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First Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring

05/06/2008

Shahed Hussain

When Honda introduced the Pilot in 2002, few would have guessed that would define a new vehicle segment: the midsize crossover SUV. To build upon its success, the 2009 Pilot is bigger, more fuel-efficient, and offers more standard and optional features than the first-generation Pilot. While its styling has been updated, the Pilot doesn't look radically different from its somewhat conservative predecessor. For 2009, Honda added the new top level Pilot Touring, which joins the LX, EX, and EX-L models in the lineup.

Honda equips the Pilot with a 3.5L V-6 as before, but a higher 10.5:1 compression ratio and the i-VTEC variable valve timing boost power to 250-bhp @ 5,700 RPM, while torque bumps up to 253 lb.-ft. @ 4,800 RPM. Engine enhancements include VCM (Variable Cylinder Management), controlled by the i-VTEC system, which allows the V-6 to operate in 3 or 4-cylinder modes to reduce fuel consumption. This strategy increases fuel economy 1-2 MPG for 2WD (17/23 MPG) and 4WD (16/22 MPG) models, based on the EPA city/hwy. estimates. As before, the V-6 is coupled to a 5-speed automatic with slightly revised ratios designed to balance low-speed acceleration and fuel economy. A standard automatic transmission cooler improves reliability and increases towing capacity.

We tested a Pilot Touring model, equipped with leather seats, 8-way power driver's seat, 4-way power passenger seat, 10-speaker audio system, DVD rear entertainment system, rearview camera, 17-inch alloy wheels, plus a long list of other features. Owners will appreciate the 115V outlet on the dashboard and the USB port to connect MP3 audio players. As part of the Pilot's redesign, Honda increased interior room 4.1 cu. ft. to 174.5 cu. ft. Rear legroom improves by 1.1", while the third row seats get an additional 1.9" of legroom.

The Pilot's dashboard is composed of textured hard plastics, which lend a more utilitarian look to the interior. Above the glove box are three cubbyholes for small items; additional storage is available in the center console and door pockets. The black-on-white gauges in the instrument panel have an unusual three dimensional appearance that seems vaguely toy-like. Instead of a console-mounted shift lever, Honda moved it to the dashboard, closer to the driver. Audio controls are conveniently located on the four-spoke steering wheel. Although the leather front seats have adequate support, the padding is extremely firm, which may prove uncomfortable for some passengers.

In our brief test drive, the Pilot held no real surprises. The V-6 unobtrusively hauled the Pilot around with ease. Occasionally, a dash light would turn on to indicate when the engine was in its fuel-saving VCM mode. Road, wind, and tire noise were minimal at highway speeds. Low steering effort contributed to the Pilot's nimble reflexes on the road. The fully independent suspension is tuned to provide a firm, tightly damped ride, but with enough compliance to assure passenger comfort. During our evaluation, we also took the Pilot on a dirt and rock trail to assess its off-road capabilities. Even in first gear (there is no low range), with the VTM-4 system locked, the Pilot struggled to clear some of the hills and obstacles on the course. More aggressive tires would improve grip, but it's obvious that the Pilot is more suited for paved or gravel roads than serious off-road duty.

As with most other crossover SUVs, the Pilot is often a substitute for a minivan or station wagon, a role in which it excels. Honda went to great effort to refine and improve the already excellent Pilot with new standard and optional features, more interior room, and better fuel economy. In a more crowded marketplace, the Pilot still remains a benchmark crossover SUV.