Sunday, May 5, 2013

Honda Pilot - A USA-Built SUV for Americans

In the middle of the last century, families traveled in station wagons. I know my family had several. But in the 1990s, Ford  tapped into a new market with its Explorer. The tall, truck-based SUV grew to become America's station wagon.

The Honda Pilot owes its existence to this market. Honda began with tiny cars but today offers a three-row, eight-passenger highway cruiser that goes chrome-grilled nose-to-nose with the Explorer and any other SUV.

Today's favorite family car is actually the "crossover" type of SUV, which means, to you and me, that it's not based on a pickup truck. The unibody platform also means greater comfort on the road. The Pilot offers plenty. Tall, wide, box-shaped and thoughtfully designed, it should be ideal for transporting your brood. Even with all three seats up, the rear cargo area is as large as the trunk of a midsize car, so you don't have to leave the baby stroller at home. Second row passengers enjoy a video system with wireless headphones if your Pilot comes so equipped. Drivers and front passengers can use a drop-down wide-angle mirror to check on the rear passengers.

The Pilot comes in four levels, all typical of Honda nomenclature. The LX starts the lineup, with the EX above it, and the Touring at the top. The EX also comes as the EX-L, where L stands for "leather." Each model offers two- or four-wheel drive.

My Touring model was the absolute pinnacle of Pilot configurations. It was quite impressive in a stunning Obsidian Blue Pearl (a new color for 2013), with its chrome three-bar grille and special six-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels. Inside, with leather seating, steering wheel and shifter, it's all very top drawer. I thought that the interior design, while surprisingly straightforward and handsome, felt a little plain, and the matte-finish plastics reminded me just slightly of the sanitized reliability of Rubbermaid kitchen products.

You can tell this car is made for Americans. The massive and accommodating central console, complete with a roll top, exactly fits a standard McDonalds food bag and large soda. There's plenty more storage, with two levels of door pockets, a voluminous glovebox, and hidden storage below the rear cargo hold. If you need a little more cargo height, you can fold the cargo floor forward and attach it the seatback.

Every Pilot comes with a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine running through a five-speed automatic. The EPA gives the four-wheel-drive model like my test car an average 20 miles per gallon (17 City, 34 Highway). I averaged 17.1 mpg. Both the Smog and Greenhouse Gas numbers are at chart center with 5 for each.

The auto industry doesn't really offer "stripped" cars anymore, and the Pilot is no exception. Even the lowliest LX two-wheel-drive model has three-zone automatic climate control and a high-resolution eight-inch view screen for audio, navigation and such. Power features are ubiquitous today in every car, and the Pilot goes further with today's increasingly common Bluetooth for your phone, a seven-speaker audio system, and lots more. The EX, EX-L and Touring introduce additional power features, better lighting, and leather, of course. The list is long.

The Pilot is loaded with safety features, from a multitude of airbags and the ACE body structure that absorbs crash energy and keep it out of the passenger compartment. In hopes of preventing a crash altogether, there's Vehicle Stability Assist to keep you headed where you intended and Electric Braking Distribution to make sure the wheels that can do the job best get a chance to stop the car. 

A vehicle with this much on it and in it doesn't come cheap. The entry price for a Pilot LX with two-wheel drive and no extras starts at $30,350 and the Touring, like my loaded tester, starts at $42,100. Price include shipping.

Where does that nearly $12,000 difference come from? Well, there's a full-fledged navigation system, upgraded audio with 10 speakers, DVD rear entertainment system, memory seats, and roof rails. The copy of the window sticker that came with my test car was crammed with tiny print.

Honda has studied its competition for decades and they know that including something like the pop-open glass rear window in the tailgate, which lets you drop in items without opening the entire hatch, could be the deciding factor in a purchase. 

The Pilot does a great job of hauling people and things around, but it felt a little silly for one guy to drive it back and forth to work. But if you're ferrying a load of kids or friends, they'll probably be glad you went for the Pilot.


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