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Supersized 2016 Honda Pilot delivers more of just about everything

Redesigned SUV is larger, more powerful, and better finished

Published: May 20, 2015 11:00 AM

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Honda traditionally embodies efficiency in design. But the typical consumer doesn’t always appreciate such modesty, tending to always want more. Redesigned for 2016, the new Honda Pilot aims to please, providing more in almost every conceivable way.

This is a shift for the Pilot. Introduced in 2003, the original was basically a station wagon on steroids, one of the first family-friendly three-row crossovers. Topping CR’s ratings, it was also a runaway sales success. Honda didn’t recapture the same lightning in the bottle with the second generation, introduced in 2008 as a 2009 model. Its boxy old-school styling and cheap interior missed the mark in an increasingly gentrified market. Also, in a nation with big driveways and garages, not many people appreciated the Pilot’s efforts to cram the most interior space into a relatively compact footprint.

The new Pilot is bigger, measuring 3.5 inches longer. It also looks and feels more premium, starting with the styling that bears more than a passing resemblance to the popular CR-V. Unusually, the rear three-quarter angle is arguably the best view, being reminiscent of a Mercedes-Benz GL. That upright greenhouse affords great visibility for a modern SUV, with large windows all the way around, even in back. For a new vehicle, the windshield pillars are freakishly narrow—a refreshing change.

Growing in size didn’t make the Pilot profligate. Not only did it not gain weight, it shed almost 300 pounds. Despite this reduction, Honda strengthened the structure, aiming for a Good in the challenging IIHS small overlap crash test. This remedies a major shortcoming of the outgoing Pilot, which lost its Consumer Reports recommended status after scoring Poor in that test.

And unlike most competitors, you don't have to buy a top-trim version to get key safety gear such as forward collision warning, lane departure warning, or collision mitigation. The Honda Sensing system is available on EX trims and above.

“More” also applies to the 2016 Pilot’s powertrain. A new 3.5-liter V6 makes 280 horsepower, up 30 hp from before. The outgoing Pilot was one of the last holdouts from any manufacturer to still have a five-speed automatic transmission. Standard now is a six-speed, with a nine-speed on swanky Touring and Elite versions. That’s a mixed blessing, likely to improve performance and fuel economy but at the cost of gaining an unintuitive pushbutton shifter.

Smooth power delivery motivates the Pilot. Most shifts from the nine-speed are unobtrusive, but a few bumps show up at low speeds as the transmission figures out which gear to pick. Top-trim models have a start-stop system that shuts off the ignition to save fuel when stopped; restarts are smooth but can feel slow in some traffic situations compared to better systems of this type.

For the first time, we dare to use the word “quiet” to describe the Pilot—at least on the luxurious Elite trim, which benefits from additional sound-deadening measures. Wind and road noise are hushed. We did notice some suspension noise thumping through, a discordant note. Don’t expect sporty reflexes. Not only does the Pilot look more regal, but it also feels bigger when steering through the corners. Agility isn’t part of the equation, even compared to the Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander. While the suspension does a decent job of absorbing bumps, ride comfort doesn’t stand out.

Inside, the Pilot is spiffed up with more soft-touch materials and nice details, including stitching and a slick sliding console top. But there were still more hard panels than we’d expect, especially for the price of the loaded top-level Elite model we tried. While the Elite is packed with equipment, it still misses some modern upscale touches expected at $47,000, like an electric parking brake or height-adjustable lumbar support.

Family friendly accommodations are a highlight. There’s plenty of room in all three rows, although adults won’t care for the too-low third-row seat. (Kids won’t mind.) Second-row seats fold out of the way for third-row access with the push of a single button—a tremendously handy feature. Fancy options that are common in this class, like second-row captain's chairs and dual moonroofs, are finally available. Cabin storage is increased from already generous levels.

Not every “more” is a benefit. Controls are more complicated, thanks to Honda’s infuriating touch-screen audio system. Devoid of normal knobs and buttons, figuring out the logic of the system’s screens fails to be intuitive—a common complaint with other recent Hondas and Acuras.

No question that the Pilot’s redesign reestablishes it among the big players in this popular market segment. It does a great job of providing near-minivan utility in an image-friendly SUV wrapper. But for all of the “more” that Honda has baked into this Pilot, we wish they had made it more rewarding to drive.

Tom Mutchler

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