Honda Pilot SUV deftly navigates paved roads and dirt trails
Date Posted: 5/10/2005
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- We're grasping for grab handles and straining the safety belt, trying to keep our torso planted firmly in the driver's bucket as Honda's new mid-size sport-utility wagon -- Pilot -- bumps and grinds, scampers and scoots over one formidable obstacle after another on a demanding off-road course carved into rich Carolina soil on outback reaches of the vast Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
There are steep grades to scale, deep trenches to cross, log-like telephone poles to roll over, boulders to bump and tire-sucking mud to wade.
The tall stance of Pilot -- with a ground clearance of eight inches and the ability to ford water up to 19 inches deep -- allows this wagon to trudge over a lot of lumpy ground far from the comfort of a paved road.
In addition, there's a smart four-wheel-drive system permanently engaged to direct the engine's muscle to all four wheels when needed in order to maintain traction on the tires and keep the vehicle moving forward.
And Pilot delivers plenty of muscle, thanks to the aluminum V6 powerplant.
With single overhead camshaft and four valves in every cylinder, the advanced engine displaces 3.5 liters and uses Honda's remarkable VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse the torque across a broad band.
It produces a hardy 240 hp at 5400 rpm, with 242 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
Engine power channels through an intelligent five-speed automatic transaxle that has electronic controls and supports diverse demands, from high-speed highway runs to slow-speed off-road work, four-wheel traction and towing.
An intelligent shift point controller automatically selects third and fourth gear settings after measuring variables like throttle position, road speed and rates of acceleration and deceleration.
Bearing a 2003 designation and rolling out of Honda's Canadian assembly plant in Alliston, Ont., Pilot becomes the first SUV designed and built exclusively by Honda.
It replaces the mid-size Passport, which was actually a variation of the Isuzu Rodeo produced in Indiana through a cooperative agreement between American Honda Motor Company and Isuzu Motors of Japan.
The new Honda vehicle, while appearing tough and strong in the shape of a boxy sport-utility wagon, differs from the conventional SUV because it doesn't use the chassis of a truck as the foundation and its engine doesn't drive the rear wheels.
Instead, Pilot springs from a unitized structure that's innately stiff and strong, and the front-mounted engine normally directs its muscle to the front wheels and an electronic device aboard can send some of that torque to the rear wheels when the front ones slip.
The monocoque structure melds chassis and body into a cohesive entity that's extremely rigid when put in motion.
Factor in the relatively short (106.3 inches) wheelbase and an exceptionally broad wheel track (66.3 inches up front and 66.5 inches in back) to forge a stable stance. Then isolate the independent suspension elements on subframes, dial in geometry that's similar to a car and allow generous wheel travel for off-pavement maneuvers.
Add variable-power rack and pinion steering and disc brakes for all corners with anti-lock controls and electronic force distribution.
The result: Uncommon agility for driving on pavement as well as dirt.
The four-wheel-drive system installed in every Pilot differs from the mechanism of the usual sport-utility wagon, as it skips a viscous coupling that transfers torque from one set of wheels to another after detecting wheel slippage.
Instead, Pilot's system senses when four-wheel traction may be needed and automatically shifts as much as half the engine torque electronically from front to rear wheels. Labeled VTM-4, meaning Variable Torque Management Four for four-wheel-drive, the device runs in front-drive mode on dry pavement, but can shift up to 55 percent of the power to the rear wheels when slippery situations occur.
A locking switch allows a driver to hold torque on rear wheels to work through a difficult condition off-road.
Actually, VTM-4 provides three modes of engagement. On dry pavement, the system may shift some torque from front to rear wheels when accelerating from a stop to cruise speed.
Or the system can measure wheel rotational differences, front to rear, then redirect torque away from slipping wheels in favor of the set maintaining traction.
For a third condition, torque is locked at rear wheels via the console switch, and Pilot tackles dicey situations like an icy driveway or sandy slope.
On dry pavement, Pilot feels as easy to drive as a conventional car.
Our pavement tests steering a Pilot over serpentine pavement through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina -- rushing down the scarce straights but mainly carving precise turns through bend after bend of curvy pavement -- reveals that Honda has managed to inject traits of agile handling and keen performance in the high-rising hulk of a sport-utility wagon.
In the cabin, all aspects seem comfortable and convenient in the Honda tradition.
Capacity extends to eight passengers in an arrangement with twin bucket seats on the first row, a bench for three riders on the second row and a third bench designed to hold up to three children.
Benches on rows two and three split 60/40 to vary the cabin conformation as seatbacks fold flat. With all seats folded down, the broad, long and tall compartment provides best-in-class cargo capacity -- up to 90 cubic feet.
Safety equipment includes both front and side air bags, shoulder belts and headrests at every seat position, and child seat anchors on the second row.
Pilot comes in two well-equipped versions of LX and EX.
The LX stocks air conditioning, power for windows and door locks and mirrors, cruise control, and a stereo audio system with CD deck. The EX adds automatic climate controls, eight-way driver's seat, alloy wheels, roof rails and a fold-down activity tray for kids.
Honda pitches the new Pilot in a range of prices that begin with LX at $27,360 (including a $460 delivery fee) and $29,730 for EX. Leather upholstery on EX raises the tally to $30,980, a DVD Entertainment System moves it to $32,480, and Honda's DVD Navigation System caps it at $32,980.
| Vehicle Specifications:
| 2003 HONDA PILOT Specs
||Mid-size 8-passenger SUV
| Model Options:
||Mid-size 8-passenger SUV
| Overall Length:
| Engine Size:
||SOHC 3.5-L V6
||2 (front) + 2 (side)
Maximum towing capacity Trailer: 3500 pounds
Boat: 4500 pounds
| Gas Mileage:
||$ 27,360 to $ 32,980