2004 Honda Pilot
MSRP
$27,100 - $30,870
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Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

The Honda of SUVs.

Introduction

The Pilot is the Honda of sport-utilities, and its strengths should please anyone shopping for a mid-size SUV. It delivers efficiency in packaging and operation, first-rate build quality and Honda's reputation for reliability and durability. The Pilot packs eight seats into an overall package so short that the EPA considers it a compact SUV. Yet its competition is the world's midsize SUVs. The Pilot offers more cargo space than the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Trailblazer, and Toyota Highlander. 

The Honda Pilot also sets the pace dynamically, with a smooth 240-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and the same crisp, predictable handling that have made the Honda Odyssey minivan and Acura MDX SUV hits. It also delivers class-leading EPA mileage ratings. 

In the Pilot's second full model year, Honda has already begun expanding on its impressive flexibility. The second-row seat is now adjustable fore and aft, and its slide feature has more travel for easier access to the three-place third-row seat. 2004 models ordered with the leather interior come with heated front seats and side mirrors. 

Lineup

All Pilots come with all-wheel drive, a V6 engine and a five-speed automatic transmission. Two models are available: LX ($27,100) and EX ($29,470). 

All models are well equipped. Standard equipment on the Pilot LX includes air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, AM/FM stereo, in-dash CD player, front-passenger frontal and side-impact airbags, ABS, power windows, mirrors and door locks, and a rear wiper. 

The EX raises the ante with aluminum alloy wheels, body-colored molding, door handles and exterior mirrors, a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, synchronized front and rear automatic climate control, an outside temperature indicator, HomeLink garage-door remote and a more powerful seven-speaker stereo with that adds a cassette and steering-wheel controls. 

As usual, Honda keeps it simple, by offering a limited number of options in three packages. In fact, the company prices Pilots as separate models with the packages; we'll list them by what it will cost beyond the price of the EX, which brings us to another familiar practice. If you want to upgrade with any of the extras, you can't start with the base model. The option packages for the EX include leather interior ($1,400) with heated front seats and side mirrors. The entertainment package ($2,900) includes the leather package and rear-seat DVD video system. The navigation package ($3400) adds leather and a satellite-linked guidance system. There are also a number of factory-approved, dealer-installed options, including a towing package and brush guards. 

Compared to 2003, Pilot prices reflect a modest increase of $200 for each model. Yet Honda's pricing policy has its drawbacks. If you want alloy wheels on an LX, you'll have to go the aftermarket or buy from the dealer's inventory, at the dealer's price. If you want the DVD video without the fancy interior or other EX upgrades, Honda won't sell it to you. 

Walkaround

The Honda Pilot gracefully borrows key styling cues from Honda's smaller, more familiar CR-V sport-utility. The grille and headlights are a careful enlargement of the CR-V's fluid wraparound face. 

The wheel arches are aggressive enough to offset any impression that this is a toy truck, but subtle enough to be consistent with the Pilot's likely hangouts in upscale neighborhoods and suburban mall parking lots. Large Honda badges on the grille and liftgate make it clear that the company is proud of the Pilot, and expects customers to feel the same way. 

The Pilot looks smaller than it is. Its styling belies the cavernous space inside. 

Honda has limited the amount of matte-black plastic bodywork that seems to be increasingly popular on sport-utilities, and we appreciate that. Body-colored moldings give the Pilot EX a more refined, upscale look. The Pilot's only nod to this allegedly rugged SUVness is the step on the rear bumper (a good thing) and rubberized plastic guards under both bumpers. Roof rails are standard on the EX, but if you want the crossbars that actually turn them into a true cargo rack, you'll have to get them as an accessory from your dealer. 

Interior

The Honda Pilot packs an amazingly large amount of interior room into its small overall package. The middle seats are comfortable for adults, but when legroom is maximized for the second row, the third-row seats are strictly for young children or short trips. On the other hand, few SUVs offer seating for eight. Those that offer seven don't often include the rear seats as standard equipment, and many mid-size SUVs don't offer the extra seating at all. 

Moreover, the Pilot's seating/cargo arrangements are exceptionally versatile. Both rows of rear seats split 60/40 to fold, for a mix of people and stuff that suits the moment. 

The second- and third-row seats are slightly higher than those ahead, theater style, improving forward visibility for passengers. The second-row seatbacks recline, albeit with limited range, and this year the second row can slide forward or backward in its locked position, allowing leg room for the second and third rows to be adjusted according to the size of the passengers. The pass-through to the third seat, already one of the easiest going, has also been improved. With one motion, a lever on the seat edge allows the second seatback to pivot forward while the entire seat slides forward (further than before). The seat returns to its original position by pushing on the seat back. 

The second seat folds away easily with one lever accessed through the rear passenger doors. A four-bar linkage automatically drops the seat flush to the floor. There are no gaps to limit the ease of sliding cargo, and there's room for a lot of cargo. 

With both rear rows folded flat, the Pilot offers 90.3 cubic feet of cargo space. That's considerably more than the GMC Envoy or Chevy Trailblazer (80.1 cubic feet), Ford Explorer (81.3) or Toyota Highlander (81.4). Moreover, the Pilot's load floor is four feet wide, allowing full sheets of building materials to fit inside. 

The Pilot's front seats are spacious, with two comfortable buckets and a versatile center console. The seats give excellent access to all the controls and the view out is excellent in all directions, with as little obstruction as you'll find in an SUV. The LX model's manual seat adjustments are simple but effective. 

In a particularly clever move, Honda made the largest dial in the center of the instrument panel a switch to shift the audio controls from front- to rear-seat audio. Several observers with young children immediately recognized this as the control they would use most, and they appreciated its large size and central placement. The other instruments and controls will be familiar to anyone who has driven a Honda. The company seldom varies much from the layout that for decades has proven to be a model of ergonomics. Most of the Pilot's switches operate with a satisfying, positive action. 

All is not perfect inside the Pilot, however. The minivan-like column shifter is spindly and moves in an ovoid path, like that of the Odyssey. The thin, sliding plastic lid over the center console works fine, but is not aesthetically appealing and sounds cheap when you drop a set of keys on top of it. Buttresses on the sides of the center console look like they'll collect detritus. The fold-out cell-phone holder with a power outlet seems at first a nice feature, but blocks the two cupholders in front of it. Nonetheless, the console provides plenty of storage space in a compartment behind the cell-phone holder (where our cell phone ended up most of the time). A covered compartment located below the Pilot's center stack provides more storage in the space between the console and the instrument panel. 

The Pilot is loaded with kid-friendly stuff. There's a cupholder for every seat and pockets on the seatbacks in the first two rows. The EX includes a second-row fold-down activity tray with more cupholders and storage for pocket-sized electronic games or fast food, including a little spot that cradles sau. 

Driving Impression

The Honda Pilot shares its platform with the Acura MDX sport-utility and Odyssey minivan, both highly successful vehicles. Like the MDX and Odyssey, the Pilot is a joy in daily use. While its flexible and roomy interior belies its official status as a compact SUV, its maneuverability, handling and ease of parking quickly remind you what an efficient vehicle Honda has created. 

The Pilot shares virtually all its key mechanical systems (engine, transmission, all-wheel-drive system, and brakes) with the more expensive Acura MDX, and it shows. The Pilot's road manners seem just a little better than necessary to compete in this class. Pilot was developed primarily for highways and city streets, though its ground clearance, suspension travel and standard tires are fine for light off-highway duty. 

The 240-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is more than adequate to propel the Pilot, which weighs in at 4400 pounds. Acceleration is excellent, particularly in the 30-60 mph range that matters most in daily use. The Pilot outguns the V6-powered Toyota Highlander by 20 horsepower. More important, the engine produces 245 pounds-feet of torque from 3000 to 5000 rpm. That compares to 222 pounds-feet at 4400 rpm for the V6 Highlander. GM's midsize SUVs, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada, offer a 4.2-liter straight-six producing 270 horsepower and 275 pounds-feet of torque, but those truck-based sport-utilities are about 200 pounds heavier than the Pilot. And they don't have five-speed automatic transmissions. 

The Pilot's transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, even under hard acceleration. The electronically controlled automatic benefits from Honda's Grade Logic Control system, which monitors throttle position, speed and acceleration to avoid hunting between gears. The transmission's computer controller holds lower gears longer than normal for better performance going up hills, or to provide engine braking on downhill grades. 

The all-wheel-drive system is Honda's full-time VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management 4WD) with an electronically locking rear differential. Most power is delivered to the front wheels, but Honda's AWD is a bit more proactive than most similar systems. Others send more power to the back only when the wheels slip. Honda's system doesn't wait for the front wheels to slip to spread the power around, it does so anytime the driver accelerates. The push-button differential lock improves traction in extremely slippery or stuck conditions by making sure both rear tires get power. So equipped, Honda rates the Pilot for what it calls medium off-road duty, including 30-degree dirt grades. 

The Pilot's speed-variable rack-and-pinion steering provides good feedback and adjusts power assist smoothly as the SUV accelerates. The steering wheel returns to center comfortably and intuitively for maneuvers in parking lots and tight driveways. 

Overall ride and handling compares better to midsize cars than to truck-based SUVs. The Pilot is stable at highway speeds, nimble in parking lots and sufficiently well-damped to run over winter-buckled and pothole-laden urban streets without discomfiting its passengers. The steering wheel transmits road conditions enough to keep the driver informed without jerking the wheel at every pavement disruption. Passengers in the second-row seats found the ride equally comfortable, but the third row suffered somewhat from being right over the rear wheels. 

Unlike some SUVs, the Pilot has enough sound insulation to prevent bumps in the road from being transmitted to the interior as noise. Given their cavernous interiors, it's not uncommon for SUVs to become booming echo chambers on rough roads. Even on Michigan's notoriously ragged freeways, the Pilot's interior remained quiet enough to carry on a normal conversation. 

The Pilot felt stable and secure during simulated emergency maneuvers. The suspension behaves exceptional. 

Summary

The Honda Pilot is a reasonably priced, good-looking, practical sport-utility that offers exceptional interior space, excellent comfort and good power for the money. It brings Honda values, including an overall efficiency of design and operation, excellent build quality and a reputation for reliability to the medium-size SUV class. It also brings Honda's pricing strategy, which means choices for individual options are limited. You'll have to buy the high-trim EX if you want any options. 

Need true off-road ability to climb steep, unpaved hills or traverse bolder fields? The Pilot won't fit the bill. Need to make it down a rough dirt road to a cottage on the lake, or along a forest trail to an undeveloped campsite? Pilot is up to the job. If what you need more than anything is the family-friendly versatility of a minivan, with the security presented by all-wheel drive and the higher seating position of an SUV, then give Pilot serious consideration. 

In a world where many SUVs take up far more space than their utility justifies, and drink far more gas than their performance merits, the Pilot is a breath of fresh air. 

Model Lineup

Honda Pilot LX ($27,100); EX ($29,470). 

Assembled In

Alliston, Ontario, Canada. 

Options As Tested

Leather/Entertainment package ($2,900) includes leather first and second row seats, heated front seats and mirrors, and DVD entertainment system with seven-inch drop-down screen, remote and two wireless headphones. 

Model Tested

Honda Pilot EX ($29,470). 

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