First Drive: 2016 Honda Pilot

First Drive: 2016 Honda Pilot

The second-generation Pilot was a sales success for Honda, but it wasn’t exactly the company’s greatest achievement.

At a time when most crossovers were embracing their car-based roots with sleeker styling, the second-gen Pilot arrived for 2009 with boxy proportions reminiscent of SUVs from yesteryear. Things weren’t much better on the inside where cheap materials and a mishmash of SUV and minivan design elements created a less-than-inviting space.

Honda is now wiping the slate clean with an all-new Pilot for 2016. Things can only get better from here.

CR-V Plus

The 2016 Pilot ditches the squared off proportions of last year’s model in favor of a more angular look inspired by the current CR-V. Considering how popular the CR-V is, that’s probably a wise move on Honda’s part.

The Pilot’s front end is highlighted by a three-bar chrome grille that flows into the SUV’s new-look headlights. Like the smaller CR-V, the Pilot features LED accent lighting the boomerangs around the top and sides of the headlamps. Upper-end models like our Elite tester also receive fog lights in the lower portion of the bumper.

In profile the Pilot reveals more of its CR-V DNA. Like the CR-V, a main character line runs through the Pilot’s door handles while a secondary crease graces the sill line. A rising belt line at the rear mimics the CR-V’s design, but the Pilot lacks the sharply-raked D-pillar of its little brother. Black cladding protects the Pilot’s lower paint on all sides.

The rear of the Pilot is uniquely its own, with large taillamps transitioning to thin strips when they cross over to the tailgate. Just above the rear window curves upward at the corners in an effort to make the big SUV seem a bit more shapely. A chrome accent on the lower bumper adds to the Pilot’s new premium positioning.

Overall, the 2016 Pilot is a far more contemporary vehicle than the old model ever was.

Acura Minus

While the exterior of the Pilot is similar to that of the lesser CR-V, the interior of the SUV is closer to what you’d find in Honda’s line of Acura luxury vehicles. The overall design is clean and simple with a clear focus on reducing the number of buttons and shift levers cluttering the dashboard.

Where there was once thousands of switches and knobs to control stereo and infotainment functions there are none; a single, 8-inch touchscreen now handles everything. Controls for the Pilot’s HVAC system sit just below and are easy to use. We particularly like the toggle switches used for temperature control.

One of the most notable changes from last year’s Pilot is the adoption of a push-button shift arrangement on models equipped with Honda’s nine-speed automatic transmission (six-speed models get a traditional lever). The switch eliminates the need to have a gear lever poking out from somewhere, but it doesn’t free up a whole lot of extra room. Unlike the Chrysler 200, which also uses a shift-by-wire system, there is no storage area directly below the shifter. To us it seems like a case of reinventing the wheel just for the sake of it.

A large storage area resides just behind the shift lever. In addition to being large enough to hold a moderately sized purse, the cover is also rigid enough to support additional items. Smaller items can be stashed in a small cubby-hole that includes power outlets just under the center stack.

The Pilot uses Honda’s familiar multi-fiction steering wheel. In addition to housing controls for the radio and and cruise control, the leather wrapped unit also includes paddle shifters on models equipped with the nine-speed auto.

The Pilot’s gauge cluster is straightforward with a traditional dial on the left to keep track of revs and two more on the right to monitor temperature and fuel. Speed is displayed on a digital readout just above a center-mounted color TFT screen. It doesn’t come across very well in photos, but the dials and needles on the physical gauges have a three-dimensional design that gives a more up-scale feel than you’d typically associate with a Honda.

Cheap plastics were a major criticism of the last Pilot but Honda has mostly rectified that issue in the new model. The dash and the top sections of the front doors are now covered in soft materials and feature faux stitching. Rear seat passengers aren’t as lucky – even in our top-of-the-line $46,000 Elite test car the rear doors are shod in hard plastic, which seems like an oversight.

A few missteps not withstanding, the interior of the new Pilot is a supremely pleasant place to spend any length of time. Front seats are pillowy soft and easily among the most comfortable in the segment. Second row passengers might not be treated to the best materials, but they do get plenty of storage, including two cupholders and a lower cubby molded into each of the rear doors. Third row seats typically offer the space and comfort of a shoebox, but not so in the 2016 Pilot. A human being with average proportions can actually sit in the way-back without needing to first cut off their head and legs. As long as they’re not claustrophobic, two six-footers could ride around in the back of the Pilot without issue. And if you do start to feel closed in, you can always open the Pilot’s optional panoramic sunroof, which is a first for the Honda brand.

Getting into and out of the third row is also a lot easier thanks to Honda’s latest second row mechanism. Buttons located on the side and the back of the second row activate a spring mechanism that propels the second row forward with ease. You still have to be somewhat of an athlete to access the third row, but it’s certainly a lot easier than it was during the early days of three row utility vehicles. In models equipped with second row bucket seats, the center console has been designed to be sturdy enough to support people climbing over to the third row.

Infotainment and all things electronic

Of course all of the Pilot’s newfound style and comfort wouldn’t mean much if it just had a tape deck stuffed in the dash. Luckily, it doesn’t – it comes with Honda’s latest Android-based Display Audio System.

First off, Apple users fear not; the Android system plays nice with Apple’s iOS. Although we weren’t able to test that claim for ourselves, Honda promises the system will “support seamless iPhone integration.”

We did get to spend a couple of hours playing with the system’s other features and came away impressed. The eight-inch screen offers excellent resolution and was quick to respond to our touches. Any modern infotainment system inherently comes with some kind of a learning curve, but we were able to plod through Honda’s latest head unit without much fuss.

Navigation is provided by Garmin and includes live traffic updates, 3D mapping and speed limit information. Navigation hasn’t historically been a strong suit of recent Honda vehicles, but the unit in the Pilot is just as good as anything else you’ll find on the market.

A good chunk of drivers will probably rely on their personal libraries or apps like Pandora for music, but the Pilot has a pretty trick SiriusXM system built-in. A new Tune Start function acts like a DVR for your radio, recording the portions of a song you might have missed. If you switch to another station only to hear the tail end of your favorite song, you can have the system rewind to the beginning.

Sports fans will be interested in the Sports Flash function. You can store up to five of your favorite sports teams in the system and then have the head unit automatically update you with 30-second clips. No need to switch back and forth between music and sports, the system will automatically cut in with a highlight clip whenever anything notable happens.

Our favorite function is Tune Mix. Like a personal DJ, Tune Mix pulls songs from all of you favorite SiriusXM radio stations and combines them into one station. Tune Mix borrows the DVR function from Tune Start to cache songs from other stations so you never miss a beat.

But all is not well with Honda’s new head unit. As with other Honda touchscreens, the traditional volume knob has been replaced with a slider. We found the slider to be disobedient and not easy to locate while concentrating on the road ahead.

Second- and third-row passengers can stay entertained with an optional Bluray DVD player. Despite the addition of a panoramic sunroof, Honda kept the screen on the roof to help reduce the chance of experiencing motion sickness. Every passenger can keep charged up thanks to five USB ports spread throughout the Pilot’s interior.

Driving experience

The Pilot offers a nice blend of performance and economy, but our biggest takeaway was the SUV’s outstanding comfort and noise isolation.

Honda stripped more than 280 pounds from the Pilot’s waistline, but you’d never guess that from the driver’s seat. That not because the Pilot is heavy or ponderous to drive, it’s not, but because it just feels so damn solid.

Torsional rigidity is up 25 percent in the new model and that’s clearly evident from the second you slide behind the wheel. The Pilot gives you that same kind of tank-like feeling that you get from an old Volvo.

A new suspension system makes use of that stiffer base, returning a ride that is soft and comfortable yet composed when the road turns twisty. The Dodge Durango is still a better drive, but we doubt the average Pilot buyer will find anything to complain about.

The interior of the Pilot is quiet enough to put some luxury models to shame. Road and wind noise are virtually nonexistent, even at highway speed. Even the electric windows in the Pilot go up and down with little more than a faint whisper.

Honda’s 3.5L direct-injection V6, which is rated at 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, provides the Pilot with plenty of scoot. Most of our time was spent with the nine-speed auto, but we did get a chance to sample the six-speed, which Honda says will be the volume gearbox. The nine-speed provided slightly faster gear changes, but that’s about the only difference we could discern during or short stint behind the wheel.

Front-wheel drive comes standard but buyers can opt for all-wheel drive. A Honda first, the Pilot’s AWD system now comes with a torque vectoring system. Whereas other torque vectoring systems use brake drag to help with cornering, Honda’s system sends more power to the outside wheels, which Honda says is a more effective solution. In order to keep up with the Joneses, the Pilot’s AWD system also features settings for Snow, Mud and Sand. A Sport mode is available on nine-speed models.

Honda’s available Honda Sensing safety suite includes the latest assistance tech, including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, forward collision warning and road departure mitigation. Top-spec Elite models can be further outfitted with a blind spot information system and rear cross traffic monitor.

All of those systems generally work as advertised, but we didn’t come across an issue with the Pilot’s adaptive cruise control. We found that the system was sometimes slow to detect a vehicle ahead, which resulted in a few instances of abrupt braking. In fact, more than once the system brought us so close to the bumper of the car ahead that it flashed a brake warning message.

Fuel economy is quite good with front-wheel drive models returning 27mpg on the highway. The nine-speed has a 1mpg advantage in city driving — 20mpg versus 19mpg. Stepping up to AWD nets a 1mpg ding across the board for both transmissions.

Leftlane’s bottom line

From so-so to standout, the 2016 Honda Pilot is suddenly one of the best three-row crossovers you can buy. Combining the rarity of a usable third row with luxury-levels of quiet and comfort, the Pilot is a win-win for the entire family.

2016 Honda Pilot 2WD LX base price, $29,995. As tested (4WD Elite w/RES and Navi), $46,420. Destination, $880.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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