2016 Honda Pilot vs 2015 Toyota Highlander

Two Family Hauling Favorites

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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.

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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?

Highlander-vs-Pilot-44

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.

Compare Specs

2016 Honda Pilot
vs
2015 Toyota Highlander
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
Starting Price(US) $30,875 - $30,650
Starting Price(CDN) $37,185 Highlander $34,505
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.

Highlander-vs-Pilot-39

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.

Highlander-vs-Pilot-05

Value Wash

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.

Highlander-vs-Pilot-12

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.

Highlander-vs-Pilot-33

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

  • wcjeep

    The Honda 9spd is more problematic than this article would suggest. It should be avoided. The lower tier Pilot has a 6spd. We found the 2015 Highlander front seats lacking lower back support.

  • Paul Allen

    We bought the EX-L AWD version last summer and WE LOVE IT!!!

  • Dersan

    Oakville!! Dundas and Neyagawa looks nice. Ps great review too. We just bought a pilot exL and are waiting for delivery.

  • Christopher Schaffer

    As an owner of a 2010, and later, 2013, Pilot, I’ve been looking to “upgrade” or “modernize” to a newer model or jump ship to another brand. I’ve been looking at everything from the Kia Sorento/Hyundai Santa Fe, to the BMW GL450 and everything in between. Allow me to share some of what I’ve learned:

    BMW: This thing has two ashtrays! I hate smoking. Can’t even stand the word “ashtray”. Worse, the 12V in the front is only IN THE ASHTRAY! (I can’t remember if one is on the console, but I don’t recall seeing one) The second row is fixed, so no sliding back. Navigating the infotainment system is a bit cumbersome. Switch gear is oddly place it seems (And on the 2012 model it’s even worse). 3rd row is OK. Not a lot of room behind it, though every picture would make it appear otherwise. Running boards aren’t useful and get in the way more than anything. Tows 7200 or 7500 pounds- more than anything else short of a dualie. No body roll at all. Nice to drive, but lacking any sort of nook and cranny storage. A used, well-equipped 2014 model on the lot with 25K on the odometer was $64K. No thanks. The vehicle was “pre-wired” for the entertainment screens, but they weren’t installed. FUGLY. They look like huge ashtrays on the back of the headrests. Headrests are electronically adjustable up and down, and they can also move fore and aft. But then, so do the Kia/Hyundai models. Rear glass in the hatch doesn’t open. Also, while the previous owner opted for the heated seats, they didn’t get the vented option. Dumb. Another dumb thing: the abbreviated third row sunroof is kinda small and only goes over the third row- nothing for anyone in the second. Huh?!?!

    Kia/Hyundai: Basically the same vehicles, but I much prefer the layout and dash of the Hyundai over the Kia, though the Kia has more frivolous options like “puddle lighting” and a washer fluid heater (well, that last one is frivolous here in the Southland). The upper-trim level Kia sucks because you get black, white, and two shades of grey/silver, and only two interior options. The upper-trim Hyundai sucks because it only comes with Captain’s chairs. I don’t like those. At all. A fully-loaded Hyundai doesn’t even hit $40K, while the Kia’s is mid-$40’s. Both cars give those in the very usable third row their own HVAC controls! (but that also means those in the second are stuck with whatever the front passengers want) As in the Beemer, the headrests adjust fore and aft…very nice indeed! Rear glass in the hatch doesn’t open in either. Vented seats are awesome. Nice panoramic roof. Thumping stereo!

    Dodge: Love the infotainment system; totally setup the car without the dealer’s help with my preferences in like 3 minutes- it’s that effin’ easy! Lumbar support adjusts up/down AND in/out (like the Kia and Hyundai). 2nd row also doesn’t slide (same as the Beemer), but sitting in the second row feels like you’re sitting right up on the back of the front seats (unlike the Beemer), and those backs don’t look very good at all. The DVD screens really make things claustrophobic, so skip it. Third row is very comfy and not too difficult to get into; it’s a nice place to sit and everything is right where it should be to comfortably rest your head and arms. Speaking of head, the headrests are awesome- they have a concave shape to them so they cuddle your head. The dial gear selector is instantly familiar the first time you use it. Not sure about all of the red and blue lighting inside; seems a bit cheap. Also, opting for the DVD or the CD player will mean you can kiss any storage in the center console goodbye, as that is where they go. I love how you can reconfigure the layout of the instrument panel! Styling is weird- looks great from the front, but like a quadruple amputee; there are absolutely no points of interest or character lines in the body at all. Upper-trim Citadel comes in at low $40s. I like, but there’s the Dodge name and some cheap details I don’t. Never got comfortable parking it, and it’s almost as long as a Sequoia, which barely fit in my garage. Rear glass doesn’t open. Also has vented seats, though the controls are oddly placed in the infotainment system instead of using a physical button. No matter the color you choose, the headliner is black and that makes the passengers feel closed-in. The voice commands WORK PERECTLY!

    Sequoia: Too outdated a design. Doesn’t have much towing capacity, especially considering its size and engine. TPMS tells you you have low tire pressure, but not which tire! Running boards are needed and are useful. Thing has more interior space than my house! Third row spanks the first two rows of just about anything out there hands-down. Awful to drive, awful mileage, runs like a bat out of hell…step down on the go-pedal and hold on! Floats way too much. Neither my Note 4 or the dealer’s iPhone would connect for more than a few seconds. Strange. Priced in the mid $60s for all the goodies. Don’t remember if it had vented seats or not.

    Toyota: THIRD ROW SUCKS, PLAIN AND SIMPLE!! Just like the article mentioned, even if you could bear being back there, those headrest make you pay for it from moment one. I didn’t think the shelf was going to be that useful because I don’t believe it had a non-stick surface, which would mean everything would slide about. Also, it needed to be segregated in order to keep the little things separated. The center console is HUGE AND DEEP- my 1.5 liter Fiji water bottle was absolutely swallowed by it. I had to move the slidable tray all the way forward and use just the front opening, and even then it was barely above it! Seats were flat, uncomfortable, and provide NO BOLSTERING. Awful. Panoramic roof was awesome. Vented and heated seat controls were very easy to use. Big plus: glass hatch opens! Bonus points also for being able to have the headliner have a lighter color to open things up. Too much money for too little car. (High $40s) Sales manager was a little prick, too. Arrogant as hell. Voice was OK. Stereo system was anemic as hell- GOD AWFUL!

    Mazda: Tested in 2008/2009…the most fun to drive. decent interior styling, but frankly, it kinda sucks hard. Third row is painful.

    Suburban/Yukon: $70K+ for these? Are they nuts?!?! If you don’t get the XL variants, then be prepared for a really crappy and unusable third row.

    Enclave: Sweet ride, but not for nearly $50K, 16 MPG, and a mere 2500 towing capacity.

    Nissan/Infinity: Not interested in either the Mallfinder or the QX60.

    Lexus: YUCK. Had three of them (a sedan, an RX300, and an RX330). Total wastes of money. Weak engines, saggy suspension, rear DVD screen BLOCKS the rear view mirror (something that also occurs in the Toyota). Sold the 330 to CarMax for only a few hundred dollar profit and bought a 2010 Pilot.

    Pilot: Ugh, what da fuk? This is what you get when you cross a CR-V (handsome), with an Odyssey (also good looking), but somehow the resulting progeny is ugly as hell. Nice storage nooks everywhere (though they removed a lot from the earlier model). Center console is just a large hole with no shelving or anything. Push-button tranny is an abomination to mankind…totally awkward to use. I HATE ARM RESTS AS MUCH AS CAPTAINS CHAIRS!! Push-button access is cool as heck; there are buttons on the sides as well as the backs of the second row, so those in the third can get themselves out. Third row is very useful. Love how there’s adjustable floor in the rear, though I am lamenting the loss of covered storage nooks back there. Straps to pull the seats up/down are a downgrade to the previous design. An absolute travesty that you have to shell-out nearly $50K to get vented seats, a panoramic moonroof, , HID lighting (hey Honda- my 2005 Mazda3 SP23 has HID lights!), and all the while, losing a seating position (again, I HATE CAPTAINS CHAIRS)! That lane departure thing needs to be jettisoned- when I took it out for a test drive, it was raining pretty hard, and when driving around some familiar roads, it felt like I was hydroplaning, when it fact, it was just one of the onboard systems trying to do something to get my attention. Well it did- I turned it all off. Very unsettling. Dash panel is awesome. Still, overall, the best room of any vehicle in this class other than Sequoia. Get the Dark Forest Pearl with black wheels- totally super. BTW, when you order those black wheels, those are in ADDITION to the stock wheels, so make room for the OEMs or sell’em on eBay. Towing capacity is a fraud- if you want the max of 5000 pounds, you spend like $400 for the hitch but what they don’t tell you is that there is ALSO ANOTHER $1000 charge for the necessary coolers and such. This isn’t spelled out anywhere on the website. Otherwise, you’ll be pulling 3500 pounds- 500 less than my 2013. Still the WORSE NAV SYSTEM EVER DEVISED! VOICE CONTROLS SUCK!! I can’t remember if the hatch opens or not. Drive and handling seemed fine. The Start/Stop thing IS AWFUL. At first I couldn’t figure out why there was this awkward thump/surge when leaving a stop light. So it seems that a lot of the driver assist things you’re paying for need to be turned-off in order to enjoy the ride. If you opt for the lower-priced EX-L models, you have to chose between the entertainment system, navigation, OR the driver assist things. Dealers are price gouging on these vehicles, but I gotta tell you- I’ve been seeing a lot of 2016s in the used car sections of every dealer (sans Kia/Hyundai), I went to. What’s that tell you? Biggest disappointment of the bunch since I’ve come to love the usability of the last two Pilot’s I’ve owned.

    MDX: What a joke. All of the Pilot’s failings and even uglier and costlier. I tried out a 2009 model before buying the Pilot and discovered that if you didn’t sit in either of the 4 main seating positions, you’re effed. Third row was unusable, even for a chihuahua. Doubt if they fixed that. Same idiotic 9-speed/push button tranny as in the Pilot.

    I am picky as heck about my car because it’s the main family hauler on the long trips. Three adults, two young kids, 3 large suitcases, 2 roller dufflebags, several smaller bags and whatevers. I appreciate how the Pilot (2010/13/16), eats it all up and asks for more. I also have a Catrike, so if the car can’t handle everything (with luggage inside), then it just isn’t going to be parked in my garage. The Kia/Hyundai were going to force me to use my cargo hitch tray (but I would’ve accepted that); the dodge fit everything nicely. The Highlander was tight as heck and the dufflebags weren’t even filled! I didn’t even try the Beemer or Sequoia (the former because it has too many interior flaws and the latter because, well, because!).

    And when I am not traveling, me and the boys are going out on Scouting trips, and I don’t pack light (9 years in the infantry and I don’t ‘rough’ it when camping anymore!); 10-man tent, 10×10 pop-up shelter, toilet/shower tent, tables, stove, propane tank/bottles, water tank, food, chairs, fishing gear, heater, change of clothes for three days for all of us, etc. My Pilot sucks it all up inside without a whimper.

    Surprisingly, my wife’s 2015 CR-V can EASILY suck up all of the luggage as well in its cargo hold, though I dunno about fitting three people back there on a long trip. It almost also fits my Catrike and probably could with some work. Camping trips would be out of the question since there isn’t a receiver installed, so nowhere to put the larger items.

    I am looking forward to the new CX-9, but am not encouraged by some early reporting that the 3rd row is tighter than before. I also don’t really dig the round center design on the steering wheel.

    Seriously, it’s looking like I’ll be in this Pilot until the kids move out, but that’s OK. Other than the brake rotors being woefully inadequate (4 brake jobs in less than 3 years/54,000 miles), it’s been rock-solid. Steady 20 MPG average on regular. And in two years it’s paid off, so that’ll free up funds for me to get a BMW R1200RT. 🙂

  • Mike

    Agree with most of what you said, but the CRV is not handsome. Homely. The new Pilot looks like another homely Honda, the Odyssey. Honda designs lately are horrid. The new HRV is also an ugly duckling. Same with the new Fit. My brother in law and sister just bought a new Sequoia. It’s looks are timeless. I don’t agree with your outdated outtake. But storage isn’t that great. I like their Sequoia. I call it The Beast. Just a magnificent vehicle.

  • Mike

    Honda’s weak points are their transmissions.

  • wcjeep

    I think the 2016 EX L Pilot has the 6spd? My comment is very specific to the 9spd. We had a different vehicle with the same manufacturer 9spd transmission. It might be worse than a CVT?

  • Christopher Schaffer

    I don’t think Odyssey is fugly; I mean, for a minivan and all. Same with CR-V, but Honda as a whole is sucking hind tit in the transmission department- my wife’s CR-V is awful and loud. I was in a parking garage today and thankful I didn’t have a vehicle the size of Sequoia to squeeze through.

  • Christopher Schaffer

    One thing I didn’t mention about the new Pilot and Highlander: Those straps on the back of the third row are a really bad idea. If you’re loading a large or heavy item into the cargo area and slide it over those straps, then it’s going to catch those straps and the Velcro straps will rip away from the Velcro pad glued on the back of the seat. I’ve already seen two brand new never sold vehicles (1 Pilot, 1 Highlander), where this has already happened…and that’s from the factory! They should’ve stuck to the recessed handles, as in the previous model Pilot.

  • Gustion

    Say I do believe you have miss typed BMW where you were supposed to type MB. because, MB makes the GL with the third row. I have owned the ML and the GL and can tell you that the ML is a nice looker and functionally adequate, the Nav and entertainment system in both are classic antiques in modern cars why? ML styling 100 percent on mark for exterior, interior is a greyhound bus, similar interior for GL but its exterior also comes close to a greyhound. In diesel heart both are fantastic for mpg and torque. ML is a bit bouncier due to the shorter distance between axles compared to GL. ML no third row, GL yes third row with push button electric. Under floor storage in both to a degree. Quality of paint sucks in both and the greyhound quality stuff on the interior is a sad reflection on the brand.
    BMW X5 is a great substitute for the ML, it has lots of toys and panoroof, all around camera etc. But the shifter is a bit of a chore to get used to as is the infotainment system. Sound quality is awesome but the controls are skewed to some weird algorithm. Handling is wow as is the diesel mpg for this type of SUV same for the towing capacity. Diesels rock in this segment until they start making some good hybrid technology with guts. The gutless Highlander hybrid is a sad contraption.

  • Christopher Schaffer

    Me make mistakes? ha! never! lol

    Fixed it- thanks for the catch!

    I too can’t understand how these “premium” German brands keep missing the mark on so many details. I’d love to see if a rumored X7 (three row version of the X5), ever comes to pass.

  • Cynthia Ceb

    “butched up” Really? You’re a professional writer, and that is the best you could come up with? How about bold, powerful, strong…the list goes on.

  • Naang Phet

    Haha so how much did you eran for praising toyota over a premium built commercial suv?lol! Your toyopet sucks all throughout. Its a personal expetience. Its cheap. Period.

  • chitown

    You really should update this to mention the issues the Pilot’s 9-speed is having. It’s generally considered an option to absolutely avoid at this point (which sadly means ignoring its top trim levels). One of the most problematic transmissions in recent history. The 6-speeds are great though. Just don’t go above the EX-L.