From big and boxy to a sleek reborn version – the all-new Honda Pilot takes the largest of its SUVs into new territory – one where looking good counts for at least as much as driving well. Automan tests the car.
The 2016 Honda Pilot comes in at a time when Honda needs to push its SUV segment. Especially here in the Middle East region, Honda has had to depend only on the CR-V for the lucrative SUV segment as opposed to other Japanese manufacturers who have a stable of models to compete with.
However, it isn’t as if the Pilot is new. After the MR-V, the Pilot came into its own from around 2003. But like the MR-V the Pilot was built along the lines of a classic SUV with basic attention given to styling the two box shape. It has taken until this model year for Honda to lavish the same level of attention to the looks of the Pilot as it does for the smaller CR-V.
But it has managed this sea change without reinventing the entire genre. What it does is take the solid mechanical prowess of the established Global light truck platform and build a whole new vehicle on top of that. This generation gets added doses of ultra strength steel components, making for a lighter, more rigid structure. This also inludes the use of aluminium and magnesium alloys. These alloys are generally used in critical areas, like the use of the magnesium alloy under the dashboard to hang the steering assembly.
In terms of styling the Pilot now gets the visual signature of the sedans and the CR-V with the wing like treatment of the headlamps and front grille, marking the clearest signal yet of a cohesive design philosophy coming through at Honda. Of course the dimensions of the Pilot call for some unique touches, especially around the lower valance. In order to maintain a sense of sleekness, the turnlights are moved to a mid level while the lower corners are reserved for the foglights. These foglights bracket a large and prominent underbody protection.
In the process, the boxy look of the old Pilot has been consigned to the past as the form now follows the looks of the CR-V with softer shoulders, wider haunches and prominent character lines on the hood and along the profile. Even the tailgate has been softened to reduce the sheer bulk and height of the car.
The Pilot also gets better NVH treatment with more padding as well as an acoustice windshield. The wheelbase has increased by almost two inches, making the SUV bigger than before.
The interiors have changed too with all the attention centering around the new 8” colour display on top of the central instrumentation. This touch screen is very connected with current technology, being powered by Android and capable of connecting to the internet, especially if you have a data connection on your mobile phone. Open your internet sharing on the phone and the system can update itself and offer online content. Admittedly, it may have been better to mirror the phone on the system, but it really wouldn’t work if you have an Apple device.
On the other hand, the entire cabin has been cleaned up and made to seem more luxurious, including comfortable seating and large storage spaces for various odds and ends. This includes a roller type cover for the centre console and large glove box. The concept of pushing storage is taken to the next level by the ingenious treatment of the rear cargo bay with a parcel tray that is adjustable so as to allow the inclusion of tall cargo.
Cabin room has increased along with the added external dimensions and this means more legroom in all three rows as well as better headroom.
The steering wheel gets a central triangular hub based on a four spoke arrangement with a very American layout of controls. Thankfully paddle shifters are added in to match with the straight gate automatic shifter so you don’t really miss a J-gate.
The instrumentation has also benefitted from a rework, especially with the use of lights and colours on the IP so that you know whether the engine is in 3 or 6-cylinder mode just by the colour that surrounds the dials. Of course you also get the obligatory ECO button that actively switches off or reduces electric consumption by the air-conditoner compressor and other ancillaries but you don’t really need to use it. The IP itself is split into a digital speed readout and analogue display tach and fuel gauges.
The cabin also benefits in the upper grades from a large almost panoramic sunroof. This is split by the crossbeam that the central DVD unit is hung from making it seem a little more sensible in acreage.
The engine has been thoroughly reworked. This generation of the 3.5-litre V6 offers 280hp at 6000rpm and 355Nm of torque. It is a well-balanced transverse unit coupled to a reworked 6-speed automatic gearbox. The V6 banks are rather compact with only 60-degrees in between. For customers in the US, along with the 6-speed, they also get a 9-speed box but that comes with an idle stop/start system as well. In this case the engine also gets VCM or variable cylinder management that allows the engine to switch from its normal firing mode to using only the three cylinders that occupy the front bank of the V. In effect the system shuts down the other bank without actually disconnecting the cranks of the rear bank, shutting off the inlet and exhaust valves while keeping the spark plugs firing in order to keep the plug temperature up. Additionally the engine recognises the need to feed oil to all the necessary parts and handles the switch between both modes seamlessly. The engine also gets active mounts to help dampen out any vibration.
The chassis is also reportedly completely redesigned. Yes, it has 4-wheel independent suspension despite being on the truck platform and speed-sensitive electric power steering.
The front suspension is a strut type unit using aluminium components and a stabilizer bar. The rear suspension uses a space saving multi-link design with a tubular stabilizer bar. The rear suspension is entirely of steel although the new design of the chassis means that the loads are transferred to the body side frame instead of to the wheels.
All critical components of the engine, transmission and chassis are mounted on subframes to reduce vibration.
The other big story on the Pilot is the new generation of AWD system tagged i-VTM4.
This system uses sensors and controllers to shift torque both front to back and across the vehicle. The intelligent bit attached to this means that all you need to do in off-road situations is activate the toggle mounted just behind the straight gearshift gate to tell the system that you are off-road. You can toggle through Normal, Snow, Mud and Sand modes and the system takes care of the rest. As it is, the car is driven by throttle-by-wire so that allows for the system to override your pedal imput and throw in more revs when needed as well as to actively transfer torque to the wheels that need it. This torque transfer also goes on to offer torque vectoring, so as to make turns much sharper and less prone to understeer.
All of this has been done while shrinking the rear drive unit and making it lighter.
The Pilot is comprehensively a generation ahead of its predecessor in its handling and off-road abilities. It doesn’t try to take on the generation of trucks, but aims itself at the top of the crossover segment. Extremely capable in gravel and turf, now the sand capabilities have improved too, while keeping the poise of a city crossover.
Engine response is good and you can actually get a good feel of the road through the EPS. It isn’t as vague as expected, while the 6-speed gearbox does have to do a lot of work. One wonders if it is only a matter of time before the 9-speed comes to the region. In the meantime the larger volume and the appeal of the three rows make for a solid appeal.
Would we suggest the Honda Pilot to a customer who would normally be looking at a Traverse or Explorer? The question would be what makes it better? The platform is spanking new, the drivetrains carry the Honda seal of engineering and the technology is well thought out. What takes a bit of getting used to is the need to hand over control to the system. The system is engineered around a tendency to jump into the most fuel efficient drive mode. It is sometimes a little hard to believe that the Pilot can handle off-road conditions as well as any other crossover can, but it does.
Now it is left to Honda to get the pricing and feature pack right.