Powerful Pilot - 2004 model is biggest Honda vehicle to date

Friday, December 19, 2003

STEVE ROBERTSON * photos@semissourian.com

This Honda Pilot has an aggressive front end with multi-reflector halogen headlights. It competes with other mid-size SUVs such as the Ford Explorer and the Buick Rainier.

I'm feeling a bit guilty -- like a kid sneaking his hand into the forbidden cookie jar. I'm testing a 2004 Honda Pilot, a vehicle that has enamoured the automotive press and is selling so well that I practically had to beg to get my hands on one for this review. My two passengers and I are heading north on Interstate 55 for a luncheon in St. Louis -- the cruise control is in charge of the throttle, which in turn is in charge of the 240-hp V6 engine cranking out 242 pound-foot of torque.

What it is

The Pilot is Honda's long awaited and much ballyhooed mid-size SUV. It is based on a modified Odyssey minivan, which is based on a modified Accord sedan. It perches on a unibody frame, with separate front and rear sub-frames, as contrasted to a truck-type frame. In the future, Honda will build a small four-door pickup truck on this platform. As everyone knows, trucks are becoming more like cars, and cars are becoming more like trucks. Heck, most consumers don't even know what a truck is anymore, given all the confusing descriptions coming from the government, the insurance industry and the automotive press!

Confusing the issue is the fact many SUVs on the market today first saw light as a pick-up truck. But, as Jerry Wieser of Wieser Honda told me recently, "The original sport utility vehicle that started the SUV craze, the Jeep Cherokee back in the '80s, had a unitized body, so the idea that an SUV has to have a truck-type frame is a lot of bunk." Bunk or not, what really determines if a vehicle can tackle serious off-road duty is the availability of a low-range transfer case, skid plates, high ground clearance, and locking front and rear differentials. Hit the trails without any one of these necessary items and you're either going to get stuck or you're going to break something essential. Trust me, I've been there.

So where does that leave the Pilot? In a lot of places that you can't get to in a car or minivan. Forest Service roads? No problem. Deep snow? The Pilot has 8 inches of ground clearance. Muddy construction sites? Pilot's sophisticated drive system can automatically send 55 percent of the engine power to the rear wheels. For starting off in low-traction conditions such as ice and mud, the lock feature lets you manually lock the rear differential to get moving, and it will stay locked up to 18 mph. But there's no low-range transfer case or skid plate, so if you're looking for a vehicle to tackle the old secret family mining trail, you'd better consider a mule ... Pilot is not your beast of burden.

First impression

The Pilot has a touch of minivan heritage, which is not all bad. After all, what is more efficient, more user-friendly, more economical for moving lots of people and stuff?

Pilot's four side doors open in conventional SUV style, while the rear end uses a hatch design. Inside are three rows of seats to accommodate a total of eight people. The high-line EX version that I tested (there is also the less pricey LX) was adorned with leather seats, power heated mirrors, auto-off halogen headlights and heated front seats. The Pilot has been awarded a five-star crash rating.

Driving the Pilot

The Pilot feels heavy and substantial. It is the biggest vehicle ever to wear the Honda badge. It weighs 4,400 more than Ford Explorer or Toyota Highlander. It rides on big 16-inch tires, measures 188 inches long, and a whopping 77.3 inches wide, eclipsing the competition. Sitting in the spacious cabin, grasping the leather wrapped steering wheel and feeling the warmth of the heated leather seats, it was hard to believe I was driving a Honda. The Pilot can tow 4,500 pounds of trailer. The engine moves it with authority, yet surprisingly, Pilot is stingy on fuel (17 mpg city and 22 highway) and, like every Honda, it meets the EPA's low-emission-vehicle standards. Its four-wheel independent suspension gives it a smooth ride, and the cabin is free of obtrusive wind noise. The engine grows loudly when the accelerator is floored, but when cruising it is quiet and well behaved. Passing power and acceleration is adequate. The transmission is of the latest five-speed design with a tall overdrive ratio that lets the engine loaf at 2,200 rpm at 75 miles per hour, but that feature also requires a downshift from fifth to fourth gear when ascending long interstate hills. The shift is so smooth few drivers will notice.

In typical Honda fashion the controls are logical and well placed, mounted high on the instrument panel. The instruments are very legible. Head height is exemplary, and leg room is generous, except for the third row seat. The second and third row seats fold down flat in various combinations, and there is room behind the third row for eight paper grocery bags. A 4-by-8 sheet of plywood will fit inside, but the rear hatch will have to remain open for the trip home.

Honda entered the car business just 33 years ago with its tiny Civic, and the firm is still a relatively small company when compared to its competition. But the big Pilot, with its small price of about $30,000 and numerous awards from the automotive press, is rapidly changing the image of the diminutive company.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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