For a while there, it looked like Honda was losing the plot. The last-generation Civic got off to a rocky start, the Accord has been suffering from a shrinking midsize sedan segment, and its crossovers and SUVs began to feel old. Then 2016 happened, and it looks like everything is back on track. The Civic is as fun and engaging as it’s ever been, and the CR-V is dominating the all-important crossover segment. And there’s also the Pilot; after a six-year run, Honda’s biggest people mover was all-new for 2016, and better than ever.
We drove the all-new Pilot in top-spec Elite trim this year, and found that it occupies that family-friendly space between minivan and SUV — a space that sounds like a surefire recipe for success. After a week with it, our Micah Wright said: “This is a softer, more MDX-looking generation of Pilot, and for the most part it hits all the right pressure points with its adjustable traction settings, luxuriously techy interior, and abundant safety features.” And that brings us to our big issue: What do Hondas become when they get better than ever before? If you said an Acura, you’re in the right ballpark.
Had we done this Buy This, Not That comparison 10 months ago, the new Pilot would’ve walked away with it. The third-generation Acura MDX debuted in 2013, and quickly made a name for itself. It had better engines, a better interior, and was safer than its predecessor. But in the four years since, it hasn’t aged particularly well.
Sure, it still has all the positive attributes it always has, but there’s something we can’t overlook: the unfortunate “Acura Beak.” And as the company has moved beyond it, it’s only made the MDX stand out even more. But for 2017, the crossover has gotten a substantial facelift, and the beak is a thing of the past. Do the rest of its revisions make it enough to outshine the overachieving Pilot? That’s what we’ll try to find out here.
Tale of the tape:
The Pilot is the family-friendly SUV that the other family-friendly SUVs want to be. It still looks rugged enough to be firmly in the SUV camp, but there’s something about those slab sides and tall roof that telegraph that it’s related to the Honda Odyssey. Inside, there’s seating for up to eight, with plenty of access to the third-row seats, and plenty of storage — though cargo space gets pretty tight with the third-row seats up.
In Elite trim ($47,070 and up), the Pilot comes standard with the Honda Sensing safety suite, navigation, and a rear-seat entertainment system. A panoramic sunroof, leather, and first-two row heated seats are also on the house, and you can have it in any color you want, so long as it’s beige, black, or gray, depending on exterior color.
Unlike lower trims, the Elite is all-wheel drive, and power comes from Honda’s 3.5 liter Earth Dreams V6, which puts out 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque routed through a nine-speed automatic. Despite its 4,300 pound curb weight, the Pilot can scramble from zero to 60 in a surprisingly respectable six seconds, though your results may vary depending on onboard kids and cargo.
The MDX also uses the Earth Dreams V6 mated to the nine-speed, and both return an average combined 21 miles per gallon. But in the Acura, power is slightly boosted to 290 horses and 267 pound-feet. Base trim with all-wheel drive (a $2,000 option here) will get you close to the Pilot Elite’s hefty price tag, but you’d still have roughly $2,000 to play with. That would get you Acura’s Entertainment Package, halfway to its Technology Package, or one-third of the way to its hi-luxe Advanced Package. The MDX isn’t cheap; while the Pilot tops out at just over $50K, you can option the Acura until it’s dangerously close to the $60K mark.
The Honda Pilot is a great family car, and the fact that it’s a viable option anywhere from the low $30K to the near-$50K range speaks volumes about its appeal. But at that price, the MDX offers virtually everything that makes the Pilot Elite attractive, but with a higher-grade interior and upscale styling.
Young families may be flocking to lesser trims, and rightfully so. But we doubt that many will be splurging on a fully-loaded Pilot Elite. If they’re willing to subject the interior of their luxury SUV to the atrocities children are capable of, then they might as well break into the luxury segment and roll the dice there. Inside and out, Honda and Acura’s SUVs are impressive. But Acura still has the edge on its home turf.