2009 Honda Pilot

The Good:
– Very spacious interior
– Largely quiet ride
– Solid fuel economy
The Bad:
– Below-average power
– Hard plastics adorn cabin
– No low-range gearing

The original MR-V, sold as the Pilot in America where it was built, was Honda’s first attempt at a midsize 4WD, and it proved to be a fair seller, dreary styling notwithstanding. For 2009, Honda redesigned their minivan-based SUV, and chose to use the Pilot badge for the GCC too. Not that it makes the big box more exciting by any means.

As we cruised in the brand new Pilot, absolutely no one gave it a second look except for MR-V owners. Considering MR-V owners are of the dull-and-aging variety, the Pilot is pretty much not the vehicle to buy if you want to brag to your Prado fanclub buddies. It looks almost as generic as a box of Panadol, no matter how much chrome is loosely slapped onto the bumpers by the local dealer. Even the 17-inch alloys and dual exhaust tips aren’t spicy enough.

The larger-than-before interior is very different though, with unique shapes and multi-colour plastics. It’s a shame that almost all the plastics are rock-hard to the touch, of the kind you’d get in a low-budget economy car, and some of the panels don’t even line up perfectly. The gear shifter becomes a stub on the dashboard to make way for huge storage cubbies. Lots and lots of storage cubbies.

Unlike the previous one’s disfigured cabin, the new one has covers for most of the storage areas. The centre console ‘bucket’ is by far the largest, designed to hold anything from drinks to jewellery boxes. The passenger-side dashboard has a tray moulded into it that came in handy for small items, while another exposed cubby under the stereo proved useful for holding a mobile phone. Cup-holders and bottle-holders are in no short supply for almost any passenger.

The passengers also enjoy massive interior room, easily besting many full-size 4WDs in legroom and headroom. First-row and second-row passengers have ample space, while the third can actually be used by average-sized adults, even if a bit cramped. Third-row access remains annoying for those with back problems, but it can be managed, with a second-row seat that split-folds out of the way. The leather seats in our tester had mild bolstering and padded armrests. Using the third-row leaves enough room for the monthly shopping in the cargo hold, but folding flat the last bench offers cavernous luggage space. Fold down two rows and the floor space is as big as a studio apartment.

In terms of features, there are many innovations, such as ceiling-mounted holder for sunglasses that doubles as a wide-angle mirror to keep an eye on the kids in the back seats. The optional reverse camera has a video screen that magically appears within the central rear-view mirror. And there is a little spring-loaded contraption to hold and dispense coins of various sizes. There were integrated roll-up sunshades in the side rear windows. Even the 3D-style gauges look futuristic.

The CD/MP3 stereo sounds fairly adequate, but comes with a six-disc changer and an AUX jack. The digital a/c is pretty good at cooling down the cabin, although our tester was helped by dealer-installed window tint. The Pilot even has a full-featured rear a/c system with digital controls and vents, but it cannot be controlled from the front. So if your rear passengers leave it on and then get out of the car, you have to stretch backwards from the front seat and turn it off. Various power outlets, a sunroof, keyless entry, auto-dimming mirror, multiple front and side-curtain airbags, parking sensors, power windows, electric mirrors and cruise control round out the top-of-the-range EXL trim package. Unfortunately, the Pilot misses out on some common items found in similarly-priced vehicles nowadays, such as navigation, keyless start and Bluetooth phone.

At least the engine has some bits of technology to brag about. With 253 hp peaking at 5700 rpm, the 3.5-litre V6 falls behind the Nissan Pathfinder and the Chevy Trailblazer. The 347 Nm of torque comes up a bit late, at a high 4800 rpm, but is perfectly adequate for city driving. We managed a 0-to-100 kph time of 9.4 seconds, which isn’t terribly impressive, but it’s the engine’s extra features that caught our attention. With a cylinder-deactivation system, it can run with as few as three cylinders to save fuel while cruising. We got consumption numbers of 15.2 litres per 100 km, which is impressive for something this big. Unlike Nissan’s thrashy lump, this Honda’s refined i-VTEC engine is very quiet too, thanks to a noise cancellation system and so-called ‘active’ engine mounts, while the basic 5-speed automatic invisibly shifts gears without hesitation.

But in its quest to develop a high-tech engine, Honda forgot to concentrate on the suspension. It still drives almost as lumpily as the old MR-V, giving the sloppy Hummer H3 a run for its money in rocking behaviour when it comes to handling corners. This truck-like demeanour seems even more odd, considering the Pilot is based on a minivan with four-wheel independent suspension. It even bounces and jitters on some bumps like a truck, although it is largely comfortable on most road surfaces. Most of its target audience should be happy though, although we feel some competitors, such as the Ford Explorer, balance comfort and handling much better.

The Honda Pilot feels big on the road, but all-round visibility is reasonably good. The steering is soft and lacks feel, but the pedals fare better, with linear stops easily handled by the four-wheel disc brakes, aided by ABS and stability control when needed. Built to be a family cruiser, it is extremely quiet trundling along at highway speeds, but our tester had the most annoying whistling sound above 100 kph, due to wind leaking into the sealed cabin from somewhere that we couldn’t trace.

The 245/65 tyres wrapping the 17-inch alloys, while satisfactory on the road, proved surprisingly sufficient for moderate off-roading. The Pilot’s quick-acting all-wheel-drive barely bogged down in moderately-soft sand, and proved to be more than just a common car-based sinker. Of course, matters aren’t helped by the kid-friendly side-steps. There is no low-range gearing either, relying instead on a simulated diff lock for a 50:50 front/rear power split to get out of cratering situations. The real-metal bumper skid-plates are a nice touch, but we didn’t check how far they extend under the car. Our tester had underbody plastic cladding lying in the cargo hold, likely broken off during previous off-road excursions.

While the all-new Honda Pilot isn’t a true offroader, it would seem they are deliberately aiming at the crowd that really require a minivan, but want to act like they safari regularly. It certainly hits the right notes, with ample cabin room, class-leading fuel economy and a badge that guarantees solid resale values.

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