First Drive: The Honda Pilot Heads Upscale for 2016

Collin Woodard/Autos Cheat Sheet

When the Honda Pilot came out as a 2003 model, it entered a segment that was still heavily influenced by pickup trucks. While its styling might not have stood out from the crowd, it added refinement and car-like driving dynamics that made it a standout in its class. With a child-size third row seat standard, the Pilot could seat up to eight and allowed families to drive a minivan alternative that didn’t behave like a pickup truck. Customers responded by buying nearly 1.5 million Honda Pilots since its introduction.

Perhaps even more so today than in 2003, the midsize SUV segment is an incredibly important one. Minivans aren’t nearly as popular as they were, and there’s competition from nearly every manufacturer in the market. Just look at the Ford Explorer — it left its truck roots in the dust and is currently the most popular vehicle in the segment. Simply being a crossover SUV with car-like handling isn’t enough for the aging, second-generation Pilot to stand out anymore. It shows in the sales figures, too, with both the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee outselling the Honda Pilot so far in 2015. The Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse, and Hyundai Santa Fe are hot on the Pilot’s heels, as well.

Honda believes that it deserves the sales crown in the midsize segment, and that means bringing an all-new Pilot to market. This third-generation Pilot gets a completely new look, updated technology, and a move even further upmarket. Has Honda succeeded? I spent a day driving one through the rolling hills of Kentucky to find out.

Disclaimer: Honda invited me to this product launch and provided food, transportation, and accommodations for all journalists in attendance. 

Collin Woodard/Autos Cheat Sheet

When it comes to the 2016 Honda Pilot’s look, it’s a clear departure from the first two generations. The second generation may have had a lot of similarities to the previous generation, but the new one takes the design in a completely different direction. It’s still a large, three-row SUV that seats up to eight passengers, but its design has clearly left any truck-like look in the past.

A number of not-so-eloquent commenters on social media have already declared that Honda ruined the Pilot with its new look, but I have to disagree with them. It’s not exactly beautiful in the same way the Jaguar F-Type is beautiful, but it’s a huge step forward over the old look. In pictures, the new Pilot can appear a little bit awkward from some angles, but in person, it’s an attractive design that grows on you as you spend more time with it.

The constraints of designing a vehicle that can comfortably transport a family of eight meant that Honda couldn’t stray too far from the overall shape of a midsize SUV, but its designers still worked hard to give it a modern, upscale look. LED running lights are incredibly popular currently. Honda integrated them into the headlight design to keep them from looking tacked on, and for the most part, it works well. The overall design is cohesive and distinctive, and you probably won’t, for example, mistake the new Honda Pilot for the Chevrolet Traverse or the Toyota Highlander.

The exterior of a vehicle that’s focused on transporting families with multiple children is probably the least important part of that vehicle, though. Like your mom always told you, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. It’s also on the inside where the 2016 Honda Pilot really shines.

When you sit in the new Pilot for the first time, you notice that all of Honda’s talk about a more premium cabin isn’t just puffery. There are several trim options to choose from, but I spent my time in a top-of-the-line Elite version, partly to evaluate the best Pilot that Honda has to offer and partly because it was the last one left to choose. Pricing starts at $29,995 for the base model, and it tops out at $46,420 for the top-of-the-line version I drove. That may sound like a lot of money, but a fully loaded Toyota Highlander would probably cost about a much, and some of the competition can even cost more.

Source: Honda

As you buckle into the driver’s seat, you’re met with a cabin that feels open and spacious. Part of that is thanks to a panoramic sunroof that lets plenty of light into the car. The leather, quality plastics, and soft-touch materials feel high-end, and there isn’t much of anything that you might touch that will feel like Honda cut corners to keep the price down. It feels, well, like you’d expect a Honda to feel, only a little nicer than you expected.

An 8-inch touch screen dominates the center stack, sitting up high and easy to read without resorting to the “tacked-on iPad” look that some manufacturers have gone with lately. It’s bright and fairly simple to use, but I would need more time to really use the infotainment system before I could give an educated assessment of how simple or frustrating it is. Everything I tried to do worked well, but I also don’t usually put a lot of heavy demand on the infotainment system while going for a first drive.

The gauges are easy to read, as well, with a 4.2-inch full-color screen that provides the driver with a wide variety of information. The steering wheel, meanwhile, is classic Honda, meaning it’s comfortable and feels good in your hands, and the controls are simple and intuitive to use.

Unlike the Honda HR-V, physical buttons take care of the climate controls on the center stack. Heated and cooled seats are also available, which is incredibly convenient when the weather gets to the extremes. What’s even more convenient, though, is that when you use the remote starter on the Pilot’s key, the climate control automatically begins bringing the interior temperature down to 72 degrees. That means on a hot summer day, when the kids get into the car after it’s been parked at the pool for eight hours, you can avoid feeling like you’re being steamed alive for 10 minutes while waiting for the air conditioning to cool the car down.

The most controversial feature will probably be the push-button shifter and electronic parking brake that Honda has included. The design helps open up the cabin and it works well, but people who still prefer traditional versions may not be happy. The only problem I had with it was when I tried doing three-point road turns. It worked fine, but it’s kind of clunky.

Source: Honda

As far as storage goes, it’ll be hard for anybody to have complaints about what the Pilot offers. There are two large cup holders up front, a large center storage console, and a slew of cubbies, bins, and cup holders in the back. There are also a few convenient places for a cell phone to rest while driving, and there’s a sunglasses holder.

Having two sunglasses holders would have been nice, but there’s no need to get greedy in a car that’s not considered a luxury vehicle. While the seats can be folded down for maximum utility, Honda claims the trunk can also accommodate an 82-quart cooler on its own, meaning there’s plenty of space back there, even with the kids in their seats.

Speaking of the kids in their seats, getting three of them into the back is easier than ever. The new Pilot folds and slides its middle seats forward with the push of a single button. Three children most likely won’t want to ride in the back seat for the entirety of a cross-country road trip, but it’s roomy enough that two of them probably wouldn’t be completely miserable.

You could even theoretically put an adult or two back there for short trips. If carrying eight passengers isn’t a necessity, the Elite model is available with two captain’s chairs in the middle that make getting into the back even easier. To keep them entertained back there, a Blu-ray-playing television screen folds down from the ceiling. A minivan may still be the most practical transportation choice for families, but the Pilot gets pretty close.

Once the cargo is loaded, the kids are buckled up, the Starbucks is filling the front cup holders, and you’re on your way, I’m pleased to let you know that the 2016 Pilot drives quite well. Its 3.5-liter, V6 engine makes 280 horsepower and 262 pounds-feet of torque that finds its way to the wheels through either a six-speed or nine-speed automatic transmission. Exactly how quickly it goes from zero to 60 miles per hour is mostly irrelevant, but the engine is strong enough and acceleration is plenty quick. In sport mode, you can even hear a hint of burble from the exhaust.

Gas mileage is relevant, though, and depending on the transmission and drive setup, you can expect fuel economy to be in the low 20s in mixed driving. On the highway, it will get up to either 26 or 27 miles per gallon, depending on whether you have all-wheel-drive.

Source: Honda

When it comes to handling, the Pilot is no Lotus, but Honda did a great job tuning the adaptive dampers on the Pilot to make it surprisingly composed through the corners while still maintaining comfort on the highway. The Pilot make no pretenses that it’s a sports car, but the roads I was driving were narrow, the turns were tight, and I couldn’t resist driving it at least as hard as a teenager might. The Pilot didn’t necessarily want me to drive it hard, but up to a point, it didn’t feel unsafe to do so.

Part of that probably has to do with the fact that Honda has equipped the 2016 Pilot with an intelligent all-wheel-drive system that’s able to send power to the wheel that needs it most. The majority of systems can route power front to back, but the Pilot can also route it left to right, meaning that under hard cornering, the system can route extra power to the outside rear wheel to reduce understeer. Unlike a lot of other front-biased all-wheel-drive systems, Honda’s Intelligent Variable Torque Management system doesn’t use the vehicle’s brakes to transfer power from one side to the other, which makes it more efficient and effective.

To maximize the effectiveness of the Pilot’s all-wheel-drive system, the Pilot also comes with a traction management system. Most of the time, it operates normally, but when it’s needed, pushing a button on the center console allows you to choose between snow, mud, and sand modes. Not only does that make the Pilot safer, it also makes it more capable if you choose to go off-road.

While Honda sadly didn’t fly me to Sweden to test how capable it is in the snow or Dubai to test how capable it is in the sand, a freak rain storm did give me the opportunity to test out how well the mud mode works. The rain was coming down so hard that what should have probably been a simple turnaround on a two lane road very quickly turned into a muddy mess. Seizing the opportunity to take a family SUV mudding, I engaged the proper mode and then proceeded to get a little mud on the tires.

I didn’t have enough room to truly let loose, but I can officially confirm that the 2016 Honda Pilot is perfectly capable in more mud than any sane person will probably be taking their $40,000 family vehicle. Snow mode is probably a much more practical mode to have, but the other modes will probably see more use outside of the United States.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Pilot wasn’t phased at all by the torrential downpour that created this muddy situation in the first place. Standing water all over the roads threatened to cause a hydroplane several times, but I never had to deal with anything more than a giant splash of water and a little tug at the wheel. I can’t say for certain that I would have hydroplaned in a different vehicle, but I was certainly a lot more relaxed in the rain that I would have been in, say, my girlfriend’s Chevrolet Aveo.

Collin Woodard/Autos Cheat Sheet

Another reason to stay relaxed while driving the Pilot is the variety of modern safety features that are available. Not only is there a backup camera, there’s also the latest version of Honda’s LaneWatch that uses a camera to give you a look down the passenger side of your car before you change lanes. It would be nice for LaneWatch to be available on the driver’s side, as well, but blind spots are usually a bigger problem on the passenger side, so it’s definitely less important on the driver’s side. Just adjust your mirror correctly, and driver’s side blind spots won’t be a problem.

Taking the safety features to the next level, Honda also offers adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and emergency braking. In a demonstration, all three worked well. In regular driving, the adaptive cruise control worked best, while the lane keep assist struggled to find the lanes in a few less-than-ideal conditions.

When it could find the lanes, though, the lane keep assist worked well with the adaptive cruise control to make highway driving a breeze. It isn’t meant to be a self-driving system, but I can’t help thinking a number of accidents caused by drivers who text while driving will be prevented by systems like this. Stability control and traction control are available as well, but they should be standard on any new car anyways.

I only tested the emergency braking under controlled circumstances, because while it worked well in the demonstration, having to call Honda and tell them I wrecked their test car would be less than ideal.

For drivers who are really looking to get the most out of their new Pilot, Honda offers quite a list of accessories that range, from surfboard and kayak attachments to an engine block heater or roof rails. You can even get 20-inch black wheels if you really want to set your Pilot apart.

I know that an 26-year-old unmarried guy with no kids or even a dog isn’t exactly the person Honda had in mind when it began the redesign, but it was hard not to like the 2016 Pilot. It’s a car that feels like it’s been designed with a purpose in mind, and it feels like it was built to do its job quite well. Driving some of the competition, like the Toyota Highlander and Chevrolet Traverse, it also felt like the 2016 Honda Pilot is a full step above what I experienced during my time in them. It’s still worth test driving different vehicles, but if you’re in the market for a midsize SUV, you’re not going to go wrong with the 2016 Honda Pilot.

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