2006 Honda Pilot EX-L Navi
2006 Honda Pilot EX-L. Click image to enlarge


Review and photos by Haney Louka

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Take a look at Honda’s product history in North America, and it becomes clear that they’re one of the most predictable brands in the car biz.

We know that no matter what segment they’re in, they will create reliable transportation built around solid yet advanced engineering practices.

And with a couple of exceptions, it is a safe bet that they’ll give us sensible if not always dynamic styling, with the eight-passenger Pilot being a case in point. When it entered the market in 2003, it sported rather underwhelming bodywork that resembled the then-outgoing 2002 CR-V. It was not ugly, to be sure, but with Nissan pushing the design envelope with the likes of its Murano (which still, by the way, looks fresh to these eyes), it was uninspiring to look at.

2006 brought a mid-cycle freshening to the Pilot, and it falls into the category of ‘change for the sake of change.’ Honda hasn’t really addressed the fact that its mid-sized sport-ute blends too easily into the automotive landscape, but they have made small changes to differentiate the current model from last year’s. But are the changes enough to fend off the latest crop of seven-place SUVs?

2006 Honda Pilot EX-L Navi
2006 Honda Pilot EX-L Navi
2006 Honda Pilot EX-L. Click image to enlarge

On the outside, a more definitive family resemblance with the Ridgeline pickup has been adopted in the form of a new grille and headlights. Hood, taillights, and bumpers have received mild makeovers as well.

Inside, the instrument panel has been redesigned and seating fabrics have changed. The example we drove represented a new trim level for 2006 – the EX-L Navi.

The Pilot LX starts the line-up with a base price of $39,400 and includes a 244-hp V6, four-wheel drive, 16-inch alloys, front, side, and curtain airbags; roof rails; manual A/C; four-speaker CD audio; cruise; keyless entry; and power windows.

EX models demand a couple of grand more and in return provide a security system, fog lights, tint, climate control, upgraded audio, HomeLink, a cargo net, and more. $44,500 buys the leather-clad EX-L with heated seats, while $2,100 more also nets a power moonroof.

At the top of the Pilot heap is our test unit. The EX-L Navi lists at $47,300, and, as the name suggests, comes equipped with a DVD-based navigation system that incorporates voice recognition and a seven-inch colour screen in plain view at the top of the centre stack. (The truck pictured is an EX-L Resi model, identical to the test vehicle, minus the navigation system – Ed.)

2006 Honda Pilot EX-L Navi
2006 Honda Pilot EX-L. Click image to enlarge

That’s within spitting distance of the $51,600 Acura MDX with which the Pilot shares its guts, but a navi-equipped Acura commands about $10K more than our test unit. Although the Acura is more lavishly equipped, the Pilot is starting to look like somewhat of a bargain.

Yet I can’t help but think that, at the Pilot’s price point, a few luxury items are missing. For example, most vehicles above about $35,000 have a trip computer of some type. Not the Pilot. Xenon headlights? Nope. How about automatic headlights or rain-sensing wipers? Again, no such luck. And more and more entries in this price range incorporate ‘lane-changer’ turn signals which require just a quick nudge of the stalk to effect three flashes.

Such relatively small upgrades would go a long way toward making the Pilot feel more luxurious. But since the Acura includes most of those features noted above, it’s clear that a strategy is in place to differentiate the two brands.

The Pilot, then, is the more utilitarian of the two, a characteristic that is given away by its conservative styling both inside and out. Sure, it has heated leather seats and such, but they don’t scream ‘luxury;’ rather, they whisper ‘comfort.’

2006 Honda Pilot EX-L Navi
2006 Honda Pilot EX-L. Click image to enlarge

The dash is, as expected from Honda, an ergonomic success. I’m not crazy about the column-mounted shifter, but it does leave room in the centre console for more storage. There are numerous bins, compartments, and trays to contain all of one’s miscellany.

There’s a large armrest between the front seats that covers a spacious storage area for CDs and other large items – a common interior feature, but this one has a door on the front that, when opened, reveals a cell phone holder and auxiliary power outlet. And the overhead sunglasses holder incorporates a convex mirror so the kiddies can be kept in check. Nice touches.

Similarly, performance is satisfying rather than exhilarating, with the car’s SAE-certified 244-hp V6 and five-speed auto being a well-matched pair (the MDX gets 253 hp). Rather than the usual case of a transmission upshifting too early for my tastes and displaying a reluctance to downshift, the powertrain is refreshingly responsive. Under moderate acceleration the engine routinely revs to 3,500 before effecting an upshift, and it’s seemingly a half-step ahead of other slushboxes when shifting down is appropriate. It doesn’t hurt that the motor has a broad torque curve and that response from the electronic throttle is immediate.

Note to others: this is how it’s done, sans emotion.

2006 Honda Pilot EX-L Navi
2006 Honda Pilot EX-L. Click image to enlarge

The Pilot is one of those three-row SUVs that doesn’t have a whole lot of passenger space in the third row. It’s fine for adults if they’re in a pinch, but should primarily be used for children or folded flat into the floor to increase cargo space. At least the second-row seats slide and even angle forward to make access to that vestigial rear seat easier.

The Pilot can contain up to 2,557 litres of stuff if second and third rows are folded (compared with 2,282 in the Toyota Highlander and almost 3,100 in the GMC Yukon), and with both rows in use the cargo capacity drops to a still-respectable 461 litres, or about the size of a Chrysler 300’s trunk.

2006 Honda Pilot EX-L Navi
2006 Honda Pilot EX-L. Click image to enlarge

Aside from a general lack of excitement, there were a couple of things that disappointed me about the Pilot. First, I found that the automatic climate control kept the A/C fan blowing hard longer than it needed to. Manual intervention was a common occurrence. Next on the hit list is the navigation system. It worked well enough, but it didn’t like when I took a route in North Dakota that was anything other than an interstate. It insisted that I needed to make a U-turn and drive almost back to Winnipeg to find the turnoff I should have taken. And after using GM’s touch screen navigation system in the 2007 Yukon Denali, most other systems seem awkward and less intuitive in comparison.

So as a premium, high-quality family hauler there’s little to fault the freshened Pilot. On the emotion meter, though, there’s hardly a pulse. And with an increasing number of more appealing and less expensive three-row competitors on the scene, Honda’s job just got tougher.


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