The 2017 Honda Pilot is just a few body panels away from being a badge engineered minivan, but it has its merits over the Odyssey it shares an engine and platform with. And yes, your son will fit in the third-row seats even after he moves back in after college.
As we’ve said before, you should probably just buy the damn minivan. The Honda Pilot is for when you can’t—or won’t.
(Full disclosure: Honda Canada prepared me a Pilot Touring during Québec’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste week. Upon my arrival the vehicle was clean and with a full tank of gas.)
We’re buying a lot of seven-passenger “utility” vehicles here in North America, but Pilot sales are a little weak compared to rivals like the Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer.
If you do desire all-wheel-drive capability with usable towing capacity and cargo space, the Honda Pilot is a damn decent SUV. It’s one of those no-brainer family shuttles that goes about its business doing its thing in an efficient, if bland, kind of way. It’s also one of the last Hondas to have the company’s venerated variable valve VTEC technology still.
What Is It?
First introduced in 2002, the Pilot was Honda’s inevitable response to North America’s insatiable thirst for sport utility vehicles.
Until then, the only SUV Honda had in its lineup was the compact CR-V, which could only seat five. Honda did attempt to sell a larger “truck” prior to the CR-V in the United States... anyone remember the Passport? That was actually a rebadged Isuzu, and didn’t really end up impressing anyone.
But as the segment kept growing and the Toyota Highlander took off, Honda’s desperation for an earnest SUV increased. Enter: the Pilot.
The first generation model was built using a platform, engine and transmission shared with the Acura MDX, Honda Ridgeline pickup and Odyssey minivan. It was also among the first wave of larger SUVs to be built and drive like a car.
Now in its third generation as introduced last year, the new Pilot stays true to its original formula of being a large, reliable, car-based soccer shuttle powered by a 3.5-liter V6, which, Honda claims, cranks out 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque.
All Pilots can be had with fail, I mean, front-wheel-drive or torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive. Base models make do with a six-speed automatic transmission. Opt for the upper trim levels like my tester and a nine-speed, ZF-sourced, automatic gearbox comes standard.
Why Does It Matter?
If you’re a carmaker and still don’t have a seven or eight-passenger van-wagon-truck-thing in your lineup, you’re kind of screwed. Modern families are turning to these vehicles for their perceived practicality, safety, all-weather capability and the peace of mind that comes with it.
At the end of the day, what these families are really asking for is an all-wheel-drive minivan with a decent towing capacity (5,000 pounds here) to pull the camper over the weekend. And in that regard, the Pilot delivers.
Not A Hummer
While I had this Pilot, my shooter Myle and I were also shooting a Hummer H2 for an upcoming Not-New Review. Getting out of that monstrosity and into the Pilot revealed how diverse the sport utility segment is, and how much it’s changed. The Pilot actually felt low compared to that H2, and quick.
It’s certainly more aerodynamic looking than a Hummer, or pretty much any truck-based SUV for that matter. I find that the Pilot kind of resembles one of those herbivore dinosaurs that had a tiny head and gigantic ass. Saurolophus, right?
This will seem redundant from one Honda review to the next, but the infotainment system remains a complete tragedy. And there’s still no volume knob. It’s confusing, distracting, and slow. Accessing simple functions like changing radio stations is complicated and downright irritating.
The nine-speed automatic gearbox, the same one found in the Acura TLX and MDX, remains my single mechanical pet peeve with this vehicle. The mashup of buttons that operate it is bad enough, but downshifting with the wheel-mounted paddle shifter takes forever and makes these controls barely worth messing with.
I was told by a Honda PR rep that the Pilot will eventually inherit the - ahem - Odyssey’s new ten speed gearbox to resolve that problem, so there’s that.
Finally, the Pilot’s collision mitigation system is far too sensitive. On two occasions, incoming traffic on a two-lane road set off a furious explosion of loud beeps and flashing lights on the dash. Relax, Pilot, we’re going to be okay. Now shut up and don’t wake my baby.
Ah yes, what a butter-smooth, plush and quiet ride. This really is Honda’s strongpoint; the ability to glide along casually and disappear under its occupants as they bask in comfort and intelligently executed ergonomics.
Obviously, if the Pilot weren’t practical, it would have no reason to exist. So cargo space is massive in the Pilot. Honda claims a total of 81 cubic feet when all rear seats are folded flat, 47 with the third seat down, and 17 cubic feet for the trunk with all seats raised.
In this size segment, only the Ford Explorer beats the Pilot’s default trunk space at 21 cubic feet. And the Dodge Durango’s total capacity is a smidge more voluminous at 85.
I was also impressed at how easily my large body fit into those third-row seats compared to say, a Nissan Pathfinder. I managed to make my way back there without too much cursing, and once my ass was comfortably nestled inside that rear bench, I actually had enough leg and headroom to sit without suffering.
So if one of your preteens suddenly turns into a friendly giant overnight, fear not, the Pilot can handle it.
As weird as it may sound, the Pilot is not as miserable to roll around in as you might think, looking at its jelly bean body and minivan underpinnings.
Honda brags about the fact that its big guy rides on an all-new chassis which is apparently stiffer and lighter than its predecessor, with higher spring rates and firmer damping in the shock absorbers.
Behind the wheel, the Pilot does feel like a minivan, but a little lighter. It gives you confidence around corners even if your speed is little higher than it should be with your kids in the back.
The Pilot is no sports car, obviously. But it’s agile enough to keep its composure in a panic maneuver. That’s active safety, and it’s smart.
Sure, the steering is vague as shit, but it has a nice easy feeling to it that makes controlling this car an immensely gentle experience.
Then there’s the way that V6 engine puts down power. For starters, it’s naturally aspirated, and, in typical Honda VTEC fashion, loves to rev. If you listen close, you might just hear some cool raspy intake noises.
It almost seems ironic that a kid carrier like the Honda Pilot is one of the last living specimens of Honda’s legendary, race inspired, naturally aspirated VTEC technology, but at least you’ll have no trouble with highway merges.
So the Pilot doesn’t deserve a red Type-R style “H” badge but it’s not slow. In case you care, this SUV will launch your family, the dog and the camping gear all the way to 60 mph in about 6.2 seconds. That’s faster than a Subaru BRZ.
Pricing for a 2017 Honda Pilot kicks off at $30,745 ($40,090 CAN) for a base, front-wheel-drive model. All Canadian Pilots come standard with Honda Sensing (autonomous gizmos) and Apple Carplay, Android Auto compatibility. In the US, those options are reserved for the EX-L trim or higher.
My tester was the Touring model, which is the top flight trim level in Canada. In the U.S., that model is called the Elite and it comes super loaded with leather, a set of heated captain chairs for the second row of seats (so it becomes a seven passenger), heated and ventilated front seats, a panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, larger wheels, and a ceiling-mounted Blu-ray player with wireless headsets to please your spoiled brats.
That one, the Elite, stickers for $47,220 ($53,371 CAN).
By comparison, a similarly equipped Odyssey will cost you $46,670 ($52,171 CAN), but won’t come with all-wheel-drive and will only tow 3,500 pounds.
If you’re shopping around, the current sales king in this segment, the Ford Explorer, starts at $31,660. Sure, it’s better looking and quicker off the line (5.8 seconds to 60 mph), but once equipped with options it gets rather expensive with the most equipped Platinum model going for $53,235.
So the Pilot isn’t a stellar value, but you might be able to do well with one if your dealer’s willing to negotiate.
The 2017 Honda Pilot isn’t an exciting vehicle or apparently superior to its competitors, but it’s an easy vehicle to live with and offers an undeniable balance of attributes that makes it a decent option in the segment.
Except for a frustrating gearbox that’s soon to be ditched anyway, the 2017 Honda Pilot is a damn good SUV that I would consider buying if my home was suddenly flooding with tiny humans that can’t take no for an answer, and still had a fishing boat to carry around with my bros over the weekend.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.