After Honda tested the SUV waters with its small, Civic based CRV sport utility in the late nineties, its next logical step was to go after the large--and lucrative--mid-size SUV market dominated by Ford's Explorer and Toyota's 4Runner and Highlander. Like the Highlander, Honda went for a car-like unit body construction and underpinnings rather than the more rugged and capable body on frame construction of the Explorer and 4Runner. It was well thought out and was an instant hit.
While its "crossover" design couldn't haul or tow anything near the 4Runner or Explorer, for everyday use it drove better, rode better and was more efficient than either. Ultimately, this approach would be adopted by everyone. Indeed, even the Explorer eventually conceded and was re-engineered for the 2011 model year using the more car-like design approach.
Honda likes to keep its model lines and trim designations simple, and the Pilot was no exception. The entry level LX and upscale EX trims were the only choices for buyers. The LX was equipped with air conditioning, seating for eight, ABS brakes and power windows and locks. The upscale EX boasted alloy wheels, keyless entry, auto climate control, power drivers seat, and a better stereo. EX exclusive options included leather upholstery, DVD entertainment system, and a navigation system. There were no factory options for the LX, although high-profit dealer installed options were pushed with vigor.
At first, all Pilots featured full-time all-wheel drive and were powered by a 3.5L sohc V6 with 240hp, backed by a 5-speed automatic transmission. For 2005, the engine got a reported 15hp power boost, only to see it drop the following year to 244hp. In 2006, both models could be ordered with front-wheel drive
The Pilot comes is trim on the outside, about the same in length as an Accord of the period with about 5 inches more in width. The styling is conservative, and the Pilot is clearly a case of maximizing function and then covering it with something presentable.
During the model run It received only minor design changes, most significant being revised front fascia with projector headlights and silver accented taillights in 2006. In customary Honda fashion, the last year (2008) brought two new models, the VP (replacing the LX) and a new, top of the line SE. The SE boasted a factory installed power sunroof and DVD entertainment system as standard equipment.
The Pilot's interior is pleasant, but it won't be mistaken for a luxury SUV. There is a lot of plastic, and most come with cloth seats. The industry's ubiquitous fake wood is nowhere to be found, and leather seats were not even available on the LX. Up until a few years ago, Honda was very rigid in segmenting its vehicles--if you wanted luxury, you'd buy an Acura. In this case, it would be the MDX a vehicle that shares the Pilot's platform. That hard line has softened today in response to market pressures.
The instrument panel features a large speedometer with a smaller tachometer on the left and temperature and fuel gauge on the right. The center console between the two bucket seats is large with useful storage.
The Pilot is technically an 8-passenger vehicle, but if all those passengers are adults it's going to be a very long ride. The Pilot does best with four adults, and gets a passing grade with five (with three in the middle seat). The third seat is best reserved for kids, but two adults can squeeze in for short hops across town. Leg room is good front and middle, dismal in the rear. You can snub your nose up at the gas guzzling Suburbans of the world, but comfort for eight requires size.
The only engine in the Pilot was a 3.5L sohc V6 with 240hp. Power was bumped to 255hp in 2005, only to fall to 244hp for the rest of the model run. It's smooth and powerful enough to move the Pilot around without effort in most situations, feeling
strained only when fully loaded, pulling a trailer or under full acceleration. Towing capacity is 4500lbs.
There is only one transmission, a 5-speed automatic, driving the front wheels (2005-up) or a smart all wheel drive system. The AWD system does not offer a low range and operates most of the time in front wheel drive. A computer senses wheel slippage and diverts power where needed. It can be locked in four-wheel drive mode by a switch on the dash.
The Pilot rides and drives very well for an SUV, truly delivering on the car-like driving experience. The suspension is soft but controlled. Some harshness can be felt over large, sudden bumps, and road noise is noticeable. It's no Jeep Wrangler, but it
will go anywhere off-road a sane person would venture.
Official fuel economy numbers are good, but real-world experience from owners is not as high. The Pilot is, after all, a heavy vehicle and most spend their day in in suburban and urban settings in stop and go traffic.
As with most SUV's, with the third seat up there is minimal cargo space available in the rear. If you don't require the extra seating, the third seat folds smartly into the floor, leaving a large usable area for your stuff.
Other than a major transmission problem, the Pilot has garnered an excellent reliability history. But the transmission issue is a big one, affecting over 1 million Hondas (not just Pilots). In the past, Honda has in some cases discounted the $4,000+ repair by 25 or 50 percent, even if the VIN number of the vehicle wasn't specifically in the recall program. But that's likely off the table now. Make sure to ask if the transmission has be replaced or rebuilt, and by whom. Here is the recall (Recall ID # 04V176000, April 15th, 2004)
Despite this, Honda consistently scores above average in our reliability survey.
Four wheel disc brakes with ABS were standard on all Pilots. A standard stability control system was added in 2005. Front driver and passenger airbags were augmented in 2006 by side curtain bags for front and middle passengers.
The Pilot scored exceptionally well in NHSTA crash tests, with five stars for all impacts except rollover, for which it received a four stars.
Pilots command premium money in the used car market, and there are plenty of alternatives for you to consider. But it is so well balanced and serves its mission so well, that you'd be remiss not to take a test drive.
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