In a market jammed with overtly stylish SUVs, the Honda Pilot stands out as the thinking person’s all-weather, all-function transport. An "intelligent adventure vehicle" according to Honda, the much-improved 2009 Pilot returns with all of its class-leading utility, plus more electronics, a stronger, better-handling chassis, enhanced safety features, improved fuel economy and better interior efficiency. This Pilot is now an ace.
Honda’s goals for the new 2009 Pilot centered on increasing functionality, and adding personality and some luxury to the most heavily optioned vehicles. In the end Honda added a fourth trim level (Touring) because buyers were requesting luxury features more akin to Honda’s premium Acura brand.
Thus the 2009 Pilot line begins with the LX, aimed at utility-oriented buyers on a budget. Next, the EX fits the "nicely equipped" market bulls-eye, offering the features a majority of Pilot buyers want. Leather seating is not one of those, however, so the hide-bound must opt up to the EX-L. Topping the line is the Touring, which adds mainly electronics such as rear DVD entertainment, a navigation system with voice recognition and a rearview camera.
Every Pilot offers four doors plus a liftgate with separately opening glass. On Touring trims the liftgate is motorized while retaining its manual function. Just under the liftgate, the standard Class III tow hitch can haul 4,500 pounds on all-wheel-drive (AWD) versions, or 3,500 pounds on front-wheel-drive machines.
All Pilots share the same SUV-like sheet metal, especially the bold new grille. Wheel design is one of the few trim cues, with the entry-level LX sporting 17-inch steel rims and P245/65R-17 tires. Cast alloy 17-inch wheels are standard on EX, EX-L and Touring, with the Touring’s differing in design.
Under the Hood
Happy with their vehicle’s power, polled Pilot owners listed better fuel mileage as their number one wish. The Pilot’s 3.5-liter V6 received a host of updates, netting a moderate 6 horsepower and 13 lb-ft of torque gain to reach 250 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 253 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. The real prize is the addition of Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), which nets a one to two mpg improvement in fuel economy. New to the Pilot, VCM operates the engine on six, four or three cylinders depending on engine load.
Wide ratios and smooth-shift technologies highlight the Pilot’s 5-speed automatic, which is the sole transmission choice. Front-wheel drive is standard, but two thirds of Pilot buyers opt for the nifty AWD option due to its inclement weather traction and medium-duty off-road ability. Computer-controlled clutches can shuttle up to 70 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels whenever wheelspin is encountered. Under normal acceleration, the torque split is 50/50 for added stability. For "unsticking" in slippery conditions, the Pilot offers a lock button to positively engage AWD, which automatically disengages at 18 mph.
Thanks to a 2.9-inch longer wheelbase the Pilot gains second- and third-row legroom, plus useful rear storage space. Crafty design also means the midsize Pilot boasts the best interior volume to exterior size ratio in its class, giving the Honda capabilities associated with bulker SUVs. One favorite: the Pilot accepts 4x8-foot sheets of building material flat on the floor — the same as a full-size pickup.
Other gains are tilt and telescoping steering, along with moving the shift lever to the dashboard. The shifter placement is another Honda out-of-the-box detail that works. Credit also a contemporary design theme that skillfully avoids trendiness nor strains for luxury. It complements the extensive available features, including satellite navigation, DVD entertainment, auxiliary audio input, plus the standard 7-speaker or optional 10-speaker, sub-woofed audio systems.
In Touring trim, as we drove the new Pilot, the details take hours to explore. Cubbies and power points abound, as do sunshades for the rear passenger door windows, two-tier cargo loading, cargo nets and wells, plus enough drink holders to open a soda fountain.
On the Road
Most difficult to describe is the Pilot’s impressively wide combination of capabilities and efficient but not evocative personality. Certainly the driving dynamics are improved; the grinding understeer of the 2008 Pilot is replaced by reassuring grip and overall the Pilot is a pleasure to command. Some heft and body roll remain, all entirely keeping with the Pilot’s mission profile, but sufficient to avoid sporting intentions. Above all the Pilot is plushly efficient; a delightfully quiet, supple-riding people mover that’s not afraid to let you hear just a little of the engine’s suave zing.
Most impressive is the absolutely seamless operation of the variable cylinder management. Try as we might, only once did we think we caught the system in action — but likely not. Paint VCM invisible. Equally in the background is the AWD, even though it was switching on- and off-line with each heavy acceleration.
Fault-finding on the Pilot is near futile. Poking around only uncovers 110V power outlets and USB ports in the center console, or tri-zone air conditioning and seatbacks that fold flat without removing the head restraints. We’ll say the rearmost seating is "adequate" for normal folks, but the truly full-grown will want to avoid extended treks, and we really don’t need the bulky grille to remind us of the Pilot’s capabilities.
Right for You?
Pilot pricing ranges from $27,500 for the LX to approximately $40,000 for the Touring. If a midsize car-based utility is your need, we can’t imagine the Pilot not pleasing. Other crossovers are larger, feel sportier or cost less, but none match the Pilot’s impressive range of commuting to towing talents, its features or sophistication.
Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson’s credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.