2016 Honda Pilot Elite review: Boxy design slimmed down for a more family-friendly focus

Roadshow Editors' Rating

8.1 Overall
  • Performance 8
  • Features 8
  • Design 8.5
  • Media 8

The Good The lighter, more powerful Pilot feels more nimble on its toes than before and looks like a modern family vehicle. New dashboard tech includes navigation software by Garmin and five high-power USB ports. A rear camera and Honda's LaneWatch camera are standard features.

The Bad You lose the HondaLink camera if you upgrade to blind-spot monitoring. The Pilot currently lacks the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay updates that recently came to the Accord.

The Bottom Line Significantly improved over the last generation's performance, technology and curb appeal, the 2016 Honda Pilot is once again a top contender in the eight-passenger SUV class.

The largest Honda model gets a makeover for the 2016 model year. The new Pilot is 3.5 inches longer than before, almost 2 inches of which is in the longer wheelbase. The footprint is larger, but the Pilot is also about an inch shorter vertically than the 2015 model, thanks to slightly reduced ground clearance. Combined with the SUV's new, more athletic sheetmetal, this makes the Pilot look significantly smaller and more approachable. The old Pilot looked like a square-shouldered Hummer with a Honda badge; the new Pilot looks streamlined, more muscular, and, well, sort of like a Toyota Highlander from some angles. Considering its target demographic, I suppose that last bit is OK.

The lower ride height also makes climbing into and out of the Pilot less of an acrobatic affair. Kids, especially, should have an easier time getting into the third row, thanks to a redesigned folding and sliding second row with a more easily reachable release button.

In addition to looking smaller, the Pilot is a bit lighter. Extensive use of high and ultrahigh tensile steel grants the SUV a stiffer chassis and allows Honda to save up to 300 pounds of mass when compared to the previous generation, depending on the trim level.

The new Pilot gains about 3.5 inches of length (mostly in wheelbase) but loses an inch of ride height. You weren't going to take this off-road anyway, right? Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The lighter chassis goes hand in hand with the more powerful engine room. Here you'll find that Honda's 3.5-liter direct-injected V-6 has been enhanced to the tune of 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. That's 30 more ponies than the 2015 model boasted, which results in a more responsive feeling 4,300-pound SUV.

The V-6 retains Honda's variable cylinder management system, which allows it to deactivate three of its cylinders during light cruising to save fuel. The mill is paired with either a six-speed automatic transmission for the lower trim levels or a new nine-speed automatic for the top-trim Touring and Elite models. The nine-speed models also feature a new stop-start system that shuts the engine down when the car is stopped to reduce fuel losses to idling.

Depending on the trim level and equipment, you're looking at between 18 and 20 city miles per gallon and between 21 and 23 highway mpg. That's only about a 2 mpg gain across the board, which isn't exactly game changing, but is better than nothing. The greatest gains come from the new nine-speed equipped Touring models with front wheel drive. Over a week of testing, including a trip from San Francisco to the Los Angeles Auto Show and back, we averaged 24.2 mpg -- not bad at all.

When equipped with the nine-speed automatic, the Pilot gains this unique push-button shifter. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The final powertrain choice set before prospective Pilot drivers is front- or all-wheel drive. The latter is Honda's Intelligent Variable Torque Management (i-VTM4) all-wheel-drive system, which can send torque on demand to the rear axle and features torque vectoring.

At a Honda Pilot driving event earlier this year, I was able to test the new model back-to-back with the previous generation on a twisty Kentucky road. The new Pilot feels slightly livelier than before when pushed thanks to its lighter weight, better sorted suspension and slightly better power. The Pilot is no sports car, however, and these moderate performance gains at 9/10th translate into the SUV feeling significantly more planted and predictable at more family-friendly speeds.

Cabin tech

The Pilot also gains refinements in the cabin starting with the 8-inch display audio system, an enlarged version of the infotainment system that we've seen previously in the Honda Fit and HR-V. The system is significantly simpler and easier to wrap one's head around than the dual screened system that you'll find in the Honda Accord, but so far lacks the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality that was added with the 2016 Accord's latest software update.

The Pilot's infotainment software is based on a heavily modified version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich -- though you'd only really know that if you poke deep into the menu structure. There are a few blank home screens to be found by swiping right from the main menu, so conceivably there's room for new features to be added down the line. As it is, you can choose between a solid loadout of digital media sources, the automaker's HondaLink connected services and audio streaming powered by Aha.

Also new for the 2016 Pilot is navigation software powered by Garmin and fed live updates by Honda HD Digital Traffic. I've always praised Garmin's routing algorithms and fairly accurate map data, but those who aren't fans will have to admit that the new software is a night-and-day improvement over the old aging Satellite Linked Navigation System's responsiveness and ease of use.

The display audio system also features a new generation of SiriusXM satellite radio that rolls in the ability to pause and rewind satellite radio broadcasts up to half an hour.

Around the cabin, you'll find plenty of USB ports for connecting digital audio and charging portable devices. There's a 2.5-amp charging port in the center console that can charge a tablet like the iPad at full speed. There's also a pair of ports under the dashboard -- one 2.5 amp and one 1.5 amp -- that can charge and play digital media. Touring and Elite models also feature a pair of 2.5 amp ports on the second row. If you need to charge more than five phones at a time, there are also a few 12-volt adapters and an optional 110V AC outlet, so you can power even more junk.

Garmin software now handles mapping and routing duties for the Android-based infotainment. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Pilot is also available with a Blu-ray rear seat entertainment system that features an HDMI input and RCA analog video inputs. The system's display folds down from the ceiling and the optical drive can be found low on the dashboard's center stack.

Honda makes some interesting choices where safety tech is concerned. The SUV comes standard with the automaker's Honda's LaneWatch side camera system, for example, which displays a video feed of the passenger-side blind spot when the turn signal is activated. This feature is replaced, however, with a traditional indicator light and chiming Blind Spot Monitoring system when the Honda Sensing package is added -- optional on the EX, and standard for the Touring and Elite models. When asked why it didn't give drivers both, Honda's representatives didn't have a convincing explanation.

Also added as part of the Honda Sensing suite are radar-based forward collision warning and collision mitigation braking systems, and camera-based lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist systems (which uses the electric power steering to assist steering when the Pilot drifts over lane markers). The Pilot can also be had with adaptive cruise control, which can slow the vehicle to maintain a safe following distance with a lead vehicle, but only down to a minimum speed of about 20 mph. You can't, for example, use adaptive cruise to automatically creep through a slow traffic jam.

The 2016 Pilot is significantly lighter, smarter and more powerful than its boxy predecessor. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I was able to test these systems and confirm that they largely operate identically to the safety tech in the Acura MDX, the pilot's upmarket cousin.

Conclusion

The 2016 Honda Pilot is significantly improved over the last generation, whether you're talking about performance, technology or simple curb appeal. The new model's pricing starts at $29,995 for the base LX model and works its way up to a max $46,420 for the line topping Elite with Navigation and rear seat entertainment.

The new Pilot also compares favorably with other seven or eight seaters on the market, with Toyota's Highlander being its fiercest competitor. The Honda's V-6 engine is just a hair more powerful than the Toyota's V-6, but is also nearly as efficient as the Highlander's four-cylinder option. I'd also give the edge to the Honda where dashboard tech is concerned, but the two models are so closely matched here that it comes down mostly to preferring the Honda interface.

They're also neck and neck when it comes to advanced driver assistance features (available blind spot monitoring, lane departure warnings and so on), but the Honda pulls ahead again with a few more advanced features -- such as lane-keeping assistance -- that the Highlander lacks. On the other hand, the Honda is a bit more expensive than the Toyota when comparably equipped, which rebalances the score between these rival dad wagons.