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2009 Honda Pilot – Click above for high-res image gallery

When the new 2009 Honda Pilot turned up as a concept at the Detroit Auto Show in January, most observers were decidedly underwhelmed. Unlike many other recent crossovers, notably the GM Lambdas, Honda chose to go with a decidedly more utilitarian look for the second-generation Pilot. As Honda officials explained when we gathered for a preview drive of the 2009 Pilot, they wanted to retain the "Utility" in CUV and a big part of that involved maximizing the useful interior volume within the Pilot's relatively modest exterior dimensions. That means a boxy shape that provides room for up to eight (at least as defined by the seat-belts) inside.

While the Pilot won't be challenging the Buick Enclave or Mazda CX-9 for style points, it isn't too painful on the eyes. It's more a case of being almost invisible. The greenhouse is actually strongly reminiscent of the first generation Jeep Liberty, only longer. In spite of the rather barn like shape, it's actually more aerodynamic than the original Pilot, resulting in substantially less wind noise. In fact, the Pilot has a whole range of improvements that reduce noise, which we'll explore a bit later. There are also some things that might be considered a step backwards. Read on after the jump to learn about our first drive in the new Pilot.

Photos Copyright © 2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Let's cut to the chase. Setting aside the Pilot's appearance, the new unit is generally a much better vehicle than the 2008 model. Under the hood, propulsion still comes from a 3.5-liter V6 with a slew of upgrades. The new engine spins out 250 hp and 253 pound-feet of torque, increases of 6 hp and 13 lb.-ft. respectively. Fuel economy picks up 1 mpg across the board, thanks in part to a new version of Honda's variable cylinder management (VCM) deactivation system. Previously, VCM would simply shut off one bank of cylinders. The new version can run on three, four or six cylinders, with four-cylinder mode available by disabling one cylinder on each bank.

The unibody has seen one of the most significant upgrades, with high strength steels growing from 13-percent of the body structure to 52-percent, resulting in seriously improved rigidity. Honda has also implemented what it calls Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) into the structure. According to Honda, ACE provides better protection for occupants in the event of a crash involving vehicles with different bumper heights. The extra inch of body width on the new model also meant that Honda was able to fit a third LATCH position in the middle row for mounting child seats. A fourth kid seat can be mounted in the third row. The second row seats are split 60/40 and each can slide forward independently to provide some extra leg room for those relegated to the back forty.

Speaking of that rear-most row, hip room in the back-back is only 48.4 inches. With the middle seat pulled forward, there's a reasonable amount of leg room, but using all three nominal seating positions will require either super model-thin passengers or some extreme coziness. The seat is mounted high off the floor, so passengers won't be sitting "knees up" like they do in the much larger Chevy Tahoe SUV. However, if you go back to the 48.4-inch hip dimension for a moment, you'll notice that is slightly more than four feet. That means if you fold the second and third rows of seats, you can lay the proverbial 4'x8' sheet of plywood flat.

As always, the prime seats are up front and here Honda shines. Just like the Accord, the Pilot's seats are wonderfully comfortable and supportive. The instrument cluster has an interesting new look. The gauges have transparent front faces and the needles are reminiscent of a vintage radio dial. The shift lever has moved from the steering column to the center stack, below and to the left of the audio system. Where the new Pilot falls down is the materials and assembly of the dashboard. The plastics are hard and the textures look cheaper than those in a Honda Fit. Perhaps worst of all is the fit and placement of some the seams. Compared to the current version, the new model looks distinctly cost reduced.

Fortunately, that's really the only area that feels cheaper. The driving experience is vastly improved, beginning with engine noise. The new Pilot has both active engine mounts and active noise cancellation. Combined with the much improved structure, the interior environment of the Pilot is downright serene in everything from the base model up to the new, top-end Touring model. Another advantage of a stiff structure is that it allows the suspension to work more efficiently. The Pilot feels more compliant, soaking up the heavily patched pavement in a controlled and compliant manner. In transient maneuvers, the 4,500-pound Pilot feels lighter and more responsive than the GM Lambda crossovers. That's because, in spite of increased dimensions and equipment, all that previously mentioned high strength steel allowed the weight of the body to be reduced and the overall heft held about even with the old model.

Acceleration feels adequate for the type of vehicle this is, but it certainly won't be confused with some of the more sporting crossovers like Audi Q7 TDI 4.2. On the other hand, the Pilot is skewed more toward the utility side of the equation and those looking for better performance might want to check out the Acura MDX that shares a platform with the Pilot. Still, even a family-oriented utility vehicle needs to be able stop quickly, and the new 13-inch brake rotors front and rear provide a claimed 11-percent reduction in stopping distance. The stability control on the Pilot also compares favorably with other Hondas we've tried. An informal lane change maneuver on a gravel road just off the official test loop showed the stability control to be extremely smooth and effective. The only dynamic issue we found with the Pilot was some torque steer on the front-wheel-drive model.

The test route we drove didn't provide an opportunity to try out the new hill assist system, so we'll have to wait for a longer evaluation period to play with it. Hill assist uses a longitudinal accelerometer to detect when the vehicle is on a hill. If you apply the brakes while the Pilot is stopped on an incline and then release the brakes, the traction control system will hold the pressure in the brakes until you hit the gas pedal. As soon as the throttle opens up the brakes are released.

Overall, the 2009 Honda Pilot isn't likely to set anyone's heart aflutter. It's designed for function, i.e. hauling a bunch of people and/or stuff around in relative comfort. For what this vehicle is supposed to be, it seems very capable. It's smoother, quieter and apparently more fuel efficient than its predecessor, and if you choose the new Touring trim level, equipped to be almost on par with its more expensive Acura sibling, the new Pilot is quite a bargain. If Honda would just take another look at the dashboard materials and the upright face, we'd probably be good to go.

Photos Copyright © 2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      I would totally take a Pontiac Aztek over this pile of pig vomit.

      Looks like the little pink pig from Toy Story had a lascivious affair with an empty Adidas box
      • 7 Years Ago
      and everyone complains that the Chinese are copy cats....this is a Prime example of the japanese copy cats! Honda is a strong car company to have to go an copy bits and parts of the rest of the popular SUV's on the market is ridiculous...

      this looks like a photoshop job on a Nissan Pathfinder lol..
      • 7 Years Ago
      Man this things is ugggly! It amazes me that Honda would build such a tank for a CUV. People tend to be moving away from big oversized SUV's and yet Honda has built a CUV that mimics a SUV (when sales of SUV's are declining drastically. The gas mileage has only improved by one MPG? What happened to Honda being so green?

      I thinks Honda's reign is over. I think GM is about to have their moment in the spotlight.

      Surely the designers must know this thing was a big ugly Hummer like box!

      The interior and the gauges look like something from a child's toys....cheap...cheap cheap. Why does Honda not have uniformity with their look. Should this vehicle not have gauges similiar to the Accord (which is my opinion s not a stellar car either).

      If people buy this they have no brain. I understand brand loyalty but anyone would have to be brain dead to drive something so ugly.
      • 7 Years Ago
      One Word: FUGLY
      • 7 Years Ago
      Ford is making this one for Honda.......
      • 7 Years Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      Yes, it's ugly. All the comments on here about the nasty looks of this car are true.

      And it'll sell because it's a Honda.
        • 7 Years Ago
        The distinction between Honda now and GM in the 70s, 80s and early/mid 90s is that Honda's cars are often ugly (or just odd-looking), but mechanically sound and holistically excellent. GM's cars from the last quarter-century looked ok, but were often poorly designed, engineered and assembled.

        People will forgive ugly. They won't forgive unreliable.
        • 7 Years Ago
        I'm not saying it's based complacency. I'm saying based on consumer patterns, it's likely to sell well despite less-than-stellar looks.

        The 2003-2007 Accord is case in point, along with any number of recent Honda models that have been panned for their styling.
        • 7 Years Ago
        psarhjinian is on target here. The families this was designed for don't have looks as their top priority. Looks certainly weren't the prime consideration when I bought my family hauler, itself technically a Honda (you figure it out) and at ten years old, I couldn't be happier with how it had fulfilled its mission. I hope to keep it another ten years.

        The only real offensive piece is the grille trim (Aftermarketers, ignore my second sentence and get to work!) the rest of the vehicles is just staid. The new Ford Flex certainly does square better and there are a lot other of attractive competitors in this market now, but Honda has repeatedly proven they can deliver what this target market wants.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Why don't they just make the front grill a huge Chrome H so nobody will mistake it? Haha...
      • 7 Years Ago
      looks like a Dodge and I hate that grille
      • 7 Years Ago
      I would have driven it into a canal and forgotten all about it.
      • 7 Years Ago
      As a Pilot owner I am booking a flight to Veracruz or Acadia.

      This looks like a Jeep or a Pathfinder and this is not a good thing to me.
        • 7 Years Ago
        This pretty much sums up what I was thinking. Sure, the Pilot is a fine vehicle. Drives well, has good interior room (xcept the 3rd row).

        But with this design, former Pilot owners are going to see the GMC Acadia and new Chevy Traverse and start really considering those vehicles (and Veracruz). The GM's offer real 3rd row legroom, and good design inside and out. They are made with about the same quality as Honda and Toyota. So Honda may be losing a few customers here.

        I think that pretty much Honda has been hitting most of their product with an ugly stick. Honda Ridgeline, Accord, CR-V, now the Pilot. The Element isn't bad, the Civic is good, and the Odyssey is good. Isn't long until Honda ruins those too. Lets not even get to Acura's grill.
      • 7 Years Ago
      It's the reverse power dome that kills the front-end styling. If someone could photoshop the vehicle with that change, it just might look better. Even with that grill.
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