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Buying a Used Honda Pilot: Everything You Need to Know

The Honda Pilot is a 3-row SUV big on safety, reliability, and style. Honda’s largest passenger vehicle is also well regarded in the used car field, which means finding a low-priced version in excellent condition can be a bit of a challenge. Sharing its platform with the Honda Accord and the upscale Acura MDX, the Pilot has sound roots. A potent V6 engine and fuel economy on par with others in the class are a bonus, but some early models lacked sufficient power for towing and hauling.

1st Generation: 2003-2008

Considering its age, the first-generation Pilot is still a relatively desirable used SUV. Looking like an oversized Honda CR-V, the first Pilot was built on the same platform that spawned the Honda Accord sedan, Honda Odyssey minivan, and the Acura MDX luxury SUV. With its unibody chassis, powerful V6 engine, and standard all-wheel drive, the Pilot was light years ahead of its competition in the areas of solidity, quality, and capability. Power came from a 240-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 shared with the MDX.

In comparison to its competition, the Pilot was longer than the Toyota Highlander but shorter than the Ford Explorer. It was wider than all the vehicles in its class, which allowed Honda to create a massive cargo bay capable of fitting a 4×8 sheet of plywood with the seats folded flat. With the seats in place, the Pilot can fit up to eight people, although the third-row seat is really only suitable for kids.

In 2005, the Pilot received an updated engine with 255 hp, and in 2006 a front-wheel-drive model was introduced. Horsepower dropped back to 244 due to a revision in the way power was calculated, and the Pilot gained some minor interior and exterior upgrades, as well as standard electronic vehicle stability control and side curtain airbags. FWD models gained Honda’s cylinder deactivation, which deactivates up to three cylinders when the engine isn’t under load, helping improve fuel economy over the 4WD model by a few mpg.

The Honda Pilot was offered in three trims.

LX, EX, and EX-L (the “L” stands for leather). Even the most basic Pilot LX included front and rear air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, and door locks plus a tilt wheel, 16-in steel wheels, and remote keyless entry. Moving up to the EX added a power driver’s seat, an AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo, steering wheel touch controls, and alloy wheels.

The EX-L upgrade included leather seating, heated front seats, and available navigation or DVD entertainment system (you couldn’t get both together). Models equipped with 4WD featured Honda’s advanced VTM-4 system the included automatic engagement when detecting wheel slippage and a manual locking function for dealing with low-speed off-road situations. Tow ratings for the 2WD Pilot topped out at 3,500 pounds, while the 4WD models are rated at 4,500 pounds. In government crash tests, the 2003-2008 Honda Pilot performed above average, earning a 5-star crash rating and 4-star rollover resistance rating.

For the most part, owners loved the first-generation Pilot. Some common issues for these years include transmission failure on the 2003-04s and radiator failure due to combining the transmission oil and engine cooling in the same core. Failure of the radiator would cause cross-contamination of the two fluids, which also leads to transmission issues. Find a 1st Generation Honda Pilot for sale

Second Generation: 2009-2015

The 2009 Pilot rolled out with some major improvements. The styling remained boxy and upright, but the edges were now rounded, with a more truck-like appearance. Interior volume increased, as did the rear-seat room, horsepower, and fuel economy. A rear flip-up hatch window was integrated into the rear liftgate, making it easier to load in small or lightweight items, and the second-row seats were made to slide for and aft, making it easier to gain access to the third row.

In 2009, power for the Pilot came from a 250-hp 3.5-liter V6 with Honda’s VCM (Variable Cylinder Management), which was now offered on both FWD and 4WD models. There were four trim levels that included LX, EX, EX-L, and new to the line Touring. The Touring trim offered new features such as premium audio, navigation, tri-zone air conditioning, and the power liftgate. The EX trim got a cool rear backup camera built into the rearview mirror.

The second-generation Pilot remained a JD Power favorite and continued to score well in government and IIHS crash tests. Facing stiff competition from vehicles like the Ford Explorer, the Toyota Highlander, and the Chevrolet Traverse, the Honda Pilot needed to up its game. However, unlike many competitors, the Pilot continued to bundle its options into packages specific to certain trims, so people who wanted features like heated seats or navigation had to purchase the more expensive upper-level trims. Towing remained at 4,500 pounds for the 4WD models and 2,000-pounds for FWD models.

The 2010 and 2011 models carried over largely unchanged, although in 2011 Honda’s voice-activated navigation was made available on the EX-L trim.

2012 saw a minor refresh with revisions to the front grille, chrome trim, and wheel designs. EX and EX-L models gained an updated audio system with a 2GB CD library, Bluetooth, and the ability to stream audio. The 2013 Pilot saw a rear backup camera, Bluetooth, an 8-in color multi-information screen, and 3-zone climate control added to its standard equipment list. The 2014 model carried over without change, but in 2015 a new SE trim was added, touting pewter gray alloy wheels, a power moonroof, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.

For the most part, the second-generation Pilot ran with very few complaints. Owners did gripe at times about the thick pillars that limited visibility, poor city fuel economy, and a sometimes choppy ride over rough pavement. Other’s found fault with a lack of options, such as no second-row captain’s chair seating or high-end name brand audio, and interior styling was a bit dowdy. Another sore spot for owners was interior noise levels, mostly from the tires, that made casual conversation over the three rows a bit difficult. Find a 2nd Generation Honda Pilot for sale

Third Generation: 2016-present

The 2016 Pilot brought a whole new look to Honda’s family crossover, with sleeker styling, better interior quality, more standard and available safety features, and a more powerful engine. Also new with this generation was the addition of the Elite trim, a fully loaded model that slotted above the Touring trim. A new 6-speed automatic was offered on all but the Touring and Elite trims, which received a 9-speed unit. Perhaps the most crucial addition to the Pilot was the addition of the Honda Sensing package that included such advanced driver-assist systems as forward-collision warning and emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. This option was offered on all but the base LX trim. Additional safety features include rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and the LaneWatch passenger-side mirror camera.

Under the hood, the third-generation Pilot got a new 3.5-liter V6 with start/stop technology. This engine was good for 280 hp. A sophisticated AWD system was offered as well as an advanced traction management system for both FWD and AWD models with settings for snow, mud and other surfaces. This system was standard on all but the LX trim. Standard features included 18-in alloy wheels, push-button start, and a multi-angle rearview camera. Moving up to the EX brought fog lights, Honda LaneWatch, 3-zone air conditioning, a power driver’s seat, an 8-in display audio screen, and a smart entry key fob.

The EX-L added leather seating and a power liftgate, while the Touring and Elite trim open the door to such luxuries as a rear-seat entertainment system, a 540-watt premium audio system, and standard Honda Sensing. The Elite offered unique features such as a panoramic moonroof, a heated steering wheel, and heated second-row captain’s chair seating.

The third-generation Pilot performed well in all its crash tests, earning a 5-Star overall rating from the government and Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In 2017, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were made standard.

The Honda Pilot got a thorough mid-cycle refresh for 2019. It brought an updated look, a tweaked transmission, and a traditional volume knob that replaced the frustrating slider of earlier models. Also, Honda Sensing became standard on every trim. 2020 was largely a carryover but added a stylish Black Edition trim.

As the third-generation Pilot is fairly new, we’ve not heard any major complaints, although the 2016 model did have a few recalls, including one for improper welds on the fuel tank that may lead to a fuel leak. The interior is slightly smaller than the previous generation and still not as roomy as a Chevrolet Traverse, especially behind the 3rd-row seat. Find a 3rd Generation Honda Pilot for sale

Which Honda Pilot is Right For Me?

For those on a tight budget, the first-generation Pilot makes a fine choice. Just be sure to have a mechanic familiar with Honda cars go over it with a fine-tooth comb, with extra attention paid to the transmission and radiator. Overall, we think the second generation 2009-2015 models are the best buy here. They offer more room than the first-generation models, but won’t be as expensive as the relatively new third-generation Pilot.

The one advantage of buying a more expensive third-generation Pilot, however, is the advanced driver-assist systems not offered on earlier models. We’d look for an EX or EX-L model and only opt for 4WD if you live in places where it snows. FWD models get better fuel economy and have fewer moving parts to fix over time.

As the Pilot holds excellent resale values, you’ll have to use all your bargaining skills to make a good deal, but you’ll have the peace of mind knowing your used car will hold its value well over time, meaning you won’t take a bath when it comes time to sell. Find a Honda Pilot for sale

Honda Pilot Comparisons:

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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