Let's face it. The Honda Pilot has always looked like a brick on wheels. The new for 2009 Pilot, with its CR-V inspired grille, looks even worse. It doesn't get much better on the inside, with a dash dominated by cheap plastics and questionable material choices. As much as we dislike the Pilot's aesthetics, we can say that the SUV feels solid, as though it were machined out of a solid piece of metal. The ride is supple without being floaty, and the cabin is among the quietest in its class.
Test the tech: Scenic fuel economy drive
The 2009 Pilot comes standard with a few tech features that help improve the fuel economy of Honda's largest SUV. The first is the Honda staple i-VTEC, which helps the engine run more efficiently by having two separate cam profiles for high and low engine speeds. There's also variable cylinder management (VCM), which electronically deactivates cylinders to reduce fuel consumption. The VCM engine is able to run on three, four, or six cylinders based on the power requirement. Back in the cabin, the instrument cluster features an ECO light that activates to notify the driver that the Pilot is running on fewer than six cylinders and an mpg meter built into the trip computer.
With all that efficient drivetrain tech in place, we decided to see just how efficiently we could pilot the Pilot across San Francisco's 49 Mile Scenic Drive in and around the city, highlighting many of the major attractions and historic structures.
Starting at the Civic Center, near the city's center, we set out toward Japantown. Over the mostly uphill journey, we averaged a low 9.0 mpg, which was cause for concern, but we'd only just begun. By the time we reached Chinatown, we'd managed to reach 9.2 mpg.
By the time we reached Fisherman's Wharf, we'd gotten the hang of driving the Honda efficiently and managed to raise the fuel economy to 9.3 mpg. We entered the Presidio at 9.5 mpg and were beginning to think that we'd never see better gas mileage when a smooth and relatively stop sign free stretch of road took us up and under the Golden Gate Bridge, down the Pacific coast, and into Golden Gate Park, boosting our fuel economy to 12.0 mpg.
Twin Peaks offers a stellar 360-degree view of the city, but reaching the peak cost us mpg.
After leaving the park, our path took us up to Twin Peaks, where we had a fantastic 360-degree view of the city. Reaching the top of the hill cost us 0.2 mpg, but we made up for it on the decent. After a few more miles of sightseeing, we found ourselves taking a short blast up I-280 toward AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. The highway driving helped, but not much. We only managed to raise our mpg to 12.2. Past the park, we found ourselves on the Embarcadero enjoying a view of San Francisco's other great bridge, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Finally, we turned and headed back to City Hall.
The Honda Pilot's mpg meter is integrated into the trip computer.
At the end of our 49-mile and 5-hour trip, we'd netted an average of 12.1 miles per gallon, well below the EPA-rated 17 city mpg. It would appear that San Francisco's many hills climbed and heavy stop-and-go urban traffic has bested Honda's engineers this time.
In the cabin
Our test Pilot was an EX-L model, which is lacking in the cabin tech department, to say the least. There's no navigation or Bluetooth at this trim level. There isn't even a stereo upgrade option. What you do get is a six-disc CD changer with MP3 CD capabilities, a backup camera option, and some odd trim materials.
The backup camera differentiates itself from other systems we've tested by hiding the color monitor behind the glass of the rearview mirror. We like this setup because it allows the driver to keep at least one eye of the mirror while using the camera to see into the huge rear blindspot. Plus, it looks really cool. The camera's focal length isn't as wide as some of the systems we've used in the past, so you'll have to use the sideview mirrors to see things at the extreme corners of the car.
The audio system is trimmed with a horrendous greenish frosted plastic.
The CD changer is a complete eyesore, being covered in a cheap greenish-blue, faux-frosted glass material. We can understand why an automaker would use faux-metal or faux-wood, but faux-frosted glass is completely beyond our comprehension. Fortunately, the system doesn't sound like it looks. Audio was loud and clear with audio CDs and MP3s encoded at high bit rates. The system includes a subwoofer that really fills out the bottom end of the music without overpowering the mids and highs.
With the volume cranked to 11, we didn't hear any rattle or hum, suggesting that the speakers are well-mounted and the interior panels fastened tight.
Prospective Pilot owners who plan on filling the SUV's second and third rows with children will be interested in the optional rear-seat DVD-entertainment option, which adds a 9-inch flip-down display with wireless headphones and remote control.
Under the hood
When all six cylinders are active, Honda's 3.5 liter i-VTEC engine outputs 250 horsepower through a five-speed automatic transmission with grade logic control, that keeps the vehicle in a lower gear when going uphill, downhill, or in city traffic for efficiency and a smoother, more controlled ride. Passing through the transmission, power is routed to either the two rear wheels or all four wheels, depending on the drivetrain equipped.
The Pilot's 3.5 liter V-6 looks small and inadequate in the huge plastic-clad engine bay.
On the road, the Pilot feels weighty and underpowered. Due to the lack of power and numb handling we didn't really seek the limits of the Pilot's performance envelope, but it's immediately apparent that the SUV just doesn't move like some of the more athletic vehicles in its segment, such as the lighter and more powerful Mazda CX-9. However, the Pilot is solidly built, easy to steer, and is perfectly content rolling along at the posted speed limit.
We think it's pretty safe to say that someone in the market for a vehicle like the Pilot probably isn't ranking performance as a top priority, but cabin quality and tech definitely are. The $33,595 Honda Pilot EX-L is practically devoid of cabin tech, with the exception of the backup camera and the very ugly, but very sweet sounding, audio system. Even if you wanted to upgrade, there aren't even any tech options available at this trim level, which is why we gave the Pilot EX-L low marks for cabin comfort.
To get Honda's hard-drive navigation system with Bluetooth hands free, you'll have to step up to the $36,795 Touring trim level. In Touring trim, the Pilot is priced competitively with the likes of and equally equipped Toyota Highlander. Technophiles with $37,000 to spend may want to have a look at Ford's 2009 Explorer Limited, which can now be equipped with Microsoft's Sync technology suite.