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2003 New Car Review: Honda Pilot EX-L

2003 Honda Pilot EX


    A master's degree thesis in sociology could probably be written 
on the American sport-utility vehicle phenomenon. Urban and 
suburban people who may never meet a more difficult off-road 
challenge than a less-than-optimally paved stadium parking lot buy 
huge truck-based vehicles capable of strenuous wilderness travel, 
but at the price of poor maneuverability in city traffic and parking, 
and with the fuel economy of the classic 1960s large station wagon. 
Fashion is undoubtedly a major component of SUV popularity, but 
there is more than merely trendy style at work.
    Size is important, and contemporary cars are smaller than their 
ancestors while people are larger. Put a family of four or five in a 
mid-sized sedan and, unless three of them are very small children, 
they'll be cramped. Minivans and the few full-sized sedans available 
turn some people off. And, in a large part of the country, winter 
means rain, snow, and slush. Even sun-belt denizens travel to ski 
slopes, and road ``maintenance'' in many places is a case of not-so-
benign neglect. A sturdy vehicle with good ground clearance and 
four-wheel drive is functional daily transportation, not merely urban 

    Fortunately the modern SUV is not necessarily a big, thirsty 
truck. Honda's newest, the Pilot, is an excellent example of the 
genre. Developed and built for the American market, it has the style 
and all of the features that make SUVs popular, but is built with 
car-like unibody construction for strength, rigidity, refinement, and 
space efficiency. A 240-horsepower V6 engine matched to a five-
speed automatic transmission gives it plenty of power, and Honda's 
sophisticated ``VTM-4'' electronically-controlled four-wheel drive 
system is standard on all models. Two basic variations, LX and EX, 
are available, with further EX models offering a leather interior, 
leather and a rear-seat DVD system, or leather and a DVD-based 
navigation system.

    I've just spent a week with a new Pilot EX. Honda is right on 
target for the modern urban SUV market. It's very roomy, with 
easy access, and combines good power with very reasonable fuel 
economy for its class. While not meant for serious off-road use, it is 
designed for all-season, all-weather use in the real world, and just 
may be the perfect vehicle for today's poorly-maintained city 

APPEARANCE: If the Pilot isn't quite a CR-V made bigger on the 
designer's CAD-CAM computer, there is a definite family 
resemblance. Both are two-box SUVs, with rounded corners and 
edges, but the Pilot is considerably larger. Its large chrome-trimmed 
trapezoidal grille and bright faired-in multi-element headlights are 
similar but not identical to those of the CR-V, and, together with 
the high belt line, establish the Honda SUV look. In the manner of 
the contemporary urban SUV, plastic-capped bumpers are 
integrated with lower side cladding. The Pilot does not follow the 
CR-V's styling lead at the rear, with conventional taillights instead 
of its smaller sibling's vertical ones.

COMFORT: Honda says that the Pilot was designed from the 
inside out, and it shows. There is no shortage of interior space, and 
efficient design gets even better utilization of that room. Step-in is 
higher than a car, but less than a conventional SUV. The interior is 
stylish but functional, with a very functional instrument panel and 
plenty of storage space and spaces. There is seating for up to eight, 
with supportive and comfortable front buckets and 60/40 split 
bench second and third rows. The second row is designed for 
adults, with room equivalent to that found in the new Accord, while 
the third row is best for children. Both rows have adjustable 
seatback angle and easily fold flat, for cargo versatility. Each 
second row side moves forward for access to the third row. Unlike 
the CR-V, the Pilot has a console between the front seats, with 
plenty of open and covered storage. 

SAFETY: All seating positions in the Pilot, even the second- and 
third-row centers, have headrests and three-point safety belts. A 
strong safety cage surrounds the passenger area, and is augmented 
by front and rear crumple zones. Dual-stage, dual-threshold front 
airbags and front-seat side airbags and standard four-wheel antilock 
disc brakes add more protection.

ROADABILITY: With rigid car-like unibody construction, the 
Pilot has a lower center of gravity than a conventional body-on-
frame SUV with equivalent ground clearance. Its fully-independent 
suspension provides ride and handling characteristics that are closer 
to ``car'' than ``truck.'' The suspension is tuned for a firm but 
comfortable ride, with minimal body motion in corners for very 
good control. In normal operation, the VTM-4 automatic four-
wheel drive system operates in front-wheel drive mode, for 
maximum efficiency and familiar steering and handling properties. 
Power is transferred to the rear wheels under acceleration or when 
wheelslip is detected by the electronic control system. VTM-4 Lock 
mode can be engaged at low speeds to deliver maximum torque to 
the rear wheels, useful in very slippery conditions or when stuck in 
snow or mud. Other than in the manually-selected lock mode, the 
VTM-4 system works very smoothly, unobtrusively, and 
transparently. The Pilot has eight inches of clearance and, without a 
dual-range transfer case, is rated for medium-duty off-road use, 
meaning that forest service roads to campgrounds and slippery boat 
ramps shouldn't present any problems at all. Towing capacity is 
3500 lbs for a trailer and 4500 for a boat. Honda says the better 
aerodynamics of a boat allow this. Note, too, that these are 
conservative ratings that allow for four people and luggage in the 

PERFORMANCE: At nearly 4500 lbs, the Pilot is no lightweight. 
But, with peak horsepower of 240, and 242 lb-ft of torque, its 3.5-
liter single overhead cam V6 has no problem moving it. Honda's 
VTEC variable valve timing system helps increase low- and 
midrange-rpm power, along with providing very low emissions 
levels and good fuel economy. The five-speed electronically-
controlled automatic transmission also helps performance and 
economy, and features Honda's ``Grade Logic Control'' technology 
to eliminate ``hunting'' between gears on hills. 

CONCLUSIONS: The new Pilot is Honda's definition of mid-sized 
real-world SUV.

2003 Honda Pilot EX-L

Base Price			$ 32,020
Price As Tested		$ 32,480
Engine Type			single overhead cam 24-valve V6
Engine Size			3.5 liters / x cu. in.
Horsepower			240 @ 5400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			242 @ 4500 rpm
Transmission			5-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		106.3 in. / 188.0 in.
Curb Weight			4439 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	18.5
Fuel Capacity			19.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline; 
91 octane premium for towing
Tires				P235/70 SR16 Goodyear Integrity 
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
                                                antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
                                               independent multilink
Ground clearance		8 inches
Drivetrain			front engine, automatic four-wheel 

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		17 / 22 / 19
0 to 60 mph				est 9.5  sec
Towing Capacity			3500lb trailer, 4500lb boat

Destination and handling		$ 460