On the Road Review: Honda Pilot Elite AWD



Through the years, Honda has enjoyed much higher loyalty rates than many car companies. Drivers who first had a Honda in the 1970s or 1980s tended to keep buying Hondas, faithful to a brand that rewarded their confidence with steady products that proved reliable for many miles.

Honda’s first cars here were memorable for the wrong reasons; they were tiny and slow, but fuel-efficient when the first energy crisis arrived in 1974. An alternative to heavy, slow and ponderous American cars, the early Civics and Accords had an easy time against the Pintos, Vegas and other domestic small cars of that era. A niche automaker soon flowered into a much larger source of reliable automotive products.

Today, Honda is the number four selling automotive brand in America, an achievement accomplished without a full-size pickup truck. Honda relies on cars and car-based crossovers for its success, starting with the Accord and the Civic, as well as the CRV compact crossover. Honda competes right at the top, or near the top, in each of these respective segments. Add in the Odyssey minivan, plus this week’s Pilot full-size crossover, and you have the five essential Honda products that contribute to the bulk of sales.

Honda is in the midst of a large product expansion. For 2016, this new Pilot debuted and sales have increased 20 percent. The Accord has a fresh new exterior, while the Civic benefits from a complete makeover, including a new hatchback edition that has been missing for far too long. In addition, Honda is rolling out a brand new Ridgeline pickup this spring to capitalize on the revived midsize pickup class. The Ridgeline shows great promise; it has better styling, more power, and it still retains its in-bed trunk and dual action tailgate rear body.

Interestingly, the Ridgeline and this Pilot crossover both share fundamental roots with the Odyssey minivan. Both are front-drive-based vehicles, like the minivan, yet modifications add AWD traction and better foul-weather driving capabilities. The Pilot’s new exterior — a smoother, softer design that completely abandons the previous box-that-it-came-in look — contributes to a more balanced stance. It is easy to see why sales, no longer incentivized, have increased.

On one hand, it would be easy to think of the Pilot as an Odyssey without sliding side doors. The convertible interior space with folding second row buckets and split third row bench, plus numerous storage pockets, beverage slots and power outlets, all remind you of a van. There is the attractive ingress and egress level too — sliding in and out is easy at all portals, a strong feature of both minivans and many of today’s crossovers, and a solid reason why buyers are leaving cars for these vehicles.

Yet the Pilot’s two-box styling lends an air of confidence that the Odyssey lacks. While looking similar to the Pathfinder and the GM trio of large crossovers, the Pilot wears a face that could be confused with the smaller CRV. However its larger dimensions seem compact on the outside but expansive on the inside. It is a clever design success that will wear well with the public, and further supports the loyal Honda buyer’s decision to select this vehicle over another.

Honda stretched the Pilot’s portfolio by improving the 3.5-liter engine, now 280-hp, adding a nine-speed automatic to Touring and new Elite trim (a six-speed automatic is used in other trim levels) and by reducing the vehicle’s overall weight by 300 pounds — a huge factor in the improved EPA ratings. Elite trim also brings automatic stop/start technology, which can be turned off.

While the steering feel is less than enthusiastic — unlike Accord — the latest Pilot rambles down the road with a balanced and composed ride and predictable handling. The cabin is quieter, the powertrain eager, and the body motions are restrained when pushed into turns. No one will discount buying the Pilot because of its driving abilities, although I wish that Honda offered a locking function for the AWD system. Relying on computers and sensors to engage four-wheel drive is OK for occasional use, but heavy snow driving requires constant grip. You can alter the Pilot’s driving modes for snow — which certainly improves the responses of the AWD hardware — but a fixed engagement provides an added measure of confidence, and performance, for the standard three-season tires.

In a class that includes Ford’s Explorer, Toyota’s Highlander, the Hyundai Santa Fe Limited and Dodge Durango, plus the Nissan Pathfinder and Mazda CX-9, the new Pilot gives up nothing in content and features. Our Crystal Black Elite Pilot was packed to the gunwales with new features: heated leather seating, front and rear, heated steering wheel, tri-zone auto-climate controls, remote start, driver-select modes, paddle shifters for the nine-speed automatic, 10-speaker audio with XM, Pandora and navigation, push-button ignition and access, 10-way power driver’s seat with memory, dual-panel sunroofs, rear entertainment, power liftgate, ventilated front seats, second row sunshades, 20-inch wheels, rain-sensing wipers plus a full-array of exterior LED lighting.

Safety pieces and electronic driving aids include: collision mitigation braking, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, forward collision warning system, lane departure warning, road departure mitigation, parking assist, plus a standard rear camera with selectable viewing modes.

In the push to add more gadgets, Honda eliminated the analog speedometer; only a digital readout rests in the large forward instrument cluster that features multiple menus and control options, while the shifting duties are handled by an array of four electronic buttons on the center console. Each is a different size and shape, but you will not manipulate by feel or without looking down to properly select your chosen gear. Reverse requires a pull, drive is the largest button to push, while park is the smallest button and neutral rests in the middle. If the driver’s door is open, you cannot engage drive.

Contradicting the move to electronic controls is the lack of a button for the emergency brake — it is still a foot-operated pedal on the floor, a pedal that often impacted my leg on entrance.

During the Pilot’s wintry visit, the forward sensors also frequently detected approaching cars in a right turn, disconcertingly wiggling the steering wheel and flashing a ‘BRAKE’ warning that was unnecessary. We are still in the ‘beta’ mode of these features development; some drivers will readily embrace these aids and seek them, others will lament the oversight and intrusion into daily driving.

One last gripe was the touchscreen audio panel. All other controls are buttons, dials or levers — items that your finger touches, initiates some action and receives tactile feedback. The touchscreen offers none of the above; finger strikes can be imprecise while driving, forcing multiple efforts to make simple changes — all with your eyes off the road. The redundant steering wheel buttons help, but do not handle all audio functions. Again, a contrast from the other operating systems and seemingly in conflict with the intentions of the car’s driving safety systems.

Most buyers will not share this perspective, as the intended market will have much larger concerns — passenger comfort, space and the daily needs of life.

Pilot pricing starts at $30,000 for base LX 2WD models. The popular EX AWD begins at $34,230 while an EX-L AWD lists for $37,705. Our loaded Elite starts at $46,420 and is the most expensive Honda-badged vehicle sold.

In fact, with the features content of the Pilot Elite, plus its driving performance and composure, one may be forgiven for wondering why buyers would visit the Acura store for the similar MDX. Now the same size, packing the same engine, and possessing roughly the same performance, as well as a much larger dealer network, the Pilot makes the Acura version somewhat irrelevant.

Honda has traditionally had a way of making lots of vehicles seem irrelevant through the years. The newest Pilot will have the same effect on some rivals.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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