In the 1990s, it was the Accord and Camry wagons that ruled.
By the early 2000s, it was all about the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. Today, it’s the large crossovers, the Pilot and the Highlander. For decades, Honda and Toyota have been locked in a battle for family hauling supremacy and now it’s time for another round.
In the red corner, we have the recently redesigned Toyota Highlander. It wants to prove that when it comes to three-row crossovers, there can only be one – choice. But in the blue corner is the completely redesigned 2016 Honda Pilot that’s ready to fly its way to victory.
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New, Less Boxy Pilot
With minivans continuing to carry a stigma that many people don’t want to be associated with, three-row crossovers really have taken over as the choice for large families, even if they essentially are just butched up minivans offering all-wheel drive.
This makes the introduction of a new Pilot a big deal for Honda. Instantly, it’s obvious this is a very different looking Pilot. Gone is the boxy shape that was a trademark of the old model. At 194.5 inches in length, the new Pilot is a few inches longer than the old one, but is actually down on weight, tipping the scales at 4,317 pounds as tested.
Fancy Pilot or MDX Lite?
With a new 3.5-liter V6 making 280 hp, it also has a lot more power. Straight-line speed in the Pilot is noticeably faster now, which has a lot to do with the transmission. By opting for the Touring or Elite trim, the regular six-speed automatic transmission is ditched in favor of a nine-speed auto stolen borrowed from the Acura MDX. Although this transmission can be a bit slow to downshift under normal driving conditions, when speed is called for, it gets the most out of the V6 engine.
It’s also smooth in operation, much like the engine. It’s just too bad that it comes equipped with a slow-to-react, cumbersome start/stop system. Thankfully, that can be turned off.
SEE ALSO: 2016 Honda Pilot Review
The name Pilot is fitting for this vehicle, as it feels like captaining an airliner. The Pilot is definitely not small, even compared to the Highlander that is more than three-inches shorter. To help the Pilot negotiate corners, it can come with a variable torque management all-wheel-drive system. But if you’re driving this rig hard enough to engage the system, you might be in the wrong vehicle.
The Pilot is more about carrying passengers than carving corners and its ride comfort may be its best attribute. It’s great. The suspension is soft without floating down the road.
So What About the Highlander?
So how does the Highlander stack up? Well, it too has a 3.5-liter V6 engine and optional all-wheel drive. It is down 10 horsepower compared to the Pilot and continues to use a more traditional six-speed automatic. Add in a higher curb weight of 4,464 pounds as tested, and the Highlander definitely feels slower in a straight line.
Like the Pilot, the Highlander is easy to drive and an agreeable vehicle to operate. But the Toyota is lacking that final dollop of refinement that the Pilot has when it comes to ride comfort, transmission operation and road noise.
|Vehicle||2016 Honda Pilot||Advantage||2015 Toyota Highlander|
|Engine||3.5 L V6||-||3.5 L V6|
|Horsepower||280 HP||Pilot||270 HP|
|Torque||262 lb-ft.||Pilot||248 lb-ft.|
|Weight||4,317 lbs.||Pilot||4,464 lbs.|
|2nd Row Legroom||38.4-inches||-||38.4-inches|
|3rd Row Legroom||31.9-inches||Pilot||27.7-inches|
|Rear Cargo||18.0 cubic feet||Pilot||13.8 cubic feet|
|Fuel Economy (US)||19 MPG city, 26 MPG hwy||Pilot||18 MPG city, 24 MPG hwy|
|Fuel Economy (CDN)||12.4 L/100 km city, 9.3 L/100 km hwy||Pilot||13.0 L/100 km city, 9.8 L/100 km hwy|
|Fuel Economy Observed||22.6 mpg||Pilot||19.9 mpg|
|Top Trim Price(US)||$47,300||Highlander||$45,025|
|Top Trim Price(CDN)||$52,185||Highlander||$48,180|
The View Inside
Honda has redesigned the front passenger pod of the Pilot well, but Toyota’s extra attention to detail up front shows. All of the Highlander’s controls are laid out in a logical, easy-to-use format. I love the floating shelf between the center console and the dashboard in the Highlander for storing items like wallets, keys and phones.
Toyota’s infotainment system absolutely trounces Honda’s and the display screen in the Pilot is set at too sharp of angle, allowing glare from the moonroof and windshield to distort the view. One complaint I have up front in the Toyota is the driver’s seat. The top of the seat back feels too cushioned around the shoulders, forcing them forward. And, strangely, if you opt for the Elite version of the Pilot, the fantastic Lane Watch camera is taken away and replaced by blind spot monitors.
Equipment wise, both vehicles can come loaded all the latest technology like adaptive cruise control, rear cross traffic alert, a rear entertainment system and lane departure warning. The Pilot one-ups things by offering active lane keep while Toyota counters with the brand’s Easy Speak system, which allows the driver to talk to passengers in the third row through the vehicle’s speakers and Bluetooth. If it’s up to me, I’ll gladly take Easy Speak over lane keep.
Loaded to the gills, the Highlander holds a price advantage, costing $45,025 after destination charges compared to $47,300 for a loaded Pilot. Overall, value is a wash, though as the Highlander came up short during real world fuel economy testing, averaging an observed 19.9 mpg compared to the Pilot’s 22.6 mpg average.
But It’s All About Passengers and Cargo
Passenger space is obviously important in a large crossover, and Honda has done its homework. There is ample space in the second row for adult passengers and comfort is quite good. But it’s the third row that’s the big news. It’s one of the most spacious in the segment, offering enough headroom for someone my height, although legroom is a bit tight and the seat cushion is set a bit low. Getting in and out of the Pilot’s third row of seats is good, as there’s ample room to maneuver. Making things super simple is a single button on the second row seat that tilts and slides it forward flawlessly.
The second row seats in the Highlander offer plenty of room for adult passengers as well and I’d give the overall comfort edge to the Toyota. But with everything from there to the rear tailgate, it’s a different story.
SEE ALSO: Toyota Highlander Review – Video
The third row of seats are some of the worst in the segment. Headroom is lacking, legroom is lacking and the headrest, even when raised, digs into the backs and necks of a lot passengers. The third row is usually the domain of children, but even some adolescents will have a hard time cramming back there. And entry to the third row isn’t as good either. The one pull lever to get into third row works fine, but not as good as Pilot’s button and the actual entry passageway into the Highlander’s third row is tighter.
With 18 cubic feet of storage space behind the third row, the Pilot also has one of the larger cargo areas in the segment, easily beating the Highlander’s 13.8 cubic foot storage area. With both rows of seats folded down, Honda continues to hold the advantage offering 108.5 cubic feet of space compared to the Toyota’s 83.2 cubic feet of storage.
The Verdict: 2016 Honda Pilot vs 2015 Toyota Highlander
The Highlander and Pilot are both compelling in their own right. Toyota holds a slight edge in ergonomics and fit and finish, while the Pilot excels in comfort, refinement and performance. But larger family haulers are intended to haul large families. And here it’s no contest. The Pilot offers more space without the usual penalties in big weight or poor fuel economy. It looks like this round goes to Honda.
2016 Honda Pilot
2015 Toyota Highlander