YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

First Drive

Crossover Dream

Honda's Pilot SUV is a serious contender in a still-hot category


Honda often is late to the party with new vehicles, but when it finally shows up, its presence can elevate the quality of the crowd.

So it was with the new Odyssey minivan and the upscale Acura MDX crossover sport utility. Each set a new standard for its category when introduced in the fall of 1999 as 2001 models.

And so it will be with the Honda Pilot, a family-oriented SUV crossover built off the same Odyssey platform as the MDX. "It is 67% MDX," says chief program engineer Frank Paluch. The similarities are all under the skin, which isn't a bad thing in this family of vehicles.

The Pilot arrives in dealer showrooms this week to replace the Passport, an Isuzu re-badged as a Honda and found wanting by Honda buyers. Most have stopped seriously considering the brand when searching for an SUV bigger and more capable than the CRV.

But the Pilot gives Honda a serious contender in the still-hot compact SUV category. Although Honda Marketing Vice President Dan Bonawitz says he expects most buyers to be Honda loyalists who have been waiting for a vehicle such as the Pilot, the company also expects to woo customers from Ford's Explorer and Toyota's Highlander, among others.

Pilot is a crossover. It looks like a standard SUV but is built on a passenger car platform and uses car-like unibody construction rather than the body-on-frame construction of a truck. This is more than an SUV-styled wagon, though.

It won't traverse the Rubicon, the Lake Tahoe-area off-road route famed for its steep rock walls and deep-carved gullies. But the Pilot will go up steeper, muddier hills and through deeper, dirtier ditches than 90% of today's SUV drivers are willing, or able, to tackle.

And then, when hosed off, it will take a parent and as many as seven kids to the mall or school or a soccer game, or cart mom and dad and up to six of their best friends (especially if at least three in the group are slim and under 5 feet 7 inches tall) to the opera--grand or Grand Ole, it would be at home in either crowd.

It also will replace that pickup dad's been lobbying for.

With both rear and middle-row seats folded into the floor, a full sheet of plywood will lie flat in the Pilot's cargo bay. A stack of plywood, in fact, will fit, or a standard Southern California backyard's worth of landscaping material or a whole lot of skateboards, camping gear or luggage.

Honda held the press preview of the Pilot in the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains in and around Asheville, N.C., with an off-road course built to show off the Pilot's capabilities.

A single day of driving, especially in controlled circumstances, isn't enough to tell whether a new vehicle has what it takes to continue to please past the new-purchase honeymoon, but the Pilot at least can point to two siblings that are doing well in that department two years after introduction.

And after a day of driving, on asphalt and off, I can attest that Honda's new SUV has plenty of power, comfortable seats, a panoramic view from inside the cabin, lots of room and a fairly rigid body with little roll and sway even on hairpin curves.

It is not a sports car, not even a sports sedan, but on the road it will run with the best of the pack in the SUV-minivan-light-pickup class.

Off-road, it vies for class leadership. It won't outperform every competitor at every task, but overall it works beautifully doing what it was designed to do--get through a variety of mild-to-moderate off-road conditions with dispatch and aplomb.

The Pilot's agility comes from its 8-inch ground clearance, wide and grippy P235/70R16 tires, short nose and tail overhangs and Honda's variable torque management drive system.

Under normal driving conditions, the Pilot operates in front-wheel drive. When one or more wheels start slipping, it starts diverting torque--up to 53% of it--to the rear wheels. And when the going gets really tough, as in off-road hill climbing or bog slogging, the driver can punch a button on the dash and lock the system into a terrain-handling 50-50 split.

On the minus side, a few things:

* No one will follow you home to ask what that stunning new car is you're driving. It is a plain-vanilla SUV.

* The rear access hatch is a single-piece tailgate that swings up. When the tailgate is open, the rear corners are low enough to add a crease to the forehead of anyone much over 6 feet 2 inches who isn't paying attention.

* The Pilot has the same awkwardly placed steering-column-mounted gear selection lever as the Odyssey, so if you have the standard five-speed automatic in low gear you must reach down somewhere between kneecap and shinbone to find the lever.

Los Angeles Times Articles