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Week Peek: Honda Pilot

The Background
I was asked to house sit last week, and, along with the duty of watching two small dogs, I was handed the keys to my friends' brand new 2004 Acura TL and their 2004 Honda Pilot, the subject of this review. I have driven the Pilot's two siblings, the MDX and the Honda Odyssey, on which the Pilot and MDX are based. I think the Odyssey is a great minivan with handling superior to any other, including the new Toyota Sienna. It even beat the Sienna in a recent comparison in one of the car magazines (and also beat the Kia Sedona, Chrysler vans, Ford Freestar and Nissan Quest). This was no small feat considering that the Odyssey was the oldest van in the comparison test. Personally, I'd take the Sienna over the Odyssey, at least until a new Odyssey bows next year. As for the MDX, it's a great luxury SUV. It's quite large, yet handles much smaller. To be sure, the MDX shrinks around you in a way that the Odyssey does not. I love the MDX from styling to handling to fit and finish. A great SUV that is a fairly good value.

So, you can imagine I had high hopes for the Pilot. Overall, I was rather impressed with it, but only when I forgot about the MDX which told me how much better this platform can be. Instead, I kept trucks like the Dodge Durango, Chevy TrailBlazer XL and Ford Explorer in mind. The Jeep Grand Cherokee could give the Pilot a run for its money, although it is a smaller vehicle (even after the 2005 model bows featuring a larger wheelbase and cabin), and has never exhibited half the build quality of the Pilot. So, keeping this competitive set in mind, the Pilot is great. The problem is, the Pilot's top price puts it into an area where a Mercedes ML350 could be purchased. If you need space, the ML would be easily beaten by the Pilot. However, it also puts you within spitting distance of the MDX. And I don't know that the Pilot could ever beat the MDX.

I Could (and Did) Get Used to This
While I liked the Pilot overall, it left a few things to be desired. First, the handling is lacking. While better than an Explorer, Durango or TrailBlazer, I felt like I was driving an Odyssey, only with a higher center of gravity. The Pilot really feels tall, and it is. I quickly got comfortable with the handling, though, which is more than I can say for the Durango or the Explorer. The highway was no problem, whereas the Durango almost had me exhausted from keeping its bobbling mass headed where I wanted it to go. So, initial thoughts on handling were not stellar, but I quickly acclimated to the Pilot. It's an SUV, after all, I'd simply be unreasonable to hold any initial handling misgivings against the car, especially when these misgivings faded with time.

Flight of the Navigator
No, not the Lincoln Navigator, but the navigation unit in the Pilot. While seeming to be very similar to the unit in the TL, it is clearly at least a generation older. Frustration and anger took hold of me several times in this car. First, trying to find a point of interest was next to useless. I seemed to keep getting stores and restaurants in Indiana and Maryland. On the TL, I got places within a few miles with the same number of menu options. The unit is also quite slow at retrieving data. It's not like it is using its satellite hook up to get the data, it's pulling it from the data DVD it has onboard, so this is a data access speed issue. The TL clearly had a faster drive and/or processor.

Second, the system just could not keep up with me. No, I wasn't driving like a bat out of hell. I was driving the speed limit on a Main Street situation in the middle of a small New England town. It wanted me to make a left at an intersection, but did not tell me to do so. It merely highlighted the turn in the map as it did with the rest of the route. Some of you may be thinking the street turned left and kept the same name, but it did not. It changed from Main Street to Montvale at this turn, and it was not a fork but a full turn. The issue was that the nav did not realize I had passed the intersection. After I passed it, without so much as a throat clearing from the lovely female voice of the nav or a message on screen, it displayed the "Recalculating Route" message. It didn't even tell me that I had screwed up. It did this twice, both times adding five or more minutes to my trip, and, in one case, making me late. One time, it did not miss a turn per se, but decided not to tell me that my destination had arrived. I just happened to look at the nav screen as I went down the road to notice that it was recalculating. The Mercedes COMAND navigation system tells you, when safe, to try to make a U-turn if you pass a turn or destination. If you don't look at the screen on the Pilot, you'd never know until far further down the road (perhaps at the next intersection) when it tells you to take some new turn. The TL's navigation has a much clearer set of instructions and knows far better where the car is. It counts down the feet to a turn, which the also Pilot does. The problem is, the TL is right, and the Pilot isn't. In my experience, the Pilot nav was probably 20-50 feet off, consistently, not hitting zero feet until the turn until after I had made it. So, if you don't absolutely need it, the nav in the Pilot could be avoided (and money saved).

Otherwise, did I have any complaints? Well, the Pilot is bland. It just sort of, well, just exists. It's there, you see it, but it looks so uninspired. The MDX has some personality, but the Pilot just looks like a sort of bulbous SUV from Anycar who makes those generic cars for brochures and ads. Also, and this may be a marketing move to help preserve the luxury of the MDX, you can't get a Pilot with a sunroof. There was a lot of gray in the car I drove, and it would have really made the interior livelier and, honestly, less depressing had there been a little light from above. Also, I'm not a huge fan of the HVAC and radio controls, especially the radio. The gauge cluster is easy to read and looks great, and the other interior bits and storage compartments are great, but changing the radio station, using the CD player, and changing something other than the temperature on the HVAC required far too much looking for someone getting lost by a bad navigation unit. Sure, these things fade with time as you get used to a car and its controls, but in this case, the screen for the HVAC and radio are pretty far down, and the knobs are all too similar, so one really needs to look at each button or knob, and figure out which of the screens that's too far down to see, HVAC or radio, you are messing with, and then interpret what it says. This could be a function of the nav screen occupying the prime real estate in the center stack, but, from my time in an Odyssey, I was not surprised. While the radio screen is higher up in the Odyssey (at least the one without the nav), it's hard to see during the day due to small numbers and a seemingly low resolution two-color LCD. The Pilot's is surely bigger, but it's tucked further down in the stack, so it's not necessarily easier to see.

The Final Review
Overall, if I was looking at Grand Cherokee, I'm not so sure I'd get a Pilot, though the Jeep is smaller, so I probably wouldn't be cross-shopping the two. If I were to buy a Pilot, though, I'd probably deck it out with every option, which then raises the question of a stripped (hardly the right descriptor here) MDX or a loaded Pilot. For me, the choice is clearly the stripped MDX (if you need a third row of seats, the MDX is not an option, so you would be stuck with the Pilot if you decided on a Honda with a third row). Still very well equipped even without a single option added (which, with Acura at least, is generally just a nav, but there is also an engine option with the MDX), the MDX handles better, looks far better and has better ergonomics. No contest there. But, if you are not one who wants to pay for a navigation system or leather, the Pilot would be the clear choice over the Big Three's offerings in this class, the Ford Explorer, Chevy TrailBlazer (and its many twins from GMC, Isuzu and Buick) and Dodge Durango. Quality, refinement, resale and an arguably better dealer service record put the Pilot head and shoulders above its competitors. Plus, you don't have to worry about rental and corporate fleet sales killing your resale value.

Recommended for the $25-35k range.

Honda quality, no fleet sales, better than competitor-engineering

Nav reliability, no sunroof, bland styling


Engine:3.5L V6
Transmission:5 Spd Auto
0-60:8.2 Seconds
Horsepower:240 hp
Torque:242 lb-ft
EPA Rating:17 City
22 Highway
Price:$27,360 Base
$32,870 Test