2009 Honda Pilot

Honda does utility, well, the Honda way

2009 Honda Pilot

FAST FACTS

1. All models feature a 250hp 3.5-liter V6 engine with cylinder deactivation that gets 16/22 mpg (city/highway).

2. A Split-folding tailgate and flat-folding luggage floor increase utility and space.

3. The new Pilot is one of the heaviest vehicles Honda has made, at over 4,600lbs with every option on board.

You may think the 2009 Honda Pilot looks strange because of its boxy looks. But when square things are good, they’re really good. Take, for instance, the instant joy a woman gets when opening a baby blue Tiffany & Co. jewelry box. Or that FedEx, a hugely successful company worldwide, earns its keep by dealing almost exclusively with boxes.

And although the Honda Pilot was never a jellybean-shaped SUV, the new clean sheet design surely owes more to origami than to papier-mché. This, you’ll see, translates into more room inside and the room to implement some minivan-like tricks.

DAUNTINGLY COMPLEX INTERIOR

Once past the oblique dashboard that looks more like a granite rock face than a dashboard, you’re treated to buttons surrounded by light blue plastic — a treatment that looked to me like a waterfall. You won’t have to worry about drowning from water though; instead, you might drown in a sea of complexity as the sheer number of buttons, switches, and toggles is mesmerizing and daunting. The centre console has a wonderful minivan-esque trick, though: it can slide forward to reveal a plastic cavern in between the front seats, perfect for storing purses. 

In fact, there are more cubbyholes in the Pilot than in a pirate ship. I counted.

In the lower trim levels, like the LX, there are many buttons — but in the Touring models with navigation, you’ll count over 50. I drove the Touring, with more features than your local cinema: eight-way power driver’s seat, leather interior, 512-watt AM/FM/6CD stereo with subwoofer, XM radio, USB audio input, programmable multi-information display, trip computer, power tailgate, keyless entry, three-zone climate control, navigation, Bluetooth handsfree calling, rear DVD entertainment system, and parking sensors.

Did I mention it has a restaurant finder with Zagat ratings built in that will read its stored restaurant reviews back to you?

THE COMPETITION

The sheer technology wired through the Honda must strike fear into its rivals. Occupying a strange space in the market, the Pilot is neither a gung-ho traditional SUV like the Ford Explorer, nor is it a car in XL clothing like the Hyundai Veracruz. Other competitors include the Nissan Murano, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse, and Mazda CX-9.

In fact, when picking apart the Pilot competitor by competitor, it’s clear just how “middle-of-the-road” Honda plays their cards. Take the sporty Mazda CX-9, for instance. A higher starting price than the Pilot but makes up for it by offering a larger 3.7L engine with more power (273 vs 250). At the highest trim level, the CX-7 also undercuts the Honda on price by almost $4000.  Honda claws back with better fuel economy (16 city, 22 highway vs 15 / 21), seating for more passengers (8 vs 7), more cargo space, and a slightly more robust active 4WD system.

Even against the Toyota Highlander and Chevrolet Traverse the Pilot holds its ground well. Though the Highlander Limited is less expensive than the Pilot, the Traverse LTZ 1LZ is more expensive than both, at $41, 025. The Highlander has less cargo space than the Pilot with the 3rd row up, and though the Traverse beats them both on power, it is less efficient and heavier than both.

The Honda isn’t the sportiest, fastest, most efficient, or best-equipped in its class — but it’s a damn good blend of attributes people actually want in a vehicle this size.

ON THE ROAD

Pray there isn’t a strong headwind, or the Pilot can feel labored to reach highway speeds. Blame its pug nose and heavy weight, a sports car this ain’t.

For its class, it handles well but is very stiff over bumps, making me question just why a kid-slash-utility hauler such as this needs to ride like it does. If you live in South Florida this likely isn’t a concern — but in the Northern climate, a pair of train tracks can really rail your backside.

Utility, though, lends itself to things I really enjoy in a vehicle: excellent visibility and good fuel economy once up to speed. The Pilot (on all trim levels) has cylinder deactivation for the V6 engine — shutting off cylinders at highway speeds. Yes, it actually works.

IMPRESSIVE SAFETY LIST

Dual front, dual side, and three-row side curtain airbags? Check. Vehicle stability control with traction control? Check. ABS brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, and tire pressure monitoring? Check. Third row child seat tethers and child-proof door locks? Check.

All this adds up to top marks in NHTSA and IIHS crash tests. Impressive.

THE VERDICT

The latest Pilot proves one misunderstood mantra among car buyers: people don’t want a new car, they want a better one. For 2009, the Pilot is better in every way than its predecessor, and still strikes a chord through the needs and wants of most buyers. It may not be the fastest, cheapest, or best handling…but it’s a box.

POSITVE

Overall efficiency
Utility
Ride

NEGATIVE

Looks, though very much a personal preference
Drab interior trim on base models
Pricey

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