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PowerSteering: 2016 Honda Pilot Review

PowerSteering: 2016 Honda Pilot Review

By Christian Wardlaw, November 08, 2015

For the 2016 model year, Honda redesigns the popular Pilot crossover SUV, a midsize model with 3 rows of seats. It replaces a vehicle design that was seven years old, one that by 2015 was behind the times in terms of safety engineering, safety technology, and infotainment features. The previous Pilot’s age likely explains the model’s performance in the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study,SM in which it ranked 18th out of 18 midsize SUVs in overall appeal.

Now, the 2016 Honda Pilot is built on the same vehicle platform as the Acura MDX, which was most recently redesigned for the 2013 model year. In some respects, similarities are evident between the Pilot and the MDX, but in many ways these different models demonstrate unique personalities.

For this review, our expert evaluated a 2016 Pilot Elite, the top-of-the-line trim level that is new for the year. Aside from a menu of dealer-installed accessories, the Pilot Elite comes with everything Honda offers for this SUV, including all-wheel drive (AWD). The price is $47,300 including the $880 destination charge. That’s $1,515 more than an Acura MDX with AWD and no options.

What Owners Say…
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the redesigned 2016 Honda Pilot, it is helpful to understand what owners said about the 2015 Pilot in the 2015 U.S. APEAL Study and who those owners are.

According to the study, owners of the 2015 Pilot said that their favorite things about the SUV were, in descending order: driving dynamics, exterior, engine/transmission, visibility, safety, and interior. Owners also reported that their least favorite things about the SUV were, in this order: fuel economy, infotainment system, climate system, seats, and storage and space.

According to APEAL Study demographic data, buyers who purchased the 2015 Pilot were substantially younger when compared with all midsize SUV buyers, with an average age of 47 years vs. 54 years. Study data also show that Pilot buyers identified more often as price sensitive and less likely to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly. Standing out from a crowd was also less important to Pilot buyers, perhaps a reflection of their greater likelihood to agree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place.

What Our Expert Says…
In the sections that follow, our expert discusses how the new 2016 Pilot measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2015 U.S. APEAL Study.

Coherently, inoffensively, and derivatively styled, the 2016 Pilot reminds me of a minivan equipped with a taller hood and conventionally hinged rear side doors. Install sliding side doors and it could be mistaken for a Honda Odyssey.

Unexpectedly, several fellow suburbanite dads commented upon how much they liked the new styling. This surprised me, because in my opinion the previous Pilot’s boxy appearance gave it a more rugged look. They disagreed, telling me they never really liked the old Pilot’s design.

The minivan vibe continues once you’ve settled into the Pilot’s driver’s seat. A low center console separates captain-style chairs, and while the front quarter windows by the windshield pillars improve visibility, they also mimic minivan design. My 4-year-old, upon entering the Pilot for the first time, even said: “Ooooh! A minivan!”

Quality oozes from the Pilot’s materials, and characterizes how they’re put together. Refinement and attention to detail are the rule rather than the exception, though the gloss black trim panels do collect dust and fingerprints in short order.

With this redesign, the Pilot moves to the Acura MDX platform, and, if you’re familiar with the MDX, you can feel the similarity from the Pilot’s driver’s seat.

The driving position is identical. Like the Acura, the seat is exceptionally comfortable. Compared to the MDX, though, the Pilot’s interior feels taller and larger. This, in turn, makes the driving position feel too low even when the seat is raised to its highest setting. Also, the Elite trim level does not have a seat-height adjuster for the front passenger, which made my wife unhappy.

Second-row seating is roomy, and the test vehicle included manual side window sunshades, triple-zone automatic climate control, and a panoramic sunroof. In this location, the previous Pilot’s second-row bench seat could easily accommodate an adult between two forward-facing child seats. The test vehicle had second-row captain’s chairs, so we could not determine if the new Pilot retains this useful capability.

Push a button on the second-row seat and it moves out of the way to provide access to the third-row seating area. Adults will find decent legroom and foot room, but the third-row seat cushion is mounted too low to provide much in the way of thigh support. Thankfully, the Pilot’s second-row seats can slide forward to help create more space when it is needed.

Climate Control System
In the new Pilot, climate controls remain separate from the infotainment system, making them easy to find and to reference even if they’re mounted lower on the dashboard’s center control panel.

The test vehicle had a triple-zone automatic climate control system that could be synchronized for all three zones or adjusted individually from the front and rear seats. New ventilated front seats are also included in the Pilot Elite, but in triple-digit, late-summer heat it was a struggle to maintain front occupant comfort.

Infotainment System
The old Pilot Touring had 46 buttons and knobs located on the dashboard’s center control panel, plus a transmission gear selector. The new Pilot Elite has zero knobs and 22 buttons, more than half of which are related to the climate control system.

Where did they go? The number of buttons on the steering wheel has nearly doubled, and the rest of the functions are now contained within the various menus housed in the Pilot’s new touch-screen infotainment system.

Measuring 8 inches diagonally, the infotainment screen looks and works like a tablet computer or smartphone, supporting fingertip swipe, pinch, and spread functions. The graphics are crisp, large, and modern in appearance, and the soft confirmation tone is pleasing. Just as is true when getting a new phone or computer, Pilot buyers will want to spend some quality time learning about the system’s features and functions, getting everything set up to personal preferences before commissioning the SUV to daily-driver duty.

Instead of using a traditional volume knob, a tuning knob, and a row of radio station pre-sets, Honda provides steering wheel controls for these functions. While this arrangement is easy to use, it does not allow a front passenger to make easy adjustments. This can be construed as a positive or a negative trait, depending on the situation.

Storage and Space
Between the Pilot’s front seats, Honda mounts a huge console covered by a tamboured sliding door with a trendy gray finish that looks like wood laminate. With the cover closed, the top of the console serves as a tray, perfect for, say, a box of yummy donuts.

The Pilot Elite test vehicle also had a storage tray mounted between the second-row captain’s chairs, and each door panel contained bins and trays for holding various items. Clearly, Honda makes sure that the families most likely to buy a Pilot have lots of storage for their stuff.

Cargo room is generous, too. Honda makes a point of noting that an 82-qt. cooler now fits behind the third-row seat, where 16.5 cu. ft. of cargo space* accommodates two full-size suitcases stored upright or a folding single-seat stroller resting lengthwise.

The 60/40 split third-row seat folds easily, providing an impressive 46.8 cu. ft. of space* behind the second-row seats and accommodating strollers that are rolled in wheels first. Maximum cargo volume measures 83.8 cu. ft.* with the second-row seats folded, though it is important to note that with the Elite version’s captain’s chairs, the load floor has an open space.

*Cargo volumes vary depending on the trim level, with the Pilot Elite measuring slightly smaller than other versions of the SUV

Visibility and Safety
It is easy to see out of the 2016 Honda Pilot, thanks to relatively thin windshield pillars, large side mirrors, third-row seat headrests that fold out of the way for improved visibility, and a standard reversing camera. The Elite test vehicle also had front and rear park-assist sensors, a rear cross-traffic alert system, and a blind-spot warning system.

Only the Pilot Elite is equipped with a blind-spot warning system that works on both sides of the SUV. Other Pilots are available with Honda’s LaneWatch technology, which works only for the right side of the vehicle and uses a camera and the infotainment screen to show what’s along that side of the SUV. It is my opinion that Honda’s use of a blind-spot warning system on its Acura products, and on this top-of-the-line Pilot Elite, is an endorsement of superiority compared to LaneWatch.

Honda bundles several driver-assistance technologies into a Honda Sensing package that is optional for the EX and EX-L versions and standard for the Touring and Elite. They include adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-departure prevention, and lane-keeping assist systems.

During the test drive, the forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning systems worked accurately. Lane-keeping assist was helpful on the narrow lanes of Los Angeles freeways, but the driver must nevertheless pay close attention because the system allowed the Pilot to drift dangerously close to the center divider running alongside the carpool lane.

On Pacific Coast Highway, the adaptive cruise control system demonstrated a lack of refinement, with fairly abrupt braking as the Pilot approached slower traffic, followed by inconsistent speed management. While using the passing lane to overtake a slow-moving vehicle on one of the road’s many curves, the system appeared to get very confused when a large tour bus appeared in the oncoming lane, headed toward L.A., momentarily braking the Pilot before determining that a collision was not going to occur.

Should an accident happen, buyers will be glad to know that the 2016 Pilot gets the highest possible ratings in each individual assessment conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The single exception is a rating of 4 stars (out of 5) for front passenger protection in a frontal impact from the NHTSA.

Powerful, refined, and quiet, a 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine is standard in every 2016 Pilot. The engine is equipped with fuel-saving Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) technology, which shuts off engine cylinders under certain driving conditions in order to conserve fuel.

An Idle Stop system is another fuel-saving technology installed in the Touring and Elite versions of the Pilot. When the SUV is sitting in traffic, or at an intersection, or in a parking lot, the Idle Stop system automatically shuts off the engine while maintaining power for the climate system, infotainment system, and other vehicle equipment. When the driver is ready to go, the engine automatically re-starts when the driver removes his or her foot from the brake pedal and pushes down on the accelerator pedal.

In my experience, engine re-start response time is delayed, resulting in an unnatural accelerator pedal response. At first, nothing happens as the engine gets running again. Then, the system appears to automatically match engine revs to the amount of pedal input from the driver in order to create a seamless transition to vehicle launch and acceleration. The driver can turn Idle Stop off if this driving trait proves irksome.

Touring and Elite trim levels also have a 9-speed automatic transmission, which replaces the 6-speed automatic in other versions of the Pilot. Driving modes include Econ, Normal, and Sport, and in addition to adding three extra gears, the 9-speed is equipped with steering wheel paddle shifters with downshift rev-matching capability. The 9-speed automatic also replaces a traditional shift selector with a panel of push buttons designed for eyes-free operation.

In practice, the push buttons are not a good substitute for a traditional shifter. First, they are located on the center console right next to the cupholders, making them susceptible to spills of sticky drinks. Second, even after hundreds of miles of driving, they did not become second nature. Twice, thinking it was the “Park” button, I accidentally pushed the round “D/S” button in the middle of the arrangement and let my foot off of the Pilot’s brake pedal.

The first time was on my first day with the Pilot, during a photo shoot while racing against time to take advantage of evening “sweet light.” I was halfway out the door before I realized the Pilot was moving. The second time was later in the week, when, sleepy after a long day, I almost allowed the Pilot to drive onto my front porch, which lines one side of my L-shaped driveway.

Aside from the questionable approach with regard to the push-button controls, the 9-speed automatic lacks traditional Honda refinement and attention to detail. I found the transmission most satisfying when used in Normal drive mode and with both the Idle Stop and Econ functions turned off. Even then, the transmission proved eager to upshift to conserve fuel and hesitant to downshift when requesting added acceleration.

Also, when descending hills or coming to a long stop while approaching an intersection, it was necessary to constantly adjust brake pedal pressure as the transmission downshifted through its many gears. Sometimes, it felt like it was freewheeling, producing a sensation of increasing velocity, the opposite of what the driver wanted in such circumstances.

Fuel Economy
According to the EPA, the Pilot Elite test vehicle should have returned 22 mpg in combined driving. On the test loop, the SUV got 20.8 mpg. The Econ driving mode was engaged for half of the city driving and all of the highway driving, making the test result even less impressive. It was, however, a very hot day, and the Idle Stop system frequently disengaged, a warning in the driver information display simply informing the driver that Idle Stop was not available at that time.

2016 Honda Pilot Elite Dashboard photoDriving Dynamics
Considering the Pilot’s impressive steering, braking, ride, and handling qualities, the 9-speed automatic transmission’s lack of refinement is disappointing. The engine is fantastic, the steering is perfectly weighted and appropriately responsive, and the brakes worked as expected despite test-day temperatures in the muggy mid-90s.

Despite the Elite’s 20-in. aluminum wheels, the ride quality is almost sublime, the suspension soaking up pavement irregularities while the acoustic windshield and side window glass ensconced the driver and front passenger within a quiet, serene interior.

Handling on a mountain road proved secure, the large tires delivering good grip. A Pilot Elite won’t inspire a driver to take the long way home, though, unlike its platform-mate, the Acura MDX. Perhaps appropriately, the Pilot feels softer and looser than the MDX, but also more composed and less frenetic when driving vigorously.

Final Impressions
Although we evaluated the expensive new Pilot Elite in order to experience all of the new features and technology that debuts for 2016, most people are likely to select a lower trim level. Prices start at $30,875 for the Pilot LX, and a Pilot EX with the new Honda Sensing safety systems and AWD costs $36,110. This pricing will appeal to the Pilot’s younger, cost-conscious buyers, while the addition of the Elite trim level has the power to draw new buyers interested in having all of the bells and whistles.

Based on this evaluation, the main disappointment is the new 9-speed automatic transmission that comes in the Touring and Elite versions of the SUV. From the push-button controls to how the transmission works, it does not impress as an upgrade from the standard 6-speed automatic. Also, our test result of 20.8 mpg indicates that the 9-speed transmission’s extra gears and the Idle Stop feature do not deliver on the promise of improved fuel economy, though the Pilot certainly performs better in this regard compared with the vehicle it replaces.

Fortunately, the more affordable and popular Pilot LX, EX, and EX-L do not have this transmission, so most buyers will not experience the same discontent that our reviewer did. This likelihood, combined with improvements in the areas cited by owners of the previous Pilot as sources of dissatisfaction, should help Honda’s redesigned midsize SUV to better satisfy owners.

American Honda Motor Company supplied the vehicle used for this 2016 Honda Pilot review.

For more information about our test driver and our methodology, please see our reviewer profile.

Additional Research:

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