2003 Honda Pilot
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Story by Greg Wilson

Photos by Laurance Yap

New Pilot takes on Explorer, Grand Cherokee

The mid-size sport-utility class has long been dominated by domestic vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Chevy Blazer/Trailblazer. In 2001 for example, sales of the Explorer, Grand Cherokee and Blazer/Jimmy, Envoy/Trailblazer accounted for more than two thirds of all mid-size SUV sales in Canada. Import SUVs, such as the Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner, and Isuzu Rodeo, have attempted to chip away at this domestic dominance, but they’ve been largely unsuccessful. With the introduction of the mid-size 2003 Honda Pilot, and to a lesser extent the slightly smaller Toyota Highlander, import brands may finally have the ammunition they need to mount a serious challenge.

Greg Wilson and 2003 Honda Pilot
Greg Wilson drives the 2003 Honda Pilot
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The Honda Pilot, which went on sale June 3rd as a 2003 model, is an eight passenger, mid-sized SUV based on the same unit body platform as the Acura MDX, and is built in the same assembly plant in Allston, Ontario.

The Pilot shares the MDX’s platform, 240 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 VTEC engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, ‘on demand’ automatic four-wheel-drive system, and fully independent suspension – but the Pilot has distinctive exterior and interior styling, different suspension tuning, less standard equipment, and a lower price. The Pilot EX starts at $41,000 while the Pilot EX-L, which includes heated leather seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel, goes for $43,000. The MDX starts at $47,000.

Pilot is wider than competitors

2003 Honda Pilot
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When comparing the Pilot with its competitors, one fact stands out: the Pilot is three or four inches wider than other mid-sized SUV’s. That gives it a wider stance which enhances stability, handling and ride, and provides a wider, roomier cabin. The Pilot’s extra width allows a roomier storage area between the front seats, and more lateral width in the second and third rows. The third row seat is capable of seating three passengers rather than two, giving the Pilot a total standard seating capacity of eight. For comparison, the Explorer and Dodge Durango offer standard five passenger seating and optional seven passenger seating. GM’s new extended length Envoy and Trailblazers will offer eight passenger seating, but these vehicles are almost too large to be in the mid-size class.

Another benefit of the Pilot’s wider cabin is its roomy cargo area. With both second and third row seatbacks folded down, the Pilot has the largest cargo capacity in its class (2557 litres/90.3 cu. ft.). However, it should be noted that with the third row seat up, there is very little cargo room behind the seat.

Though the Pilot doesn’t have the most powerful six cylinder engine in its class (that honour goes to the Trailblazer/Envoy’s 270 horsepower inline six cylinder engine), its standard 240 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 with VTEC (variable valve timing) provides acceleration that is as quick or quicker than most of its competitors (0 to 100 km/h in 9.3 seconds) while providing the best fuel economy in its class – despite the fact that the Pilot is one of the heaviest vehicles in its class.

But while the Explorer, Grand Cherokee, Trailblazer, and Envoy are available with optional V8 engines, the Pilot is available with just one V6 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission combination. Equipped with an optional towing package (trailer hitch, transmission cooler, and P.S.F. cooler), the Pilot can tow up to 2045 kg (4500 lb.) – pretty good, but not as good as the Explorer (5500 lb.) and Trailblazer (6200 lb.).

As well, the Pilot is not available as a two-wheel-drive model. It comes standard with an ‘on-demand’ all-wheel-drive system which automatically transfers some of the power to the rear wheels when front wheel slip is detected. It also features a rear differential lock that splits the torque sent to the rear wheels to provide better traction in really slippery conditions. The Pilot does not offer a traditional part-time, engage-it-yourself four-wheel-drive system.

Lastly, while some of the Pilot’s competitors are available in minimally-equipped base versions for a lower price, the Pilot EX comes standard with many luxury and comfort features, except leather, for its base price of $41,000.

Interior is roomy and versatile

Mini Cooper S

Mini Cooper S

2003 Honda Pilot
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As I mentioned, the Pilot is a roomy vehicle. It has large doors for easy entry, a tall roof for abundant headroom, a wide cabin for increased hiproom, and big windows for good visibility. During my test-drive, which included over a thousand kilometres driving on freeways and secondary roads through hilly country, I found the Pilot’s driving environment to be very comfortable with excellent visibility and easy-to-use controls. The Pilot’s wide front seats are covered in a comfortable soft, velour-type cloth material and the driver’s seat has standard power height, lumbar and rake adjustments while the power passenger seat has height adjustment. One small complaint: I noticed that only the optional leather seats are offered with seat heaters.

The dash is made of an attractive plastic material which is complemented by subtle metallic trim on the console, steering wheel and doors. The instrument cluster includes a large central speedometer with a prominent transmission gear indicator wrapped around the right side of it, and a smaller tachometer with a 6100 rpm redline. Transmission gears are selected using a column shifter rather than a floor shifter, which frees up storage space in the console.

The centre dash, with its high mounted stereo, protrudes outwards for easier reach – the AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo is noteworthy for its large, central volume knob (as well as additional radio controls on the steering wheel hub) and seven speakers. The Pilot’s standard automatic climate control system has a single temperature control dial, and separate fan and temperature controls for second row passengers. I had some difficulties with the automatic climate control system in my test vehicle. With the air conditioning on, the air temperature stayed very cold even when I set the temperature at 30 degrees Celsius. The day I returned the vehicle to Honda, it reverted back to normal operation (of course). Was it a faulty temperature sensor?

One feature I really liked was the huge and versatile storage bin under the centre stack. It includes two hidden storage areas with a sliding cover, two removeable cupholders, and a folding panel which includes a cell phone holder and 12 volt powerpoint – your cell phone is accessible when driving, and when parked, and it can be hidden by folding back the panel. The centre folding armrest also hides a huge storage area for coins, CD’s, tapes, cameras and phones.

Another feature I liked was a button that turns on all the interior lights at once – there are lights in all three seating positions.

I noted that variable intermittent wipers are standard equipment (yay!), but the standard rear wiper/washer does not have an intermittent setting.

The second row seats are very comfortable for two or even three people. A centre folding armrest includes a hidden storage area, two cupholders and a fast-food sauce container! There are also cupholders built into the door armrests, door storage pockets, and mesh-type pockets on the back of the front seats.

Second row passengers have their own fan and temperature control on the back of the centre console – my passengers made good use of this feature on a hot summer day. A 12 volt powerpoint is also provided for video games or portable CD players and radios.

The third row seat can be accessed from either rear door – the second row seats slide forward when the seatbacks are folded and slide back again later. Still, it’s a bit of a squeeze climbing into the third seat. Once there, you’ll find plenty of headroom, but the seat cushions and seatbacks are firm and legroom is minimal. There are three lap and shoulder belts, but the third seat is narrower than the second seat and not really suited for three passengers – it’s basically designed for three small children or two pre-teenagers. Third row passengers have a 12 volt powerpoint, two cupholders and storage bins on the left side and one cupholder and bin on the right side.

The cargo hatch opening is almost 50 inches wide, and the cargo area includes a long, narrow hidden storage compartment under the floor – I used it to store the three third row head restraints when the seat wasn’t being used.

With the third rear seatbacks in the up position, the cargo area is only 15 inches deep (16.3 cu. ft.), but by folding down one or both sides of the third seat, the cargo area extends to 42 inches (48.7 cu. ft.). By folding the second row seatbacks, the cargo area is almost 80 inches in length to the back of the front seat (90.3 cu. ft.). Large, easy-to-grip levers make it easy to fold down the seatbacks. My one complaint was that the second row seatbacks don’t fold quite flat.

The rear hatch door is easy to lift up and includes sturdy-looking struts to hold it up. However, I noticed that it’s not high enough for people over 5′ 10″ tall to stand under without bumping their heads. And the rear hatch doesn’t have a separate rear liftglass.

Driving impressions

When you first pull away from a stoplight, two things are apparent: the Pilot is quick and very quiet. For a 2012 kg (4436 lb.) vehicle, the Pilot’s throttle response is very lively and the 5-speed automatic transmission responds well to kick down. 0 to 100 km/h in about 9.3 seconds is quick for an SUV of this size, and mid-range acceleration when passing or merging is also commendable. Unlike some ‘truck’ engines, the Pilot’s SOHC, 24 valve, VTEC engine has a wide rev range with a fairly high redline, yet also has comparable torque: 242 ft-lb at 4500 r.p.m.

At freeway speeds, both the engine and transmission are very quiet, and the only significant noise comes from wind rushing over the windshield. At a steady 100 km/h, the engines turns at just 1,700 rpm, while at 120 km/h, it does only 2,100 rpm – no wonder it was so quiet!

Honda claims the best fuel consumption in its class: 13.8 l/100 km (20 mpg) in the city and 9.6 l/100 km (29 mpg) on the highway – and it uses regular unleaded. Still, the Pilot’s fuel consumption is thirsty with a full load of passengers and luggage on board.

I found that its 5-speed automatic transmission with grade-logic would shift down automatically when I depressed the brake pedal while going downhill, and would hold in gear while accelerating lightly up a grade. Around town, a gentle push on the accelerator will instantly engage a lower gear and a little more effort would induce the next gear, providing responsive performance. However, I found the transmission’s response time to be slow when pulling out to pass at about 100 km/h. And the Pilot’s transmission doesn’t offer an on/off overdrive button, nor a manual shift mode.

At speed, the Pilot feels stable, if a bit heavy, and the steering is accurate, firm and tracks well. However, the variable-assist rack and pinion steering is a bit firm at parking lot speeds. The Pilot’s ride is smooth over good pavement, but a tad unforgiving over rough pavement. Still, the body feels tight and solid, and there are no rattles. Handling is stable with some initial lean, and though it couldn’t be described as sporty, its overall ride and handling are excellent for such a tall, heavy vehicle. The standard P235/70R-16 inch tires look a little small on this tall vehicle, but they perform well. I found the Pilot’s standard four wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake distribution were strong and powerful in sudden stops.

The Pilot’s all-wheel-drive system is transparent to the driver and passengers most of the time, and only activates when one or more tires lose traction. Up to 52% of the of the engine’s power is instantly transferred to the rear wheels. As well, the driver can engage a rear limited slip differential simply be pressing a button on the dash – but only in 1st, 2nd or Reverse gears. This feature can be used when the vehicle is stuck in the snow or mud, and will work if only one rear wheel has traction. However, if only one front wheel has traction, it won’t help. Still, the chances of being in such a position are unlikely.

The Pilot has a decent 20 cm (8 in.) of ground clearance and short front and rear overhangs, but it doesn’t have a Low Range gear, a feature designed for ‘creeping’ down or up steep hills. Chances are though, most Pilot buyers won’t be engaging in this kind of severe off-road driving.

Standard features

The Pilot EX includes all the features I’ve mentioned for its price of $41,000. Also included are front and side airbags (with passenger occupant position sensor), anti-theft system, power windows with driver’s up/down feature, power door locks and remote keyless entry, power heated outside mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, nine cupholders, and six cargo hooks.

Competitor overview

The Pilot EX competes with the Ford Explorer XLT 4X4 ($39,105), Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo ($39,005), Chevrolet Trailblazer LT 4X4 ($40,775), GMC Envoy SLE 4X4 ($41,275), Dodge Durango SLT ($40,375), and Toyota Highlander AWD ($36,190).

The Pilot is roomier and more powerful than most of its six cylinder competitors, and offers better, though not good, fuel economy. Its fully independent suspension and wide track provides a more stable, ‘chop-free’ ride than some of its solid axle competitors, and the interior quality and level of standard equipment are both very good.

The Pilot is not available with optional V8 engines, or traditional 4WD systems, and is more suited to country roads than impassable trails. In fact, the Pilot is more like a family minivan with the added benefit of all-wheel-drive and a high ground clearance. With Honda’s solid reputation for reliability and a strong resale value, the Pilot should prove very attractive to well-to-do families.

The 2003 Honda Pilot is built in Alliston, Ontario, along with the Honda Odyssey, Honda Civic, Acura 1.7EL and Acura MDX.

Technical Data: 2003 Honda Pilot EX

Base price $41,000
Type 4-door, 8 passenger mid-size sport utility vehicle
Layout longitudinal front engine/on-demand all-wheel-drive
Engine 3.5 litre V6, SOHC, 24 valves, VTEC
Horsepower 240 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 242 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Tires 235/70R-16
Curb weight 2012 kg (4436 lb.)
Wheelbase 2700 mm (106.3 in.)
Length 4775 mm (188.0 in.)
Width 1963 mm (77.3 in.)
Height 1793 mm (70.6 in.)
Trunk capacity max. 2557 litres (90.3 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 13.8 l/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.6 l/100 km (29 mpg)
Fuel Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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