Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
Honda Pilot

Honda Pilot a decent three row SUV in a crowded field

By Jim Bray
July 1, 2021

Three row SUV's are a common sight these days, whether from mainstream or luxury names, and some are much better than others.

This isn't surprising, of course; some things are better than others in any field. My beloved Calgary Stampeders are tops when it comes to regular season performance in the Canadian Football League, for example, whereas the damn Toronto Argonauts seem to have the number of most teams when they actually make it to the final. It's really annoying.

So if you're looking for a three row SUV, you don't have to look very hard. In mainstream trim, you can find them from Mazda, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Volkwagen, etc. etc. etc. And in this niche, Honda offers the Pilot, which is a decent vehicle based upon the company's high end Acura division's MDX. And that's a pretty good place to start!

Click on the image to open a slideshow.

Vehicles such as this make a decent choice for people who think they need a minivan but who would rather be torn apart by wild dogs than drive one. They have nearly as much room and in general drive much more nicely than the typical minivan does – though such folk really ought to try the current Toyota Sienna if they want a minivan that doesn't really drive like one.

The Pilot comes only in an all-wheel drive configuration in Canada, and all versions get most of the same underpinnings. This includes a 3.5 litre V6 engine Honda says puts out 280 horsepower @ 6000 rpm and 262 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4700 rpm. These are decent figures and competitive, though I must admit that V6 felt very much like a turbo four according to my experience. In fact, it felt a tad anemic compared to a turbo four-equipped Ford Explorer I'd driven shortly before that – which isn't surprising since the Ford offers more horses and torque from its 2.3 litre EcoBoost four.

Actually, when I first picked up Honda Canada's sample Black Edition Pilot, which carries a window sticker price of $56,805 Loonies, I didn't notice that it had been left in Eco mode and I spent about a day and a half driving with it thus afflicted before I figured out what was going on. And during that time, I came to hate that V6, which in Eco mode has about as much apparent oomph as the original Honda Insight – by which I mean not much at all, thank you. It was awful!

So if you're interested in saving that much of Gaia's remaining grace, you might be better served walking. And if you're an auto enthusiast, well, enough said.

Exacerbating the oomph issue, such as it is, is Honda's use of a nine-speed automatic transmission. I've said it before and will keep on saying it: this is just too many gears to do anything but put you to sleep. It's clearly a fuel saving measure and I can understand that, but in order to save that fuel the vehicle upshifts as quickly as it can to keep the rpms low.

That's fine if you're just cruising along, but the minute you need power – pulling out to pass, merging into traffic on on ramps, etc. – the tranny finds itself having to slip down so many gears that by the time it gets there you've missed your opportunity. Or so it seems.

The Pilot is by no means the only beast that has such a tranny inflicted upon it, so this isn't a shot at Honda specifically.

Pilots are reasonably handsome, though a tad bland, but as always beauty is in the eye of the keyholder. It's an efficient and clean design and it offers good space inside as long as you're not an adult in the third row. And it's equipped well, at least in the Black Edition. Heck, it even has a Blu-ray player in the centre stack (in a time when it's getting hard to find a disc player of any kind) that plays video and audio Blu-ray discs and there's a flip down screen (and a couple of pairs of wireless headphones) for the folks in the back two rows to fight over.

Alas, the audio aspect of the Blu-ray performance is kind of lost because the Pilot's audio system is ordinary at best. If only Honda had seen fit to put one of its Acura ELS systems here, which in the new MDX and TLX don't include disc players, it would have rocked mightily. But they didn't – and because you can't get a disc player in the higher end models, you can't rock mightily with high resolution discs there, either.

I'm probably in a huge minority here of people who want to take their BD, DVD-A, SACD discs etc. into the vehicle with them, though. I complain about this oversight to my wife and she gives me a look of haughty derision that would be worthy of Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper.

The Pilot's driving position is fine, the first rows are comfortable and roomy, and all the tech you could undoubtedly want is on board. Probably more than some people want!

That's because the Pilot continues Honda's tradition of recent years of being really annoying, thanks to some odd decisions and some overly obtrusive nannies. Some of this automotive haranguing can be turned off, but some can't.

And one thing that really bugs me is the lack of a tuning knob for the radio. Honda finally returned the volume control knob a couple of years ago, but I would argue that it's easier to adjust the volume from the steering wheel or a rocker switch somewhere else than it is to find a radio station that might not be in your presets (or that you WANT to put into your presets) with a simple up and down controller.

A nit? Perhaps. But when the LCD screen doesn't offer you enough presets even for the few radio stations in your area that aren't absolute crap, it would be nice to just twist a knob and have the tuner jump to your attention.

One nanny – or aide, anyway – that surprised me was the traffic alert app. I've known of their availability on vehicles for a few years now, but have never experienced it before this Pilot. I was driving home after picking it up when a strange voice interrupted the tunes with a notice that there might be a traffic issue miles to the west of me. I nearly jumped out of the driver's seat when that voice fired up because I was alone in the vehicle and wasn't expecting it!

It was kind of neat, though, and it was nice to know that the only issue it knew about was miles away from where I was going anyway.

The Black Edition of the Pilot dumps the second-row bench seat for a pair of nice, and heated, Captain's chairs that I found even more comfortable than the front seats. The third row sits very low, though, so is best suited for kids or double amputees.

The Black Edition also gives such niceties as tri-zone HVAC, 10-way power adjustment and memory for the driver's seat, remote start, wireless charging and more. Outside, it gives you black trim, a panoramic sunroof (well, I guess that's an interior feature, too…), rain-sensing wipers, power tailgate, LED lighting and more.

The most amusing thing I noticed about Honda's sample Black Edition was that it was pure white other than the black highlights and Black Edition logos. In fact, it was a source of mirth for several who rubbernecked the white Pilot while I had it.

Fortunately, you can spare your friends and neighbours from having to smile by ordering your Black Edition Pilot in – are you sitting down? – black!

Pilots start at $44,901 and besides the entry level LX trim level you can choose from EX (starting at $44,901), EX-L Navi ($51,101), Touring (seven or eight passenger versions, starting at $56,901) and the Black Edition with its $58,801 entry price.

The Pilot is a fine vehicle but as good as it is, I think you can do better in this niche. My favourites (of the ones I've driven) are the Mazda CX-9 (starting at $40,300 and rising to $54,376) and the Hyundai/Kia twins, the Palisade and Telluride. Of the Korean twins, I prefer the Telluride but they're essentially the same vehicle other than cosmetically. The Telluride starts at about $46K and can rise to $55,695.

The Palisade starts at $39,199, which seems like a comparative bargain (it's only front drive that way, however), and rises to $54,699 for the Ultimate Calligraphy versions.

Both the Palisade and the Telluride come with eight-speed automatic transmissions.

The Mazda only comes with a turbo four, but I found it – especially since it comes with only six speeds in its automatic transmission – a much more interesting vehicle to drive. As with the Pilot, the Koreans also offer V6 engines, with 291/262 hp/torque, though they feel like more.

But if you're looking for a three row SUV with Honda features and quality, you could do a lot worse than the Pilot. It may be a tad bland, but it is a very good vehicle.

Copyright 2021 Jim Bray
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