DALLAS, April 28, 2016 – Honda desperately needs to get back in the three row crossover SUV game after their very dated, and boxy previous generation left us last year. For 2016, Honda has gone away from the utilitarian style of past Pilot models. After all, this is one of the keys to owning the automotive market in 2016, and Honda has a bit off its game as of late. Honda has put a vehicle on the road which gives American consumers what it wants, but all is not in perfect harmony. Honda loaned us a 2016 Pilot Elite AWD with Navigation and rear entertainment system to experience the updates first hand. For all the strengths, one of the weaknesses may surprise those that know Honda. However, let us start with the most dramatic change.
The box on wheels look is gone and the masses are already getting their money out. Even this one significant change to modernize the Pilot and go with a sleek design will likely provide a significant boost to sales. Some may say the look, which resembles a scaled up CR-V, is even sporty. There is a crease line along the side and a few other creases giving it a more modern appeal. Honda wins points with the option of black wheels making it look more likely to skip the soccer field parking lot. The advantage of those zoomed in CR-V looks it looks small, despite being larger than other Asian competitors. All in all, we say the look is a sorely needed win for Honda.
Honda has not only revitalized the looks, but also the engine in the new Pilot. This is one area has probably kept some buyers away, as the old model was not at all competitive with the power of its competitors. While keeping the same size 3.5-liter V6 engine, the Pilot adds a noticeable 30 horsepower, and 12lb-ft of torque boost. Unfortunately, it is as smooth as an eight-year old on espresso, a departure from most Honda motors. All but the Elite and Touring models make do with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The Elite we drove had the 9-speed automatic. The mileage difference between the 2 is almost negligible, with the 6-speed using 1 more mpg in the city. For the difference in gears and the addition of an engine stop when idle function, I would have expected more of a difference. That being said, the Honda is now top in the class for non-hybrid variants, with an EPA rating of 19miles per gallon (mpg) city, 26mpg highway. It certainly leaves the 2015 Pilot out of gas on the side of the road, with its embarrassing 17mpg city and 24mpg highway.
Moving to the inside of the Pilot, we find a very roomy vehicle for the class. 7 passengers can fit in our Elite model, or 8 in all other trims. Aside from the American competition, we find it to be roomiest in its class. The one caveat is the driver’s seat does not go as far back as it should for a very tall driver, unlike what is found in the Highlander. Maybe this is an Americanizing of the Pilot, but the seats feel more Barcalounger than anything. One sits on them, rather than in them and the fold down arm rests attached to the seat bolster the notion. Honey, pass the video remote control, please. The center console is roomy, but startlingly low. We would have preferred to see either a larger console, or the arm rest moved to a less intrusive spot above the console. We even ran into a couple of parking lot maneuvers hindered by our arms bumping into the arm rest. The hindrance eventually led to them being placed in the up position.
It may not have a large difference in specs from the likes of the Highlander and Santa Fe, but it feels slightly roomier. The cargo area definitely beats out those 2 other top competitors. Unlike quite a few 3-row crossovers, the cargo area was useful for a fair amount of grocery shopping with the 3rd row in place. The 3rd row is even functional for averaged size adults on short trips, which is not something seen often in this class. If you need room to go with your vaunted Honda reliability, this could be your vehicle.
The heated and ventilated seats are nice features on a rather plain interior and back up the tri-zone automatic climate control to keep passengers from shivering or sweating through their slacks. Second row passengers get comfortable seating, along with heated seats. Getting one through winter or summer is helped by the inclusion of remote start to heat or cool the car down before sliding in those big seats. The leather is nice enough, but not stand out. Everything feels tank-like, as a Honda should feel, but nobody would ever mistake it for a luxury vehicle, like some say about Toyota’s Highlander. Adding to the airy feel of the cabin is the panoramic sunroof, which is available even with the rear entertainment system.
The 8-inch infotainment system was just average in usability, but sorely needs a physical volume control and a user experience revamp. The premium audio system comes with navigation, a multi-view rear camera, plus HD and satellite radio. Despite the premium audio title and 10 speakers, the sound system is not a revelatory experience. Another nice touch is a disparate volume between sources, which not as common as one would expect. Who knew not having ear drums blasted when switching from Bluetooth audio would be a luxury? Competitors, also take note of the 2.5amp USB ports in the front and back rows, charging up tablets and smartphones at full speed. That is how it’s done in 2016, folks.
The Pilot is not a sporting vehicle, despite what one onlooker suspected. It does have enough power to pass confidently and merge smoothly onto a fast flowing freeway. The 9-speed automatic transmission functioned a bit more smoothly than the same one in the Acura MDX, but performed best in sport mode. We did manage 21mpg, so it may be doing some good on the fuel mileage front. However, the improvement could be due to other changes to the drivetrain and vehicle, considering the EPA ratings for the 6-speed. Other direct competitors reviewed recently averaged 19 mpg. As in the MDX, the transmission here uses a push button set up some might find off putting, but we had no problem adjusting. There is also the option of using the paddle shifters, which we suspect will be used approximately one time in such a vehicle. The automatic idle shut off is more annoying than useful, leaving one wondering if it will start moving in time to turn in front of traffic. It also tended activate shut off, then deactivate when put in park. Considering this was a second before turning the vehicle off, the timing was puzzling. This happened on a regular basis.
Any performance nitpicks to this point have been just that. Now we get to the serious problem with the new Pilot, its handling. Apparently a 1985 Chevy Suburban was the benchmark for the handling on the new Pilot. This is a serious shock from a company known for its more fun to drive products. The unsprung mass of the 20-inch wheels likely do not do the Pilot any favors. Although competitors like the Toyota Highlander will never be mistaken to handle like a BMW, they are at least competent and feel designed in this century. To lumber around corners like a full size SUV is not the feeling buyers of crossovers dream of at night.
The Pilot Elite AWD comes with all the safety features one would expect at this price point, including Blind Spot and cross-traffic monitoring. The notification for a vehicle in the blind spot shows up in the front door, or A-pillar. This is not quite as useful as the type which lights up in the side view mirrors a driver is checking anyway, but it is certainly better than nothing. The Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS) will take control of braking should it detect an imminent collision, but it will provide an audible warning before doing so. The Road Departure Mitigation is not something found on many other vehicles, vibrating and nudging the vehicle back in line if heading off the road. If this happens several times in a row, an audible alert will give an added attempt to grab the driver’s attention.
In all, the Pilot is an above average vehicle and should sell quite well for Honda. It puts Honda back on the consideration list for many looking for a crossover with 3rd row seating. Although the rest of the vehicle only has a few not perfect items, the handling deficit is the significant weakness. Honda, we know you can do better, and expect it. The other revisions really do put Honda in the same league as other competitors, such as the Toyota Highlander and Hyundai Santa Fe.
The base Honda Pilot starts out at $31,045, including the destination charge. Our Pilot Elite AWD came in at a luxury SUV-like $47,300. The value equation is questionable at such a price. It is more expensive than competitors such as the Highlander Limited Platinum, though it should be noted the Highlander does not have an available rear entertainment system and included remote start. It is significantly more expensive than the Santa Fe, but does have nicer materials. The Hyundai comes with an impressive sound system though. If you are in the market, we recommend putting the Pilot on your shopping list, just be sure to test drive one first.