2003 Honda Pilot
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Article by Greg Wilson
Photos by Laurance Yap

Mt. Tremblant, Quebec — The mid-sized SUV category, which includes the popular Ford Explorer, Chevy Trailblazer, Dodge Durango, Toyota Highlander and 4Runner, is about to receive a formidable new competitor. The Honda Pilot, a mid-sized, V6-powered, eight-passenger sport-utility vehicle with all-wheel-drive is scheduled to go on sale June 3rd. Prices haven’t been announced yet, but Honda says it will be in the low to mid $40,000 range, competitive with comparably-equipped versions of the above-mentioned SUVs.

In Canada, the Pilot will be offered in two trim levels: a well-equipped EX model with a cloth interior, and an EX-L model with a leather interior and heated seats. U.S. buyers will also be able to buy a less-expensive LX model.

As reported earlier in Autos’s preview of the Pilot, the new SUV is based on the Acura MDX which was introduced last year. The 2003 Pilot has unique exterior and interior styling, a lower level of standard equipment, different suspension tuning, 16 inch tires instead of 17 inch tires, and its 240 horsepower 3.5 litre VTEC V6 engine uses Regular gas instead of Premium.

2003 Honda Pilot
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Like the MDX, it has a standard 5-speed automatic transmission, permanently engaged all-wheel-drive with a rear differential lock for difficult road conditions, a fully independent suspension, and four wheel disc brakes with ABS. The Pilot is built on the same assembly line as the MDX in Alliston, Ontario.

From a distance, the Pilot’s looks like a larger version of the previous-generation Honda CR-V – but when you get up close you notice its prominently raised hood, stepped headlamps under clear plastic covers, lower bumper protection, and side body cladding all of which add a little, but not a lot of toughness to the design. Overall, the Pilot is a pretty conservative-looking SUV.

The Pilot looks well-built — the exterior panel fit is the best in its class according to Honda — for example, the gap between the hood and the fenders is just 3 millimetres.


Cabin is wide, roomy, but not third row seat

2003 Honda Pilot
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Inside, the Pilot has three rows of seats and eight seatbelts. The cabin is very roomy, in part because the Pilot is more than four inches wider than competitors like the Highlander and Trailblazer, and because the Pilot has a tall roof which provides plenty of headroom for all three rows. First row and second row passengers have generous legroom, but third row passengers over five feet tall will find minimal legroom and hiproom — the third row seat is narrower than the second row seat because of the rear wheelwells. To get into the third row seat, both sides of the second row split seats will slide forwards, but it’s a bit of a squeeze between the seatback and the door pillar.

The Pilot’s interior materials have a high quality look and include textured dash materials, a flat black centre instrument panel, metal-look trim on the dash and steering wheel, and attractive dimpled ‘golf ball’ plastic trim on the lower console and steering wheel. The radio is conveniently located right at the top of the centre stack and has a large central volume knob and two smaller knobs for tuning and stereo adjustments – however, the CD player only holds one disc. The lower centre panel includes automatic climate control with controls for the second row heater/air conditioner – standard on the Pilot.

2003 Honda Pilot
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The Pilot’s unique centre console includes a large open storage area and a hidden storage compartment under a sliding panel. There are also two open cupholders, and just behind that, a unique drop-down cell phone holder. The phone can be hidden inside the centre storage bin underneath the armrest by pushing back the panel, and there is a 12 volt outlet inside to charge the phone.

I found the front bucket seats to be comfortable and they include grippy side bolsters for holding you steady in the curves. My test car had the optional leather seats which feature perforated seat inserts and front seat heaters with two temperature settings. An innovative feature is a “pant protector” on the underside of the doors which prevents dirt from accumulating on the door sill and getting on to your pants when getting in and out of the vehicle.

2003 Honda Pilot
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The steering wheel has attractive leather and metal-look trim, and includes stereo and cruise control buttons — it tilts up and down, but doesn’t telescope in and out. The round gauges have a unique metal perimeter with a transmission gear indicator built into it — very attractive.

The second row split bench seat is wide enough for three passengers, and second-row passengers have a separate fan and temperature control for the heater and air conditioner, central air vents, mesh pockets on back of front seats, a centre fold-down armrest with a storage area and two cupholders, and two cupholders in the door armrests. I noted that the rear side windows go all the way down.

Third row passengers on the left side have two cupholders and a storage area, while right-side passengers have one cupholder and a storage bin.

For carrying cargo, the second and third row seats fold flat simply by lifting a lever with one hand and pushing down, however the third row head restraints must be removed first. The cargo area is over four feet wide, and with both rear seatbacks folded down, there is seven feet of loading length. Honda says there is 48.7 cu. ft. of cargo space behind the second seat, and 16.3 cu. ft. behind the third seat. A unique feature is removeable rear seatbelt anchors which can be detached so they’re out of the way when the seat isn’t being used.

Underneath the carpeted rear cargo floor is a hidden storage compartment which can be used to store the optional privacy cover and the three rear head restraints that need to be removed when the third seatback is folded. As well, the lid of the storage compartment can be tethered in an upright position to form a deeper trunk, and there are handy hooks for grocery bags on the back of the lid. There’s a temporary spare tire mounted under the cargo floor which can be removed by inserting a tool in a slot in the rear cargo floor. As well, the old tire can be replaced in the same compartment.

The rear hatch lifts up easily, and there is a step bumper for reaching the roof rack. The rear window has a defroster and intermittent wiper and washer, but the rear window doesn’t open separately from the hatch door.


Performance above-average

2003 Honda Pilot
In terms of performance, the Pilot’s acceleration and handling are above-average in the mid-sized SUV class. The Pilot’s 0 to 100 km/h time of 9.3 seconds is quicker than the Explorer and Highlander but slower than the Trailblazer and Envoy – however its fuel economy is best-in-class according to Honda, in part because it is the lightest 8-passenger SUV in the mid-size SUV class.

I drove the Pilot for about four hours around the hilly backroads near Mt. Tremblant, Quebec, down the freeway to Blainville, and then on a special off-road course set up by Honda for the vehicle’s introduction. I found the Pilot’s 3.5 litre V6 to be extremely lively, sporty-sounding, and smooth while the standard 5-speed automatic transmission with column shifter is responsive to throttle input, and smooth-changing even under sudden throttle kickdown. The shift lever doesn’t offer an overdrive on/off button though, and this transmission doesn’t have a manual shift mode (not that I really missed it).

In fifth gear on the freeway, the engine is very relaxed, doing just 1800 rpm at 100 km/h and 2100 rpm at 120 km/h.

I found the Pilot easy to drive because of its comfortable driving position, good visibility (the rear head restraints are positioned very low), tight turning circle, comfortable ride even over rough, broken pavement, and stable handling with minimal lean and strong resistance to side winds. Honda claims the Pilot has the best-in-class “dynamic roll stability” and “head toss”, and its cabin has the best visibility of its competitors. One small complaint: I thought the steering was a tad heavy at slow speeds.

2003 Honda Pilot
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The Pilot’s full-time four-wheel-drive system is seamless over pavement, and runs in front-wheel-drive most of the time except when accelerating and driving over slippery surfaces – up to 52% of the engine’s torque can be transferred to the rear wheels. In addition, a rear limited slip differential can be activated by pressing a button on the dash, but only in 1st, 2nd or Reverse gears. This would normally be used if you get stuck in the snow or mud, and I tried it out on a muddy off-road course – I found it most useful after coming to a complete stop and trying to move ahead while one rear wheel has no traction. The VTM-4 system transfers some power to the other rear wheel.

Honda anticipates that many Pilot owners will tow boats or recreational trailers and the Pilot has a reasonably good standard towing capacity of 4500 lb – more than the Highlander (3500 lb.) but less than the Explorer (5500 lb.) and Trailblazer (6200 lb.).


Conclusion

Greg Wilson
Greg Wilson
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The Pilot is not a traditional 4X4 SUV with a truck-like body-on-frame design and a Low Range gear — it’s more of a family SUV that offers the comfort of an eight passenger wagon with the all-weather capability of an all-wheel-drive and a high ground clearance.

With Honda’s reputation for reliability behind it, I predict the Pilot will really shake up the mid-size SUV class — and give class-leader Ford Explorer something to worry about.

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