2016 Honda Pilot

First Drive Review

The advent of a second child in a couple’s life can mean many things: the demise of romance, the start of sibling rivalry, and the purchase of a three-row SUV. As the latter has all but usurped the minivan as the most popular kid-schlepper, the Honda Pilot has risen to become a go-to choice for frazzled parents. The Pilot is rarely seen without at least one magnet displaying allegiance to a school or sport—as well as those annoying stick-family decals—and its ubiquity is a testament to its competence, not its pleasantness.

Honda reliability, a roomy interior, and a practical shape are what sell the Pilot. Absent is any sense of style or indulgent luxury. The new 2016 Pilot seeks to amend that and, in so doing, take some of the drudgery out of parenthood—even as it delves further into its role as a minivan proxy.

Always competent, the Pilot didn’t need a rethink, just refinement. For the third-generation model, that refinement starts with the styling. Honda tells us that the number-one reason SUV shoppers bypassed the old Pilot was its styling, and indeed, the previous model looks like it might have been designed using Duplo blocks. Whereas the old version tried to look tough, the new model prefers to be sleek, employing a unified side-glass area, swept-back corners on the familial Honda front end, and a friendly upkick at the tail end of the beltline. The front and rear are brightened with LED lighting, and 20-inch wheels are now available.

The new Pilot is slightly larger—by 1.6 inches in wheelbase, 3.5 inches in length—and yet its additional inches did not bring with them additional pounds. In fact, Honda claims the Pilot has slimmed down by as much as 286 pounds. Its weight of roughly 4100 to 4400 pounds (depending on equipment) are commendably svelte for this portly class. As busy parents know, family duty often is a recipe for packing on extra pounds, so give the new Pilot a supportive round of applause for its weight-loss success. (As on The Biggest Loser, however, we’ll need to verify the lightening on a set of scales.)

A 3.5-liter V-6 again powers the Pilot, but this is a new, direct-injected engine. A variant of the unit in the Acura MDX, it makes 10 fewer horsepower here but runs on regular fuel. Its output figures of 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque handily beat the old engine’s 250 and 253. The previous five-speed automatic has been scrapped in favor of a six-speed in LX, EX, and EX-L models, while the fancier Touring and new Elite trim levels are fitted with the ZF nine-speed also borrowed from Acura. The nine-speed gets shift paddles along with the same, rather gimmicky, push-button gear selector Acura uses; the six-speed gearbox is actuated via a conventional shift lever.

With more power, additional gears, and less weight, the Pilot is said to hustle to 60 mph some two seconds faster than before. More important, it slurps less fuel. EPA figures increase from 17/24 mpg (AWD) to 18/26 mpg, as well as to 19/26 for Touring and Elite models, which in addition to the nine-speed automatic also come with auto stop-start (the latter deserving the lion’s share of the credit for the slightly better city-mpg rating). Front-wheel drive adds 1 mpg to the above figures. All-wheel-drive models get a choice of four powertrain modes: Normal, Snow, Sand, and Mud, which replace the previous VTM-4 Lock button. The AWD system also has a torque-vectoring function, which can apportion torque across the rear axle to aid cornering. AWD versions also are rated to tow 5000 pounds, up from 4500, while FWD models can tug only 3500 pounds.

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