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New Car Review: 2003 Honda Pilot EX-L

Honda Pilot EX 2003

SEE ALSO: Honda Buyer's Guide


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 vanity.

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 streets.

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 Pilot.

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.


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 m+s 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 drive

PERFORMANCE 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

OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination and handling $ 460