- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Analyzing the 2009 Honda Pilot is something like watching a moonwalk, where entertainer Michael Jackson appears to be walking both forward and backward.

It’s unquestionably refined and improved over the previous model, with better handling, sound-deadening and interior room. But the styling looks like a step backward.

At a time when droves of buyers are deserting thirsty truck-based sport utility vehicles and flocking to more economical car-based crossover utility vehicles, the new Pilot looks more like a truck.

The Pilot is, as always, a crossover, which currently denotes a tall, wagon-like vehicle with unit-body construction, four- or six-cylinder power, and front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. It’s distinct from truck-based SUVs, which have body-on-frame, six-cylinder or V8 power, and rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

SUVs generally have better towing and off-road capabilities. CUVs have more agile handling and deliver better fuel economy.

Back in 2002, Honda invented the mid-size, eight-passenger crossover class when it brought out the Pilot. It’s been a steady success, with sales of 152,154 in 2006. But the concept was copied by other manufacturers, and the competition helped drive Pilot sales down to 117,146 in 2007.

So the U.S.-designed 2009 Pilot is a timely makeover. The fact that it looks more like a truck than before was deliberate, to satisfy criticisms voiced by existing Pilot owners.

“The original Pilot was a good vehicle, but it lacked the soul of an SUV,” said Larry Geise, one of the design project leaders.

He and other members of the design team said that surveyed Pilot owners said they wanted a more refined and rugged vehicle with better interior room and improved off-road and towing capabilities. Or at least they wanted something that looked like it had those attributes.

Despite the styling, it’s still not a truck, though at 4,418 pounds it has that sort of heft. The towing capability is 3,500 pounds, or up to 4,500 pounds if you burn premium fuel. And although it has eight inches of ground clearance, it’s not suited for serious off-road duty.

Nevertheless, to buttress the image, every 2009 Pilot comes with a hill start assist so it doesn’t roll backwards on steep hills, as well as a trailer hitch. Designers said the hitch was done at a lower cost than an add-on and also made the rear end more crashworthy. The original Pilot was developed from the same platform as Honda’s Odyssey minivan. Though cramped compared to the Odyssey, it gave minivan-averse customers a stylish SUV.

For 2009, the Pilot gets three more inches in length and is an inch wider. Along with the boxy Lexus-like styling, the expanded dimensions result in a roomier interior, with more front-seat travel and improved knee room in the second- and third-row seats. However, the third row, where the seatbacks do not recline, still should be reserved for agile children.

With the seats folded and the tailgate raised, the Pilot also can haul the proverbial 4X8-foot sheet of plywood.

The passenger volume is a whopping 153 cubic feet, with 21 cubic feet of space behind the third-row seat - enough to delight parents of toddlers because you can easily stash a stroller back there, or even a couple of golf bags. The rear window in the tailgate can be opened independently to retrieve smaller items.

There now are four Pilot models, each available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. They share the same power train: a 250-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engine with variable cylinder management that seamlessly switches among three, four and six cylinders depending on the load, which enhances fuel economy. It is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.

The base LX model, which starts at $28,230, comes with the expected standard equipment: traction and stability control, anti-lock brakes, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, front-and-rear air conditioning, AM/FM/CD audio system, remote locking, trip computer, and power windows and mirrors.

Intermediate trim levels are the EX and EX-L, which are expected to be the big sellers. But Honda also has added a slick luxury model called the Touring, which tops out at $40,590, and is equipped with the same comfort and convenience items you find on luxury cars.

The test Pilot was a Touring model with front-wheel drive. It had a price tag of $37,430, which included a motorized glass sunroof, power tailgate, voice-activated navigation system with rear-view camera, Bluetooth communications system, leather upholstery, memory driver’s seat, power passenger seat, premium audio system and XM satellite radio.

All of that, of course, is frosting. On the road, even the base LX model exhibits all of the Pilot’s desirable qualities. It is quiet to a fault, with little road, mechanical or wind noise, it handles capably, and there’s plenty of power for passing and cruising.

The front seats are big and comfortable, and a myriad of adjustments, along with a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, means almost anyone can find a comfortable driving position. The flimsy sun visors slide on their support rods to efficiently block sunlight from the side.

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