Old school styling, good road manners and ample room mix well in Honda's capable and competent people-hauler
by: L.E. BASKOW, Honda has its sight set on families with its mid-size SUV, the eight-passenger Pilot.

Regardless of size, sports utility vehicles fall into two categories these days - aerodynamic and boxy. With their angled noses and rounded lines, the aerodynamic ones tend to get slightly better mileage at freeway spends. The boxy ones tend to be roomier insider, however, in the very back where some squeeze in a third row of seats.

The mid-size 2010 Honda Pilot is definitely in the boxy category, and it takes full advantage of the extra room to create a spacious cabin and offer a third row seat advertised as good for three people. Three adults might not be very comfortable in it, but three children can certainly fit in - increasing the total capacity to eight people, more than most mid-size SUVs and even a few full-size ones.

Whether the advantages of the seating arrangement compensates for the Pilot's old school styling is a matter of personal taste. Honda designers clearly wanted the Pilot to look as practical as possible. The box-on-box styling is reminiscent of older Toyota Land Cruisers and Isuzu Troopers.

In fact, when the Pilot was redesigned in 2008, it was made even blockier. This definitely bucks the trend towards more aerodynamic SUVs. Even Volvo, once among the most conservative of all automotive manufacturers, is now producing sleek and sexy SUVs. But Honda is clearly betting that at least some buyers will be drawn to the Pilot's sensible, function-over-form approach.

Everything else about the Pilot is completely up to date, however. Despite its truck-like appearance, the Pilot drives, rides and handles like a car - not a sports car, of course, but a large and comfortable station wagon. The 3.5-liter V6 is smooth, the steering is tight and the suspension is well-dampened, allowing the Pilot to effortlessly float over broken pavement and potholes.

As a result, the Pilot easily maneuvers through both busy downtown streets and crowded suburban parking lots. It is also powerful enough for high-speed freeway driving, with the ride height and big windows offer good views of surrounding traffic.

Unlike some mid-size SUVs, the Pilot is not trying to be sporty, however. Capable and competent, but not fast or taut. The appeal is to families, not race car drivers who occasionally bring friends to the track.

To reach the third row of seats, the second row of seats side forward on rails, creating a relatively narrow but workable pathway. Once there, passengers are treated to their own air vents, cup holders and stereo speakers - features not offered in all SUVs with three rows of seats.

Both the second and third rows of seats can also be folded flat, creating enough room to haul a four-by-eight sheet of plywood.

Standard equipment includes a lengthy list of safety features, ranging from steering and braking assists to front and side airbags even for the third row of seats. A separate climate control system for the back passengers is also standard.

Our test vehicle was the Touring edition and it came with every available option, including all-wheel-drive, alloy wheels, heated and cooled leather seats, a sunroof, a 10-speaker stereo, a navigation system and a rear seat DVD player. Together, they made the Pilot far cushier than the older Land Cruisers and Troopers ever aspired to be.

Of course, all those options come with a price, pushing the cost of the Pilot from around $28,000 to about $40,000. Then again, the Pilot's EPA-estimated 18 miles per gallon is at the upper end of the mid-size SUV market. Much of that is achieved through Honda's Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) technology, which allows the engine to run on only three or four cylinders under certain conditions.

Such innovations were never even considered on the older Land Cruisers and Troopers, yet another sign of just how far advanced the Pilot is compared to them, despite the physical similarities.

Facts and figures

• Test Model: 2010 Pilot Touring.

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Mid-size SUV.

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

• Style: Eight-passenger, five-door wagon.

• Power train: 3.5-liter V6 (250 hp).

• Transmissions: 5-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/22.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $27,698 (price as tested $40,095).

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