholders with rubber grips to keep your Timmy’s double-double upright during the cut and thrust of your morning commute.

Lift the armrest for another deep bin that houses both 12- and 115-volt power outlets, along with aux and USB inputs for your MP3 player.

There’s another cubbie just below the HVAC controls, a handy partitioned tray above the glovebox, and dual-level storage below each of the door handles.

Honda has thoughtfully lined most of these with a nubbed rubber surface, helping keep loose objects from sliding around.

The instrument panel has more hard plastic than I’d like, but the fit, not to mention the accents and layout are pleasing.

Rear passengers ride in comfort—particularly in top trim.

In addition to loads of knee room, occupants in the reclinable 60/40 second row get their own fan and temperature settings as a part of the standard three-zone climate control.

They can also enjoy available seat heating, manual sunshades (Touring only) and an optional rear entertainment system.

The latter feature is one I always enjoy on long trips, as my kids quietly watch their favourite movies—with headphones—while my wife and I talk or listen to music.

The third-row seats aren’t as sumptuous, but as long as the middle passengers slide forward a little, the 60/40 split bench will accommodate full-size adults. But only two comfortably, three in a pinch.

In terms of power, the competitors listed above all deliver more, but Honda’s proven 24-valve i-VTEC 3.5-litre V6 is no slouch. Its 250 hp and 253 lb/ft are enough to move the Pilot’s 2,091 kg curb weight with ease, and a little punch when needed.

Step hard on the throttle, and the five-speed automatic downshifts briskly yet smoothly, and with a minimum of engine roar entering the Pilot’s well-insulated cabin. Off the line, takeoff is good with zero to 100 km/h acceleration in just under nine seconds.

Of course, such driving will have you spending unnecessary time and dough at the fuel pump, so a lighter foot is needed to achieve anywhere near the Energuide rating of 12.3/8.2/10.5 litres/100 km (city/hwy/comb).

My own combined rating was closer to 13.0, but that was mostly urban driving. If I’d spent more time on the highway, Honda’s variable cylinder management, which shuts down up to three of six cylinders under light load, would have come more into play.

The Pilot’s suspension —Mac struts up front and multi-link in rear—is forgiving and contributes to its excellent road manners in the city. Steering is light, and with a relatively tight turning circle, I had few problems piloting this large vehicle in and around mall parking lots during the Christmas rush.

You can purchase a front-drive Pilot, starting at $34,990 for the LX-2WD, but I don’t see the point in what is little more than a minivan with robust styling. All other trim levels include Honda’s front-biased, Variable Torque Management four-wheel drive system.

VTM-4 anticipates the need and engages the rear wheels sooner than typical slip-and-grip systems. I drove on snowy and slushy roads much of the week, and gave little thought to the drivetrain.

Like most Honda engineering, it draws little attention to itself, working seamlessly while you attend to more pressing matters.

My Touring tester, as you’d expect in a fully-loaded model that prices out at $48,590, includes a long list of features like heated leather front seats with 10-way power adjust and memory for the driver, front and rear parking sensors, multi-view camera, navigation, 10-speaker 650-watt AM/FM/CD premium audio system with 5.1 theatre surround sound and 15 GB hard drive, and the previously-mentioned DVD rear entertainment system with 9-inch display.

A power tailgate is also available, and is a blessing in winter and early spring. Push a button on the fob, and your hands or gloves will stay free of muck.

There are plenty of worthy vehicles in this class, some of which include safety nannies you won’t find on the Pilot.

But if you’re looking for a comfortable, practical family hauler—one with Honda’s stellar reputation for build quality – this vehicle should be high on your shopping list.

At a glance

BODY STYLE: intermediate sport utility

DRIVE METHOD: front-engine, four wheel drive

ENGINE: 3.5-litre, 24-valve, SOHC, i-VTEC V6 (250 hp, 253 lb/ft)

FUEL ECONOMY: 12.3/8.2/10.5 litres/100 km (city/hwy/comb)

CARGO CAPACITY: all seats up 589 litres, third row folded 1,351 litres, second and third rows folded 2,464 litres

TOWING: 2,045 kg (4,500 lbs)

PRICE: (base LX 2WD) $34,990; LX $37,990; EX $40,890, EX-L $43,190; EX-L RES $44,790; as tested (Touring) $48,590

WEBSITE: www.honda.ca


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