Family-friendly features keep aging people-hauler competitive
by: Honda Motor Co. Boxy styling increases interior room in the eight-passenger Honda Pilot.

When Honda introduced the Pilot in 2003, it was the kind of groundbreaking Crossover Utility Vehicle the all-new Ford Explorer is today.

When the Pilot first came out, competitors like the Explore and Chevy Trailblazers were still aging truck-based Sport Utility Vehicles offered with gas-guzzling V8s. In contrast, the Pilot was one of the first CUVs based on a customized chassis that gave it a better ride and was only powered by a more fuel-efficient V6. It was also one of the first CUVs of any size to offer a third row of seats.

But a funny thing happened over the next eight years. The Pilot got more refined but substantially bigger during a 2009 makeover. Around that time, much of the competition began getting smaller and a lot more sophisticated. For example, the Explorer is now a good-handing CUV available with either an inline 4 or V6 engine. The Trailblazer has been replaced by the Traverse CUV that also boasts many of the Pilot's early advantages. Upstart Hyundai and Kia are nipping at it heels with improved midsize CUVs of their own. And, yes, they all offer third-row seating.

So how does the Pilot stack up in the highly competitive midsize CUV field these days? The answer is surprisingly well, thanks largely to the additional space from the makeover and Honda's quality construction. In day-to-day use, the Pilot is a capable people hauler that can carry eight in comfort on long trips. The ride is smooth and quiet, especially in the fully loaded Touring version we tested that featured plush leather-trimmed seats and enough entertainment options to keep passengers in the last two rows occupied, including a DVD system with wireless headsets. It also offered all the high-tech goodies that used to be only available in the most expensive vehicles, including USB Audio Interface, XM Satellite Radio and Bluetooth HandsFreeLink.

Ground clearance on the Pilot is also higher than some of its newer competitors, making it more off-road capable than them.

On the other hand, with only 250 horsepower, the Pilot is among the slowest CUVs on the market today, although it is more than capable of freeway passing. But the mileage is also among the worst, with the EPA estimating it only averages 18 mpg - a figure that was far more impressive eight years ago.

Ironically, the Pilot's box-on-box styling is throwback to the days before CUVs when all SUVs were basically trucks with roofs over the pickup beds. The advantage is more interior room that the more rounded CUVs that sacrifice headroom for aerodynamic styling.

The interior of the Pilot also harkens back to earlier days of simpler layouts. There is no attempt to create a cockpit feel for the driver and passenger by wrapping the dash around room. On the other hand, climate, entertainment and navigation controls are a confusing mix of nearly-identical looking buttons that take a concerted effort to sort out. Even after a few days of driving, we still had to take our eyes off the road too long just to adjust the temperature.

Despite these shortcomings, the Pilot is still a good choice for families that take frequent camping and skiing trips. Starting at under $30,000 with four-wheel-drive, it still competes well against newer CUVs that not as capable when the pavement ends or the snow begins to pile up.

Of course, if you want a smaller, more fuel-efficient CUV and don't need to ever carry eight people, Honda also offers the CR-V, one of the original small CUVs that has been continuously improved over the years. It is only offered with a four-cylinder engine, but is available with either front- or all-wheel-drive.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 Pilot 4WD Touring.

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Midsize crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door liftback CUV.

• Engines: 3.5-liter V6 (250 hp).

• Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 21/25.

• Price: Beginning at around $28,320 base model ($41,175 as tested).

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