Honda recognizes the growing dominance of Middle CUVs, up 11.2% through April per WardsAuto segmentation, by upgrading nicely the Pilot’s powertrain.
The vehicle keeps its 3.5L V-6 with cylinder deactivation but adds direct injection, raising peak output a whopping 30 hp to 280, exceeding what likely will be its most cross-shopped competitor, the Toyota Highlander with its also-good 270-hp 3.5L non-DI V-6.
And the Pilot’s 9-speed automatic, standard on Touring and Elite grades, is the best application yet of the ZF transmission by Honda or any other automaker.
But it appears the powertrain improvements came at the expense of the CUV’s interior, which has been de-contented in certain areas.
Further, the new high-end Elite grade scores low on the bling-meter against key rivals.
The third-gen Pilot, on sale in June, moves to Honda’s new midsize light-truck platform, already underpinning the current Acura MDX and chock full of lightweight high-strength steels.
An aluminum front-bumper beam, cast-magnesium hanger beam and a composite battery base and B-pillar insert further reduce weight, making the Pilot Touring grade, for instance, 286 lbs. (130 kg) lighter than before.
From ’15 to ’16, the Pilot gains 3.5 ins. (8.9 cm) in overall length, and 1.75 ins. (4.4 cm) between the wheels. This raises distance between seats, behind the third row and for the step-through into the third row, now thankfully wider than an iPhone 4.
While third-row legroom doesn’t match the class-leading GMC Acadia’s, it nevertheless is decent for an adult.
The Pilot matches the Highlander’s second-row legroom, although both fall shy of the Nissan Pathfinder’s generous 41.7 ins. (106 cm) of space.
The cargo room aft of the third row is longer and deeper, with a recessed floor able to hold a large cooler. However, total cargo space is short of the Acadia’s class-leading 24.1 cu.-ft. (0.7 cu.-m).
A Less-Truckish Light Truck
The new Pilot has a floaty, big-sedan feel, a stark contrast to the ’15’s brawny persona, which features heavier steering and more forceful downshifts.
Competitors such as the ’15 Highlander, Pathfinder and best-selling 3-row CUV, the Ford Explorer, also have more truck-like ride and handling characteristics.
Despite the Honda-typical high output peaks (6,000 rpm for horsepower, 4,700 rpm for its 262 lb.-ft. [355 Nm] of torque) of the 3.5L DI V-6, the Pilot never lacks power. Even with the diminished acceleration of Econ drive mode, the CUV tackles the hilly Kentucky terrain near Cincinnati without needing to mash the accelerator.
The ZF 9-speed is smooth and unobtrusive, lacking the shift busyness that characterizes the transmission in other applications.
We didn’t test lower or mid grades of the Pilot, which pairs the V-6 to a 6-speed automatic. Other media here praise that powertrain just as much, although they note Pilots with that combo have higher levels of road, wind and engine noise.
While Honda gave all ’16 Pilots acoustic glass and sound-deadening carpet, the Touring and Elite grades incorporate the highest-quality versions of both, plus get door-foam barriers absent from the LX, EX and EX-L Pilots.
As usual for Honda, fuel economy meets or exceeds estimates. We tally 23.2 mpg (10.1 L/100 km) in a mixed back-country route in one Elite AWD model, above the 22-mpg (10.7-L/100 km) estimate. In a different Elite AWD Pilot on an all-highway leg, the Pilot returns 26 mpg (9.0 L/100 km), the EPA-estimated highway mileage.
The CUV’s styling still isn’t as graceful as that of an Explorer or Pathfinder due to a tall greenhouse and vertical lower tailgate, but it’s a lot better than the ’90s-throwback blocky exterior of the outgoing model. The boxy design apparently had many shoppers believing the second-gen Pilot had poor fuel economy. It didn’t.
Letdown on the Inside
While the new Pilot swaps the second-gen’s chunky panels and oodles of knobs and buttons for a sleeker, less cluttered appearance (no volume knob!), in many ways the interior is a step backward.
The outgoing Pilot does have lots of plastic trim, but it exhibits above-average quality. The ’16 model’s plastic-trim supplier looks to be the same one Coleman uses for its coolers. Plus, stitching now appears simulated.
Other regressions include console cupholders that are essentially large holes. There’s no retractable nubs or flanges, no rubber bladders, not even the foam flaps from the ’15 Pilot to keep my soda can from rattling around.
The deletion of a loop on the pulldown armrest on the standard second-row bench seat (only the Elite trim gets captain’s chairs) and flimsy ribbons instead of beefy plastic levers to fold down third-row seatbacks are other cost-cuts.
The Pilot’s cabin does have some strong points, such as a soft-touch upper instrument panel and an enormous console box with a sliding door crafted of horizontally textured plastic that Honda says won’t collect dust and dirt. There’s also an upgraded infotainment system featuring SiriusXM with song rewind capability and station-mix functions as well as the new Garmin navigation, which has cool features such as maps with landmarks.
But there’s something missing.
The Explorer, Highlander and Pathfinder wow you from the moment you open their doors. Compared with the warm tones and buttery-smooth leather of the Pathfinder, the gorgeous chrome trim in the Explorer or the Highlander’s contrasting blue-gray stitching and interior mood lighting, the Elite grade falls short.
Perhaps it’s not as luxurious as it could be so as not to intrude on Acura territory. But Ford and Nissan, two other automakers with near-luxury brands, seem to be throwing caution to the wind and making the jump to premium materials in mass-market models.
The last time Honda downgraded an interior, for the ’12 Civic, it didn’t work out so well. It had to pull ahead a refresh to remain competitive in the sector…and that was for a compact car in the $20,000 range.
With midsize CUVs costing $35,000-$45,000, a premium interior isn’t so much a nice-to-have but a needs-to-have.
We have to give the edge to the Highlander right now for being the total package.
’16 Honda Pilot Elite AWD Specifications