First Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot

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 dia l. 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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