Test Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring car test drives honda
2009 Honda Pilot Touring. Click image to enlarge

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2009 Honda Pilot

Winnipeg, Manitoba – My test drive of Honda’s new 2009 Pilot started with an unusually high degree of suspense: it sat in my garage for a few days before I was able to drive it.

No, there was nothing wrong with the vehicle – the delay was entirely voluntary. Honda had graciously granted me permission to drive this new crossover on our family’s summer vacation which would encompass more than 2,000 km, so the least I could do was not drive it in the days leading up to our trip. Turns out it was worth the wait as the Pilot proved the perfect companion for the four of us and our ten days’ worth of luggage as we ventured south from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.

2009 marks the beginning of the second generation for Honda’s largest CUV, or crossover utility vehicle. For those trying to decipher between SUVs and CUVs, there are two basic things to look for when deciding which category a vehicle falls into (although even these guidelines are not set in stone).

Traditional sport-utility vehicles, or SUVs, are truck-based body-on-frame vehicles that typically have higher payload and towing capacities but are less comfortable and fuel-efficient than crossovers. They also have part-time four-wheel-drive systems with a low range for off-road excursions.

As the popularity of SUVs grew through the ’90s, particularly as a more stylish alternative to minivans, so did consumers’ desire to have something more car-like to drive around in, even if it meant giving up some of the utility and ruggedness they’d come to expect from SUVs.

Test Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring car test drives honda
2009 Honda Pilot Touring. Click image to enlarge

And so unit-bodied car- and van-based “crossovers” began to appear on showroom floors to fulfill this new demand for a family hauler with all-wheel drive and rugged styling. In this configuration the body and the car’s structure are one, as opposed to panels being attached to a separate frame. Lighter weight and higher structural rigidity are some benefits of the more passenger-friendly unibody design.

Still, the distinction is not nearly as clear-cut as it should be. For example, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, thought of by many as the definitive SUV, is unit-bodied, and has been since 1993. The Kia Sorento, which looks by most measures to be a crossover, is a body-on-frame design with a Low Range that fits the description of a more traditional SUV.

The first-generation Pilot was a significant entry in 2003, as it brought the seven-seat platform of the more expensive Acura MDX (both models were based on the Odyssey van) into more practical and affordable territory. I’ve always been a fan of the original Pilot but wished Honda had injected it with more personality.

At least some Honda customers must have agreed with me because the new design looks more distinctive inside and out and retains its user-friendliness in a more powerful yet fuel efficient package.

It’s hard not to notice the Pilot’s in-your-face front end treatment. The headlights and grille somehow look about two sizes too big for the rest of the vehicle, which is certainly distinctive. Honda’s designers probably spent most of their energy on this imposing face, because in profile and from behind, the Pilot still suffers from a bit of that me-too look. But hey, it’s progress.

Test Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring car test drives honda
Test Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring car test drives honda
2009 Honda Pilot Touring. Click image to enlarge

The Pilot’s cabin has benefited more in the redesign, thanks to a significantly more upscale look bestowed upon the instrument panel and dash. Gauges are easy to read and very attractive thanks to numerals that appear to float in front of the gauge dials. The plastics, while they look nice, are still of the hard-to-the-touch variety. That’s almost forgivable in a $30,000 car, but the Pilot Touring is pushing $50K, and for that I’d expect more.

Ergonomically, the Pilot is very much a Honda. What that means is that primary controls are all thoughtfully placed, but – and this is especially true for the higher-end models – secondary controls for the myriad comfort and convenience features are accessed through an imposing number of buttons identified by text in addition to the various menus accessed by operating the buttons surrounding a control wheel at the base of the centre stack.

The most frustrating thing for me was setting up my mobile phone through the Bluetooth “HandsFreeLink” system that comes only on the top-line Touring model. Rather than navigating through menus as with most other brands, setting up the phone in Hondas and Acuras is done by pressing the ‘talk’ button and saying “phone setup” – simple, once you know how to do it, but a little frustrating after exhausting all menu options and then resorting to reading the owner’s manual to find out it just wants to talk.

But as with anything that takes getting used to, niggles like this quickly become a non-issue in the course of vehicle ownership.

Other features unique to the $49,920 Touring model include a power liftgate, heated second row seats, parking sensors front and rear, a navigation and DVD entertainment system, and memory for the driver’s seat.

Down at the affordable end of the Pilot spectrum, $36,820 buys a base front-drive LX model with the same running gear (except all-wheel drive, of course) as the higher level models.

Test Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring car test drives honda
2009 Honda Pilot Touring. Click image to enlarge

That running gear consists of a 3.5-litre V-6, same as last year, but retuned to provide 250 hp and 253 ft-lb of torque, up from 244 and 240 respectively. More significantly, fuel consumption is down to 13.1 L/100 km in the city and 9.1 on the highway. Last year’s figures for those same measures were 14.2 and 9.9. The roughly 10 percent decrease in consumption can be attributed to Honda’s “variable cylinder management” which allows the Pilot’s engine to operate on three, four, or all six of its cylinders depending on engine load conditions. The system is slick, too: were it not for the green “ECO” light on the instrument panel, the transition to and from cylinder deactivation would be undetectable.

Teamed with a five-speed automatic and “VTM-4″ on-demand all wheel drive, the Pilot’s powertrain is smooth and refined and devoid of annoying habits. The lack of a manual mode didn’t bother me at all, since these features are largely ignored by owners after the initial novelty factor wears thin. It would have been nice in a couple of rare instances, though, if there had been a “sport” mode to keep the engine’s revs elevated to prepare for passing.

Standard equipment on the base LX includes 17-inch wheels, an integrated trailer hitch, roof rails, three-row side curtain airbags with rollover sensor, stability control, two-zone A/C with rear controls, trip computer, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Test Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring car test drives honda
Test Drive: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring car test drives honda
2009 Honda Pilot Touring; top photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

There’s a range of models in between to add things like all-wheel drive, a moonroof, heated seats, leather upholstery, and climate control, but in a nutshell, keeping the sticker below $40K is nearly impossible.

The only real chink in the Pilot’s armour that affects the overall driving experience is road noise. The Michelin LTX tires constantly provide too much information about the texture of the road surface at highway speeds. It’s partially because wind and engine noise are impressively quiet, but it’s also a trait common to Honda/Acura products and increased sound insulation would be welcome.

At this price I would have liked to see a few more premium features added to the Pilot’s equipment list: keyless ignition, automatic wipers, xenon headlights, and lane-changer turn signals that flash three times with a tap of the stalk.

The Pilot made our 2,100-km road trip a delight thanks to its refined powertrain, smooth ride, comfortable seats and, perhaps most of all, its navigation and entertainment systems. Let’s just say the “are we there yet?” and “how much longer?” questions were much fewer and farther between than they otherwise would have been, and “maybe we should ask for directions” wasn’t uttered even once.

The entertainment system is slick: DVDs are inserted in a slot on the centre stack but other than that, all functions can be accessed using the remote that handily snaps into position in the car’s headliner and can be pulled out and used at any time. And when the kids donned the wireless headphones my wife and I enjoyed XM satellite radio in perfect peace.

The nav system always got us where we needed to go with very detailed instructions, particularly at interchanges where we needed to be in a specific lane to get going in the right direction. A touch screen would have been welcome, particularly when entering destinations, but we got used to the control knob eventually.

Our Pilot averaged a very respectable 12 L/100 km over the course of our trip, which was approximately 85 percent highway use, with speeds for much of the time in the 120-to-125 km/h range on U.S. Interstates.

So the Pilot is a great companion on the family road trip. But is it too much vehicle for every day use? For us, yes. But our lifestyle doesn’t include any towing or a family dog. And for those folks, the new Pilot is just about perfect.

Pricing: 2009 Honda Pilot Touring

Base price: $49,920 (Base price, LX: $36,820)
Options: None
A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,540
Price as tested: $51,560
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2009 Honda Pilot

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