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2009 Honda Pilot Review


2009 Honda Pilot (select to view enlarged photo)
2009 Honda Pilot
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2009 Honda Pilot

When the Honda Pilot debuted as a 2003 model halfway through 2002, the Pilot gave Honda a solid presence in the mid-sized crossover SUV market. Generation one had a successful six-year run, but time, market conditions, and customer expectations march on. So Pilot, generation two has made its entrance for model year 2009.

Completely restyled, 2009 Honda Pilot is just enough larger to provide more interior space while still fitting into the mid-size category. Its car-like unibody structure is stronger, more rigid, and more protective of passengers, with easier access. Power is up a bit, but using slightly less fuel, thanks to further use of Honda's Variable Cylinder Management(tm) (VCM(tm)) system. And the lineup has expanded to include a premium model, the Touring, in addition to the entry-level Honda Pilot LX, value-leader Honda Pilot EX, and core-model Honda Pilot EX-L. All have a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 matched to a sophisticated five-speed automatic transmission, and are offered in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive trim, with AWD being Honda's "Torque On Demand" automatic single-range system.

The automotive market, particularly the crossover and SUV part, has changed more than a little since 2003. Or, for that matter, since the new Honda Pilot's debut early last summer. Last summer's record fuel prices were followed by last fall's economic disasters. Even before that, SUVs -- including crossovers -- were showing signs of becoming less than trendy. But whether they are fashionable or not, vehicles like the Honda Pilot meet the needs, not just the wants, of plenty of people. SUVs (which now really means crossover for the majority of buyers) are chosen over minivans not only for fashion reasons, but because they are better-suited to inclement conditions and a more adventurous lifestyle. Although the Pilot has no pretension to being a rugged off-roader, it is better-suited to ski vacations or camping trips involving poorly-maintained forest roads than a minivan.

Honda expects its Honda Pilot its biggest-ever crossover to appeal to active families, and it may even cut sibling rivalries with the expanded interior space and easier access to the third row, which is larger than in most mid-size crossovers or SUVs, if not as spacious as that of a minivan like the Honda Odyssey. Still, since the most common occupants are expected to be young and small, it should work fine, and maybe even help keep the peace. (And the sunglasses holder above the inside rear-view mirror becomes a wide-angle mirror for monitoring passengers when it's partially opened.)

There's also another market segment to consider, and that is called "entry luxury". Hence the new Touring model at the top of the lineup. Existing Honda Pilot owners wanted to see something more upscale, so now they have it. Compared to the other models, the Touring gets fancier exterior trim, upgraded interior equipment levels including audio and navigation systems, a power tailgate, and a front corner and rear sonar sensing system. The Pilot's emphasis, according to Honda, is on packaging and function... meaning not to step on toes over at the Acura division, whose cousin MDX has more of an emphasis on style and performance.

That said, a week with the new Honda Pilot showed it to not only have exemplary packaging and multi-role functionality, but to have plenty of performance as well. It's just enough larger than before to add comfort and carrying capacity without growing too large, and the rear passengers get treated like actual human beings, not afterthoughts. The flip-up liftgate glass, while not new in the industry, is a welcome new Pilot convenience feature. Fuel economy is reasonable for a 4500-pound four-wheel drive vehicle; I got 17 miles out of each gallon of unleaded regular.

2009 HONDA PILOT APPEARANCE: If it's only an inch higher and wider, and 2.9 inches longer riding on 2.9 inches more wheelbase, why does the new Pilot look so much larger than its predecessor? Perhaps that's because of the boxier, more traditional SUV, styling, bolder new-look grille, and chiseled lines. While many competing crossovers try to mask their nature and look more car-like, Honda has done the opposite. It's not overdone, and the "skid plate" in front is, knowing Honda thoroughness in engineering, more likely there to help airflow and reduce drag as to prevent rock damage on the trail. But this is a potential kid-hauler that doesn't loudly proclaim "baby on board".

2009 HONDA PILOT COMFORT: Comfort is what Pilot owners and potential owners told Honda they wanted, and they get it. If the interior design is decidedly middle-class -- relatively plain, with no hint of artificial wood to be seen -- it's pleasant, and there are those of us who don't see the point of "wood" that was last wood sometime back in the Carboniferous Period. Seat comfort is first-rate, with firm yet instantly comfortable padding and leather covering. Head and leg room is very good, even in the third row, and each part of the second row can be moved fore or aft as needed. With a 60/40 split to both rear rows, cargo vs. people configurations abound. The front buckets are power-adjustable, and the leather-rimmed steering wheel is manually-adjustable for both tilt and reach. It also has cruise and auxiliary audio controls, and the controls for the trip computer. The instrument panel is stylish, but not at the expense of function. The instruments are readily visible and everything important is backlit at night. The navigation system display is large and clear; control is, as has become customary in Honda products recently, by means of a large button with a rotary collar. If this is a nod to complex German systems, it's a definite improvement as it is simple and intuitive in use. It controls the navigation and car information systems (including PDA functions like calendar, calculator, and address book) while the audio and climate-control systems have their own simple, traditional interfaces. The AM/FM/XM/6CD(mp3 and wma-capable) audio system sounds great and has both a minijack and USB port for auxiliary music players. Storage spaces, power points, and vents are conveniently located in the cabin, and there is even storage space under the load floor as the space-saver tire is located outside, underneath. The power liftgate is useful if a bit gimmicky, but the separately-opening glass is convenient for quick bag stowage.

2009 HONDA PILOT SAFETY: Honda takes safety seriously and builds all its vehicles to be as safe as possible. So an "Advanced Compatibility Engineering"(tm) front structure is used in front to maximize occupant protection and minimize under- or over-ride during collisions. Full airbag protection is standard, front, front side, and head curtain, with front passenger occupant sensing. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes with Brake Assist and electronic brake-force distribution ensure quick, consistent stops, and Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) with traction control keeps the Pilot stable in uncertain circumstances.

2009 HONDA PILOT RIDE AND HANDLING: Not only does the 2009 Pilot's enhanced unibody structure increase passenger safety, it also heralds improvements in ride and handling. Which weren't exactly deficient in the original. Suspension is as always, fully independent with MacPherson struts in front and a multilink system in the rear. It's tuned near-perfectly, with excellent absorption of road irregularities and minimal body motion. There is no hiding its 4500-pound mass, but for a medium-large crossover the Pilot is quick on its feet. Road and wind noise are minimal.

2009 HONDA PILOT PERFORMANCE: Improved fuel efficiency, low emissions, a broad torque band, and low maintenance were key goal of the Pilot drivetrain team. Although the 3.5-liter V6 engine is basically the same as used previously, and it has the same ultra-low ULEV-2 emissions rating, it has a number of and changes that add power and efficiency. Compression is up to 10.5:1 from 10, still on regular unleaded, and 4WD models get a lightweight magnesium intake manifold and active noise-control engine mounts. More importantly, the latest iteration of Honda's Variable Cylinder Management system, intimately tied into the i-VTEC variable valve lift and timing system, is used to deactivate two or three cylinders as power needs demand. Meaning that while cruising at a steady speed and low throttle, as many as half the engine's cylinders won't be using fuel. At that point, a green "eco" lights up on the dash, conditioning the driver to save fuel by keeping the light on. Dr. Pavlov would be proud... Of course, firing on all six and moving quickly, fuel consumption is commensurate with power production. Which at 250 horsepower (at 5700 rpm) and 253 lb-ft of torque (at 4800) is more than merely adequate and can merge the Pilot into traffic or tackle steep grades with ease. The VTM-4 automatic four-wheel drive system operates in familiar front-wheel drive mode most of the time, and sends power to the rear wheels as needed for traction.

CONCLUSIONS: Honda emphasizes packaging and function in the new second-generation Pilot, making it a versatile and comfortable vehicle.

SPECIFICATIONS
2009 Honda Pilot Touring 4WD

Base Price			$ 40,095
Price As Tested			$ 40,765
Engine Type			single overhead cam 24-valve aluminum
				 alloy V6 with i-VTEC variable valve
				 lift and timing and multi-mode
				 Variable Cylinder Management
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 212 cu. in.
Horsepower			250 @ 5700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			253 @ 4800 rpm
Transmission			5-speed automatic with
				 Grade Logic Control
Wheelbase / Length		109.2 in. / 190.9 in.
Curb Weight			4590 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		18.4
Fuel Capacity			21.0 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P245/65R17 105T Michelin LTX m+s
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS, EBD, BA, VSC standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut/
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 single-range automatic 4-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		16 / 22 / 17
0 to 60 mph				est 9  sec
Towing capacity				4500 lbs.

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Destination charge			$ 670