Pros: Space, features, quiet smooth ride, and solid quality
Cons: Some ergonomics complaints, crummy gas mileage, big
Looking for a new 2005 SUV? Lots of choices out there! In my opinion, the best bang for the buck among the dozens of mid-size SUVs (not too big, not too small) is the Honda Pilot. It is as comfortable and luxurious as SUVs from German luxury car makers, yet offers you the legendary reliability of Honda engineering with space to spare and more features than just about any vehicle in its class. While it can be hard to find a Pilot under the $30,000 price tag, that money does buy you quite a lot of car.
I was shopping for a car (or two) late last year and had narrowed down my choice for the primary family vehicle to either a performance/luxury sedan like the BMW 3-series, or an SUV. Family discussions and numerous test drives made us think the SUV was the better choice for us (more space, more recreationally oriented), so that's we focused in on. We eventually got down to 3 finalists: the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander, and the BMW X3.
Well, we came to the conclusion that for an active suburban family like ours, the Pilot best met our needs and gave us the most bang for the buck among 2005 model year SUVs. So we put our bucks where our mouths were, and bought the Pilot a few weeks before Christmas.
I've now been driving the pilot for a little over a month, and overall, I am extremely impressed with the overall quality of the car. I remain convinced that it was the best choice we could have made at this time. I'm finding a few annoyances with it, but for the most part, I am quite happy with the Pilot. Here's what I see as its strong points and shortcomings...
Comfort and Convenience: The Riding Experience...
You can't buy a stripped down Pilot --- Honda doesn't make 'em. Even the cheapest, most barebones Pilot is going to be a very comfortable, very well-equipped car with power everything, including power windows and door locks, air conditioning, stereo system with 6-disc CD changer, and bells and whistles everywhere. I've heard that the reason for this is because the Pilot is essentially an Acura MDX with a re-worked body. Maybe. I don't know.
What I do know is that there are very few options that you can get on a Pilot. You can order the EX-L package, which is what I've got, and it gives you leather, alloy wheels, tinted glass, and a lot of things that I can't ever in my life imagine wanting to use (like heated seats, heated mirrors --- hey! I live in South Texas --- or "universal garage door opener" --- it doesn't seem to work anyway, I spent hours last night cruising up and down the street pressing the button, and I didn't see anybody's garage door open! Maybe I should go back to Honda and complain...)
There is only one engine and drivetrain on the Pilot, and about the only real "option" is the navigation system, which I personally regard as useless junk, but I guess some folks like 'em...if you're one of 'em, Honda will sell you a nav system. For me, I've never gotten so lost that a free highway map or free directions from an Exxon attendant couldn't get me unlost, and that's with over 20 years of very mobile driving experience. Can't say as how I'll ever want to waste $1,000+ on a nav system.
Anyway, lots of features everywhere. The interior is nice and there is a lot of room in this vehicle. Even when I put the drivers seat all the way back as far as it will go, I can still sit in the back seat and have tons of space between my knees and the front seat (and I'm 6 feet tall). The rear seat is also a good place to be since you're able to control the heat or A/C yourself, and you've got a rear seat DVD entertainment system, or if you don't, you have a power outlet in the rear console to plug in your portable DVD player (on sale now at Circuit City starting at just $179.99 --- tell 'em mrkstvns sent you!) I also like all the little pouches on the back of the front seat for stashing road snacks, CDs, sunglasses etc. Livable back seat. Very road trip friendly.
I've heard ads that claim the Pilot can seat 8. I say "Balderdash!" That third row seat is tight. You can fit two kids there or one adult with his legs going crosswise. There is no way this vehicle will comfortably seat more than 7 adults. Still, that's a fair chunk of real estate, especially if you try going and comparing the Pilot to one of those little dinky SUVs, like the CRV or the RAV4. Those suckers can seat 4, maybe 5 on a good day, the Pilot can easily handle 7 with grace.
Even with the 3rd row seat up, we have room behind it for about 2 suitcases or a fat duffle bag with smaller bags stacked on top of it.
Anyway, lots of comfort features, the seats are big, firm, and comfortable (though I wish the power controls were on both the passenger and driver side), and it even has a boost feature to raise the seat level. Best of all, the ride is very quiet inside with absolutely no truck-like rumble. Outside from the curb, the engine still has a suitably throaty sound --- you just don't hear it inside the very well insulated interior.
Power and Performance: The Driving Experience...
I am very impressed by the overall smooth and precise handling of the Pilot. It is very responsive with quick acceleration and tight cornering response.
If anything, the vehicle is almost skittish in the way it jumps with barely the lightest touch on the accelerator. The 255 horsepower V6 is more than adequate power for just about any situation, on or off road, that you're likely to bump into. Of course, the Pilot isn't a sports car, and it shouldn't be expected to do 5 second quarter miles (and it won't). After all, this is also a very heavy vehicle with a curb weight of well over 2 tons (4400 pounds, according to the Honda spec sheet).
For normal suburban Dad-man driving situations, the Pilot has more power than I'll ever need. It accelerates quickly from stop lights, has enough power to easily jump up to a 70mph cruising speed within the distance of a typical interstate on-ramp, and the automatic transmission quietly and smoothly handles even the fastest stomp on the gas with no kludgy lurches that you find on some cars. It feels precise and authoritative.
This is a full-time all-wheel-drive vehicle, but if you're in an offroad situation, you can lock it into a more serious four-wheel-drive mode by shifting to a low gear and then pressing the VTM-4 button. Why "VTM-4" instead of "4WD" or "4 wheel" or something intuitive, I don't know, but suffice it to say that ergonomics doesn't seem to be one of Honda's strong points on the Pilot. I've never had a chance yet to actually use the 4-wheel drive mode. I've played with it a few times, engaging it to drive through the rough and tumble back-country that you find in downtown Houston, but that's not exactly a demanding test. The only difference I really noticed in the vehicle's performance when it was on was that an orange light lit up on the dashboard to tell me it was on. Someday I'll take it to a place where there are hills or snow or something, but for now, it drives perfectly well in normal suburban Dad-man situations.
Cornering stability has been a historic problem area for SUVs. Honda addresses this area with a backup safety system called the VSA (vehicle stability assist). The way it works is that, when sensors detect that the vehicle is tipping or skidding in an uncontrolled way, the system applies power or braking different wheels to offset the destabilizing forces. Seems like a good idea, but if it really works well, then I can't help but wonder why a button is provided on the dashboard to de-activate it. The user guide doesn't really explain why you might want to disable it, only that you can. Kind of reminds me of a 1973 Oldsmobile 98 that my dad used to have --- it had a 3-point safety belt, but you could disconnect the shoulder strap to make it no more effective than the old-style basic lap belt. I guess car makers just kind of assume that Americans always want to be idiots, so they make it as easy for us to hurt ourselves as they possibly can.
At the gas pumps, this Pilot is a hog. Its rated at 17mpg, but I don't think I'm even getting that with normal daily urban/suburban style driving. I kind of figure that with its 20 gallon tank, I should be able to do almost 350 miles between fill-ups, but I think that in the first month of ownership, I'm averaging under 300. I've only got one short road trip on it (an hour and a half each way on the highway), so not enough data yet to know how its really going to perform on longer trips.
For longer family trips, the interior cargo space is tight if the third seat is up, but is very spacious when its in the down position (Honda says 90 cubic feet --- that sounds like a lot, it's certainly enough for a couple coolers, tents, duffle bags, etc., and even if its not, the Pilots come with roof racks).
If you're planning to pull a boat or trailer with the Pilot, the towing capacity is listed as 3500 pounds (gee, just a few more and I'd be able to bring my mother-in-law in her trailer).
Peace of Mind: The Safety Issues...
When I wrote my review of factors I want in a new car, I talked a bit about the safety issue and how, being a family kind of guy, I was going to make sure that whatever I bought had good safety ratings and a lot of safety features to protect little people. In that respect, I think Honda has done an excellent job (which went a long way towards Honda's salesman being able to convince Mrs. Mrkstvns that the Pilot was what should be in our driveway).
Before signing on the dotted line, I'd clicked my way over to the web sites for NHTSA to see how the Pilot has done in government and industry safety tests.
The Pilot had the best ratings of any SUV: 5-star NHTSA ratings in every category (driver, passenger, side impact, overall). It also earned a "GOOD" rating (highest possible) in the IIHS tests.
Feature wise, you've got your advanced airbags in the front, side curtain airbags, and sensors that can tell when a small child is sitting in a seat (so that big airbags won't deploy there). If you've got little kids with car seats, the Pilot provides multiple tether points on all of the back seat positions (2nd and 3rd row).
Under the hood, you've got most of your industry standard safety engineering points (crumple zones, etc.), plus the Pilot has 4-wheel anti-lock brakes, plus that VSA stability assistance feature to reduce the chance of rollover.
One other feature that the Pilot has is a sensor system for the tires. If any of your tires starts to lose a bit of pressure, an idiot light will show up on the dash and tell you specifically which tire needs air. This probably isn't going to help you out much if you run into a blowout situation, but if you've got a slow leak, it could give you notice that it's time to find a service station before you end up forced to pull over for an emergency tire change. (And by the way, unlike some car companies, Honda does not give you a roadside assistance program, so better pay your AAA dues if you're driving a Honda!)
Overall, about as safe as you can possibly get in an SUV. About the only vehicle I might expect to do better would be something like a Volvo XC90, but I'm not talkin' 'bout that car today...
Nits and Picks: The Things I Would Do Different If I Were a Honda Engineer...
As good as the Pilot is, there are a lot of nagging little details that I think are just not executed as well as they should be. Here is my washlist of things that Honda could do better:
* Lock system: Not locking the doors simply because one of them is slightly ajar is stupid. Honda's engineers must have had a serious brain fart when working out the logic for the locks. In only 30 days, there must have been a half dozen times when Mrkstvns Junior didn't slam the door hard enough to close it all the way and even though I know I pressed the lock button on the key, I came out in the morning to find the car wide open all the way around with one door slightly ajar. Maybe I've been spoiled by my Volvo S40, with its intelligently implemented lock system, but Honda gets a D- on usability for their door lock system.
* Spare tire: I HATE fake spare tires. I sort of understand having them on little econoboxes where weight and space is a consideration, but on larger vehicles, luxury vehicles, trucks, vans, SUVs, and station wagons I consider them an insult and a safety hazard. The safety issue is critical on the Pilot and Honda should seriously re-think any benefit they derive on the spare tire....one lawsuit is all it will take to wipe out the meager savings they get from having the fake spare. The Pilot's user manual implies that there is a safety concern if the Vehicle Stability Assist feature is enabled (which it always is unless manually overridden) and the fake spare is installed. Any good trial lawyer ought to be able to convince a judge or jury that if Honda knows this, then providing a fake spare is an open and shut case of negligence. Okay all you lawyers out there, start chasing them ambulances!
* Friendlier Controls: It's funny, but when I drove the 2005 Honda Civic, I couldn't help but notice how smart the implementation was of almost every control in the car. That's a big contrast from the Pilot, in which a lot of really dumb, really user-surly decisions were made. Here are my top 4 unfriendly control complaints after 30 days of driving the 2005 Honda Pilot:
1) Back seat A/C control panel --- a very nice thing to have by the way, the only thing is, why on earth should the passenger have to ask the driver to enable the control panel each and every time he or she wants to use it?? That's just plain stupid! The best solution is for the rear control to always be enabled (lose the stupid button on the dash), or a distant second best is to have it be a rocker switch that stays set to a default setting unless changed on purpose.
2) Stereo controls are too complicated, and too bizarrely "innovative" (I expect the volume control to be the left knob next to the radio --- not a weird knob removed from other controls and set at the top center of the dashboard --- that's just bizarre).
3) Cruise control activation needs to be re-thought too (I always try to set it from the steering wheel controls, forgetting that a second switch on the dash has to be set first to enable the steering wheel control --- that's unnecessarily complicated).
4) Remote: The pinnacle of stupidity in control design has just got to be the mere existence of a remote control for the entertainment system. A remote?? Inside a CAR??!?! What is UP with that? I can only think that Honda must have subcontracted their human factors engineering to a lowball sub-sub-sub-contractor off-shore in India who can do the job cheaper by observing monkeys instead of human beings. Come on, Honda! THINK! We're sitting in a car....not in a barcalounger halfway across the living room. We can reach out to a built-in control panel a HECK of a lot easier than looking around for a loose remote control that's probably going to get lost/eaten by dog/stolen/destroyed by children/crushed when seat is folded/dies from dead battery/accidentally dropped when door opens/misplaced/zapped by EMF pulse weapons (I saw this in a James Bond movie --- Goldeneye --- Great flick! Rent it at Blockbuster today!) A remote control inside a car is a stupid idea. Ever. Always. Whatever. It is just plain stupid.
Anyway, 30 days behind the wheel of a Honda Pilot is enough time to love the vehicle for what it is, and enough time to go bonkers when you realize that as good as the car is, many things could be done even better....(if you work for Honda, drop me a line...I've got some other thoughts on ways you guys could improve this car).
I want to stress though that these complaints are as serious as they ever get. In the most critical areas --- like dependability, safety engineering, fit and finish, overall quality --- I give Honda very high marks. I have yet to be able to find so much as one single defect in the workmanship of this Pilot. (And perfection is pretty much what I expect from Honda).
Competitive Spirit: Why Buy the Honda Pilot Rather Than SUV X...
Before plunking down our $32K worth of hard-earned cash, we thought long and hard about which SUV best matched our family's new car needs. Of all the makes and models that we looked at, researched, and test drove, the Pilot is the vehicle that we felt represented the best overall SUV value for the 2005 model year. Some thoughts on how well Honda does in direct comparison to other SUVs:
Nissan Pathfinder: The Pathfinder is very competitive with the Pilot in terms of bang for the buck. It has the more powerful engine (15 horses more than Honda) and I generally liked the ergonomics a bit better, but I had some concerns about a few cheesy feeling controls in the cockpit and the long-term dependability data I saw in Consumer Reports wasn't as strong as it was for Honda. We thought briefly about the Armada, but it was really too big, and plus, we were hesitant about a vehicle in its first model year --- let someone else work out the kinks.
BMW X3 and X5: The BMW has better ergonomics and feels more precise to drive. It doesn't have quite the squishy wallow feel of the Pilot and it brakes a heck of a lot better. Pricewise, the X3 is almost exactly the same price as the Pilot, but it is a smaller vehicle without a third seat and without some of the bells and whistles that make Mrs. Mrkstvns happy. Dad loves it, Mom says "no". BMW's X5 is more spacious, and the interior more like the Pilot, but at a significantly higher price. I thought the X5 was a relatively poor value.
Toyota Highlander, Sequoia, and 4Runner: I liked the attraction of a lower price tag on the Highlander, but felt that it was totally outclassed by the Pilot in every important area. The Pilot is larger, significantly more powerful, it feels more solid, offers more space, has more features, and handles better. In terms of creature comforts, the Pilot is closer to what Toyota offers on the Sequoia, but without the big Toyota's big V8 power plant. We didn't seriously consider the Sequoia because we felt it was overpriced for what little it did offer over a Pilot. 4Runners are sure popular, but I don't know why. They're smaller with fewer features than the Pilot, they don't drive as well, and they cost more --- scratch the 4Runner too. We didn't even look at the RAV4 because it's too dinky (ditto with Suzukis and all the little Korean knockoffs from Kia, Hyundai, and whoever else is around these days).
Mercedes M-Class: I've liked driving these in the past, and they are very comfortable, drivable vehicles with excellent off-road capability, but they've gotten mixed reliability reviews in Consumer Reports and they're considerably smaller and less well-equipped for more money than the Pilot, so we feel like the M-Class would not be a smart choice in 2005 (besides, the body style has been around for 8 years and Mercedes will probably dump it next model year).
Lexus RX330: People seem to love these little beasts, and they are quiet, firm, sophisticated feeling vehicles to drive, but they cost about 20 percent more than Pilots but offer a less usable interior space configuration with less cargo room, less power, less offroad capability and an overly car-like look and feel. I thought the Lexus ES was a more sensible vehicle than the RX330 (and personally, I would rather drive an ES330 than the Pilot), but ultimately neither Lexus offered the spaciousness, family friendliness, and overall bang for the buck that Honda did.
So anyway, lots of choices in todays SUV market. In my opinion, the Honda Pilot is the overall best value in the mid-size range for vehicles costing between $27-37K. The closest competitors seemed to be the Nissan Pathfinder, the BMW X3, and the Toyota Highlander, and if the costs or warranties for any of them had spun just a little different, my family could have ended up with any of those 3 in our driveway and been happy with the deal. As it is, our first choice overall was the Pilot, and we were able to make the numbers work with the dealer. For us, the competitive landscape worked in favor of the Pilot, and that's our new primary family vehicle for the foreseeable future.
Bottom Line: The Bottom Line...
You can buy bigger SUVs than the Honda Pilot, you can spend more money on another SUV, but all things considered, you can't buy a better SUV than the Pilot. This review might seem like I'm ragging on the Pilot in a lot of areas, but in spite of my complaints, any other SUV that does better than the Pilot in one area, does worse in an area that's more important. Honestly, I don't believe that there is a perfect SUV on the market these days --- 4 stars is really as good as an SUV will get from me right now.
The Honda Pilot is an extremely well built vehicle. It's big, it's spacious, and it has a lot of features that play well to the suburban family priority set. I'm sure the Pilot is going to serve us very, very well for many years to come and I have not an iota of hesitation in recommending it wholeheartedly.