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2018 Honda Pilot vs. 2018 Ford Explorer: Which Is Better?

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author photo by Eric Brandt August 2018
  • The 2018 Ford Explorer and 2018 Honda Pilot are two of the most competitive 3-row crossovers on the market.

  • Both SUVs come standard with front-wheel drive and are available with all-wheel drive.

  • The Pilot and the Explorer are both attractive alternatives to minivans for drivers seeking a more rugged family vehicle.

Big families are being drawn away from minivans and toward SUVs with three rows of seats. For some, that means a full-size SUV, like a Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition, but for those who aren't looking for a truck-like experience, a big midsize crossover with seating for up to eight people is an attractive option.

Two leaders in the 3-row crossover class are the 2018 Honda Pilot and the 2018 Ford Explorer. Both of them offer plenty of space for passengers and cargo, decent fuel economy, some towing capability and a strong value for big families. Let's take a look at what's similar, what's different and which one is right for your family.

Exterior

These two SUVs are similar in size, but have different personalities. The styling for both is rather conservative. The Ford Explorer looks more like a traditional SUV, and the Pilot looks modern and almost like a car, but with SUV proportions. They both have functional exteriors that make for roomy cabins on the inside.

The Honda Pilot is designed a bit more aerodynamically, which helps with fuel economy — which we'll get into later. If you're looking for a traditional, yet modern SUV that drives like a car, then you'll probably like the styling of the Ford Explorer. If you want more of a refined look, then you might prefer the Honda Pilot.

Interior

The Honda Pilot can seat up to eight people, while the Ford Explorer can seat up to seven. Though the extra seat belt in the Pilot sounds nice, it's awfully cramped to have three people stuffed into the third-row seats, no matter how small they are. For both vehicles, seating is really only comfortable for six people with two in each row. Any more than that and it gets a little too cozy. If you're planning on transporting more than six people with any regularity, we'd suggest just opting for a minivan.

Passenger space in the first and second rows is a little more generous in the Explorer and about the same for both crossovers in the third row. The mid- and high-end trims of the Pilot offer a clever second-row folding and sliding system that provides easy access to the third row with the push of a button. The Explorer's third row is a little tougher to get into than the Pilot's and should only be used in a pinch. Cargo volume is very similar for the two SUVs.

As for interior design, the Honda is more refined than the Ford. The Explorer's interior suffers from sub-par materials and build quality. Things get better in the range-topping Platinum trim, but anything lower than that just feels low rent. The Honda, on the other hand, is more refined and has a premium feel that's a pleasant surprise for its price point.

For a little more room, go with the Explorer. For a little more refinement and easier access to the third row, you'll want the Pilot.

Mechanicals

The Ford Explorer has a lot more variety in its drivetrain than the Honda Pilot. The only engine available in the Pilot is a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. It can tow up to 5,000 lbs when equipped with all-wheel drive and returns impressive fuel economy at 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway in front-wheel drive models.

The Explorer has three available engines under the hood. The base engine is a 3.5-liter V6 that's similar to the one found in the Pilot. It makes 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. It can't match the efficiency of the Honda, getting 17 mpg/24 mpg hwy. For greater efficiency without sacrificing performance, you can opt for a turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-four. This 4-cylinder makes 280 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque while getting impressive fuel economy at 19 mpg city/27 mpg hwy; identical to the V6 in the Pilot, while making more torque. Finally, the top engine in the Explorer lineup is the twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 that makes 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy isn't great at 16 mpg city/22 mpg hwy, but if you want the best performance in this segment, this EcoBoost V6 is a winner.

The Pilot and the Explorer both come standard with front-wheel drive, but are available with all-wheel drive. AWD gives you peace of mind and a traction advantage in inclement road conditions and in mild off-roading. However, if you opt for AWD, you're also taking a small hit to fuel economy.

The V6 in the Pilot is a good engine, but it's nice to have a little variety and more options. The Explorer allows you to prioritize performance, fuel economy or a blend of both, while the Pilot only has the one option.

Features and Technology

Since SUVs seem to be constantly moving upmarket, a lot of luxurious features are available in both the Pilot and the Explorer. As you move up the model ranges, features like heated and cooled leather seats, second-row bucket seats, premium audio, navigation and sunroofs become available.

A nice feature on the Pilot is the Honda Sensing suite of safety technology, which includes a collision mitigation braking system, road departure mitigation, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. These features are available on the EX and EX-L trims, but are standard on the Touring and Elite trims.

Ford has a similar safety tech suite called the Safe & Smart package. It comes with adaptive cruise control with forward-collision warning and brake support, lane-keeping assist, blind spot monitoring and automatic high beams. Unfortunately, this package doesn't come standard on any Ford Explorer, but it's optional on every trim except for the base trim. Even if you pay more than $50,000 for a Ford Explorer Platinum, this safety tech will still cost you extra.

Pricing

The Explorer is more expensive than the Pilot across the board. The Pilot has a modest starting price of $30,900, and the Explorer starts at $32,140. When you get to the top end, the Pilot Elite starts at $47,470, and the Explorer Platinum starts at a whopping $53,940. You could get an Audi Q7 for less money than an Explorer Platinum.

When you split the difference and compare similarly priced SUVs, the Pilot generally beats the Explorer in price. When you look at the prices and the interiors of these SUVs, the Pilot appears to be a better value. However, something to take into account when comparing prices is the engines. Remember, the Pilot is only available with a V6 comparable to the base engine in the Explorer.

Conclusion

It's hard to argue against the Honda Pilot being a better value than the Ford Explorer. Dollar for dollar, the Honda offers more technology and more refinement than the Ford. However, there's something to be said for the attractive drivetrain options in the Explorer that you simply can't get in the Pilot. The Honda V6 might help to keep prices down, but if driving excitement is what you're after, the Pilot simply can't come close to an Explorer equipped with an EcoBoost V6.

If you prioritize safety and value above all else, then the Pilot is probably the 3-row crossover for you. However, if you want a little more grunt under the hood, then a properly equipped Explorer is the more exciting choice for the driving enthusiast who doesn't want to sacrifice practicality.

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New 2018 Honda Pilot 4WD Touring
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Used 2018 Honda Pilot 4WD EX
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Used 2018 Honda Pilot 4WD Touring
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Used 2018 Honda Pilot 4WD EX
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2018 Honda Pilot vs. 2018 Ford Explorer: Which Is Better? - Autotrader