Honda isn't the biggest car company in the business: compared to giants like Toyota and General Motors, Honda is almost a niche player. But its owners are among the industry's most loyal. Driving the new Pilot crossover vehicle, it's easy to see why.
As soon as I got behind the wheel, I noticed five features that elevate the Pilot above many of its competitors. To start, it holds eight passengers, but it doesn't make a relatively small driver like myself feel like a Lilliputian aboard the big ship Gulliver.
The steering wheel is small enough in diameter to work ergonomically for a woman. The shift lever on the instrument panel is easy to reach. Above the glovebox, there's a divided shelf for holding small electronic devices. Inside the center console bin, a 12-volt and 115-volt powerpoint charge everything from PDAs to computers on the go. And the mouse control for the standard navigation system is completely intuitive.
Power comes from a 3.5-liter V6 engine with variable cylinder management: Honda's first application of the system on a four-wheel drive vehicle. When power demands are low, the on-board computer cuts power to two or three cylinders to save gas.
The car runs on all six cylinders at start-up, or during hard acceleration. When the Pilot is cruising at low speeds, it runs on three cylinders: at higher speeds or during moderate acceleration, it runs on four.
An "eco" indicator in the gauge cluster tells the driver when the system is activated. It works so well, that I was able to keep the car in eco-mode while driving eighty miles-per-hour on the highway.
A five-speed automatic transmission shifts seamlessly. Except for its size, the Pilot's ride and handling are quite similar to the Accord sedan.
On-demand Four-wheel Drive
Technically, Honda's four-wheel drive system is all-wheel drive, since the Pilot lacks a two-speed transfer case. The system automatically transfers power to the rear axle during hard acceleration for better handling. It delivers power to the wheels with the best traction in wet or snowy weather, as well as off-road.
The Pilot has eight inches of ground clearance: plenty to clear most obstacles on a dirt road or trail. Generous approach and departure angles allow the Pilot to climb and descend steep hills without hitting the bumpers. Standard hill start assist prevents the truck from slipping backwards when the driver accelerates from a stop on a steep hill.
A lock button on the instrument panel maximizes traction when the vehicle gets stuck in mud or snow. It works by engaging a compact transfer case bolted to the front transaxle: the transfer case sends engine power directly to a rear-axle drive unit.
Front and rear wipers keep the windshield and tailgate glass clean in the rain and snow.
Rearview Backup Camera
A standard rear backup camera displays a wide angle image to the rear of the vehicle whenever the driver shifts into reverse.
The system makes it easy to back the Pilot into a standard parking spot. It also displays objects below the driver's sightline: a safety feature for parents whose small children may not be visible in the driveway.
I'm not a huge fan of car-based navigation systems, since there are much less expensive aftermarket products that serve the same purpose. But of all the car-based systems, Honda's is one of the best. It calculates routes very quickly: ditto for rerouting drivers who get lost or need alternate paths around traffic.
Every Passenger Counts
All three rows of passengers have the basic amenities that make travel by car pleasurable: head, shoulder and legroom, ambient light and available overhead light. A standard DVD rear entertainment system comes with three headphone jacks, so parents can enjoy XM radio up front while the kids in back watch videos.
Tri-zone climate control has separate temperature knobs for the driver, front and second-row passengers. Ventilation is excellent in the first two rows. There are no vents in the ceiling or back row, which could be a problem for third-row passengers on a warm day.
A lever on the outboard side of the second-row seatbacks folds them forward and moves the seats about a foot, to create a larger access and egress path to the third row. I had adequate leg and headroom in the outboard third-row seats.
Second-row seats have ample head, leg and hip room for three passengers. All four doors have multiple map pockets: the rear doors also have bottle and cupholders.
Standard heated front seats keep the driver and front passenger warm in the winter. A power adjustable lumbar in the driver's seat provides exceptional lower back support. Two memory positions allow multiple drivers to share the car.
Cruise and redundant audio controls on the steering wheel reduce driver distraction. The mouse at the base of the center stack controls audio system settings, vehicle information and the navigation system. Separate buttons and knobs for temperature, fan and radio settings make for quicker access. An overhead sunglass holder also has a conversation mirror, so parents can keep an eye on the kids in back.
A digital display in the middle of the gauge cluster shows odometer and trip meter readings. Black lettering on a white background is easier on the eyes than the typical orange-on-black graphics.
The standard audio system is Dolby surround-sound, with ten speakers, a six-disc in-dash CD player and XM satellite radio. The Pilot is Bluetooth compatible: controls on the steering wheel allow Californians to comply with new safety legislation prohibiting drivers from using hand-held phones.
Versatile Cargo Area
Both second and third-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor. It's a simple operation utilizing levers on the seatbacks. With both rows of seats folded flat, the Pilot can hold several bicycles or other large cargo.
A power liftgate makes it easier to load in the weekly groceries. Despite its high ground clearance, liftover height is fairly low. A rubber step pad on the back bumper helps passengers get up top. Roof rails are standard on the Touring grade.
The Pilot comes standard with electronic stability and traction control. A button on the instrument panel disables the stability control, allowing the wheels to spin if the driver needs to climb out of a snow bank.
Other standard safety features include active front headrests, four-channel antilock braking, front, side and side curtain airbags.
Honda builds the Pilot at its assembly plant in Lincoln, Alabama.
2009 Honda Pilot 4WD Touring
Likes: An eight-passenger crossover vehicle with better-than-average fuel economy, along with excellent handling and performance. Available four-wheel drive enhances traction in snow and mud. Second and third-row seats fold completely flat and flush, to create a long, flat cargo floor.