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2017 Honda Pilot Test Drive Review
As midsize crossover SUVs go, the 2017 Honda Pilot is a good one. Whether or not you'll think it’s a great one depends on your tolerance level for its idiosyncrasies.
Honda builds the 2017 Pilot for people who are exactly like me. I’m a parent. I’ve got four kids, two still living in the house, which is located in the suburbs of a major city. I’ve got places to go, people to shuttle, stuff to carry, and a Honey Do list a mile long. Does the 2017 Honda Pilot make my life easier? Not as well as other vehicles might.
Look and Feel
My wife, Liz, is a member of a closed Facebook group for moms who live in our geographic area. During the week that we were driving the 2017 Honda Pilot, a thread popped up from someone seeking advice about SUVs compared to minivans. Liz and I read through all the responses, and it was pretty clear that among this admittedly unscientific sample of women, minivans symbolize surrender to domesticity.
“I feel like it’s a sign I’ve given up on life,” lamented one woman. “I will never get a minivan.”
Since the very first Honda Pilot debuted for the 2003 model year, it has shared a platform with the Honda Odyssey, which is the company’s minivan. Granted, the Pilot sits higher off the ground and offers an optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, factors that help to explain why it has less passenger room and about half the cargo room of the Odyssey, but at its core it uses the same basis for construction.
Historically, the boxy Pilot also looked much different from the Odyssey. Tough. Rugged. Active lifestylish. Like its owner hadn’t given up on life, apparently. By contrast, the Odyssey looked like a van, with visible sliding-door tracks, a wedge-shaped nose, and, evidently, a sorry-ass individual driving it.
With the most recent redesign of the Pilot, however, the crossover SUV’s styling is softer, rounded, more aerodynamic, and when viewed in profile it displays a stubbier front end. If not for gray plastic body cladding, big 20-inch wheels, and a small increase in ride height, would anyone even identify a Pilot as an SUV? Perhaps not.
If you didn’t know the Pilot and Odyssey share platforms (the redesigned 2018 Odyssey will sit on the current Pilot’s underpinnings), you also might not realize that the Honda Pilot and Acura MDX are basically the same beneath their sheetmetal.
Sure, the Acura is better looking than the Honda, and it has nicer interior materials, and it is more fun to drive, but to get the MDX with the same amount of equipment, you’re going to spend an extra ten grand. Think of what you could do with that money. That would pay for one heck of a terrific family vacation. Or two.
The base price of a 2017 Honda Pilot is $31,535. That gets you the LX trim level with everything you really need—except for the contents of the Honda Sensing option package. Accessing those driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems requires the purchase of the Pilot EX ($33,970 plus $1,000 for Honda Sensing). Next up is the EX-L with leather ($37,395), the Touring with big 20-inch wheels ($42,610), and the Elite with standard AWD and every available upgrade ($48,010).
My test vehicle had Elite trim and was painted a color called Modern Steel Metallic. For the coin it cost, you could financially stretch yourself another $1,425 to park an Acura MDX with the Technology Package in your driveway, but it wouldn’t have nearly the same load of equipment as a Pilot Elite does.
I wonder if the local moms in my area feel that buying a Honda instead of an Acura is a sign that they’ve given up on life.
Getting back to the SUV vs. minivan discussion, from the driver’s seat, the Honda Pilot sure looks and feels like a minivan. It’s got the same front quarter windows for improved visibility. The same thin windshield pillars and unobstructed view over the hood. The same wide dashboard and low center console with a tray built into the top of it. The same front captain’s chairs with adjustable armrests. My test vehicle even had second-row captain’s chairs with a stumble-through to the third-row seat—just like a minivan.
Sneaky Honda, providing people who hate minivans with all the great features of minivans.
Well, except for the super-handy sliding side doors, which make loading babies and young children so much easier and which prevent your older kids from denting vehicles parked next to you. The Pilot also has half as much cargo room as a minivan. And it doesn’t even provide a full inch of extra ground clearance compared to a Toyota Sienna with AWD.
But hey, the less practical Pilot is an SUV, so everyone will know that you haven’t given up on life.
Every 2017 Honda Pilot is equipped with a powerful 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine that can operate on fewer cylinders under certain conditions in order to improve fuel economy. Get the Touring or the Elite model, and the engine adds an Idle Stop function that shuts the engine off while the Pilot is sitting still in traffic or at an intersection.
Additionally, the Touring and Elite models replace the standard 6-speed automatic transmission with a 9-speed automatic. This more complex transmission includes a Sport driving mode, paddle shifters, and software that learns your driving style and then shifts accordingly.
In my opinion, the software works. When you first get into a Pilot Touring or Elite, you might find that the transmission surges, or shifts harshly, or hesitates to downshift. With time, these unsavory characteristics fade, and the transmission works exactly the way you’d prefer it to the majority of the time.
All-wheel drive is optional for all trim levels, except the Elite, where it is standard. It’s a torque-vectoring system, and it works well on pavement, helping the Pilot to dig in and accelerate with authority around corners and freeway ramps. Snow, sand, and mud traction settings are included with the all-wheel-drive system, but I had no cause to use any of them.
Fuel economy meets expectations. The EPA says a Pilot with AWD and the 9-speed automatic transmission will get 22 mpg in combined driving. I got 21.9 mpg on my test loop, and for part of the drive I used the Sport driving mode and the paddle shifters.
It wasn’t much fun to hustle the Pilot down a mountain road, but the SUV handles well enough to inspire confidence in its driver. Where you’re most likely to pilot the Pilot—cities, suburbs, and freeways—it drives beautifully.
Acceleration is strong, and the engine sounds terrific when revved. Steering effort is light, but response is crisp and accurate. The brakes bite with authority and are very easy to modulate. The suspension is tuned for a compliant and comfortable ride, but also does an expert job of controlling body roll in turns.
All in all, the Pilot is a perfect dance partner for daily life. Just don’t expect it to raise your pulse. Or travel too far off the beaten path.
Form and Function
Quiet, refined, and loaded with quality materials, the Pilot’s interior also contributes to keeping your heart rate in check, unless you’re a big fan of radio volume and tuning knobs, which are absent from this SUV.
The funky transmission controls are also moderately irritating. Plus, they’re located right next to the cup holders. Certainly, nothing good happens if you spill a sticky drink on them.
Additionally, the front passenger can’t raise the seat to be higher off the floor, which is typically a deal-breaker at my house. In this case, though, the love of my life didn’t complain about how she felt like she was sitting on the floor, so Honda slipped this one by the boss.
Other than these complaints, the Pilot is a model of simplicity, and outward visibility is nothing short of outstanding. Plus, the Pilot is huge inside. You can legitimately carry seven adults in this SUV, provided that you’ve got a second-row bench seat instead of my test vehicle’s captain’s chairs. Most of those people will even be comfortable.
Fold the third-row seat down, and the Pilot’s meager 16.5 cubic feet of cargo space expands to an impressive 46.8 cubic feet. That’s plenty for an epic road trip and about a Miata trunk’s-worth shy of a Chevy Tahoe. If you need maximum space, the Pilot provides 83.9 cubic feet of room total, falling short of the Tahoe by just two Miata trunks.
Honda also carves storage space into the cabin just about everywhere it can. Tiered trays and bins are embedded into each door panel, and the console between the front seats is absolutely huge. A tray forward of the transmission controls and cup holders is perfect for incidentals and a smartphone, and with the captain’s chairs the second-row occupants have a tray and cup holders between the two individual seats.
All versions of the Pilot except for the LX have a triple-zone climate-control system with humidity control, which is helpful for hot and muggy summer days. Upgrade to the Pilot Elite for heated and ventilated front seats as well as heated second-row captain’s chairs. Warm spring weather in Southern California’s high desert prompted use of the seat ventilation system, which did not impress with its effectiveness.
The Pilot LX also lacks the HondaLink infotainment system that is offered in all other versions of the SUV. Designed to look and work similar to a smartphone or tablet computer, it comes with an 8-inch display screen, HondaLink services, post-collision HondaLink Assist, and smartphone projection technology in the form of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Additional features include SiriusXM satellite radio, Pandora internet radio, text-messaging support, additional USB ports, and more. A multi-view reversing camera is also a part of this system.
As discussed previously, the infotainment system’s lack of volume and tuning knobs is aggravating, and if the navigation map is shown, you must first switch to the radio screen to change stations unless you cycle through the pre-sets using the steering-wheel controls. That’s not especially user friendly when the front passenger is charged with finding an unsaved station. And the display rapidly collects dust and fingerprints, looking shabby in short order.
Screen size and the navigation map display’s layout limits utility. During a trip on secondary roads across a mountain range, I could not zoom out far enough while keeping the secondary roads visible in order to see my desired route in an unfamiliar area, and as a result my family and I wound up on the wrong road headed to the wrong city.
That would not have been a problem if the navigation system’s voice-recognition technology had understood my attempts to find a specific restaurant within a specific city, but it failed to do so, bringing up a list of options that had nothing to do with the Wolf Creek Restaurant in Santa Clarita, California. So, we elected to wing it and wound up in Castaic, California.
At least the kids were entertained during our wayward detour down Lake Hughes Road. The rear-seat entertainment system is optional for the EX-L model and standard for the Touring and Elite models, and it equips the Pilot with a Blu-Ray DVD player, a 115-volt power outlet, and HDMI jacks. Furthermore, Touring and Elite trim levels add a second-row USB port and a premium sound system.
Importantly, given its mission as a family car, the Honda Pilot is safe. Every Pilot earns a 5-star crash-test rating from the federal government, and all of them get a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. With Honda Sensing, that rating improves to a Top Safety Pick+.
Although Honda thoughtfully offers its Honda Sensing suite of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies on every trim level except for the base LX model, unless you upgrade to the Elite model, you can’t get a blind-spot warning system or a rear cross-traffic alert system.
Instead, you get something called Lane Watch, which works for only the right side of the vehicle and is a poorly conceived technology living on borrowed time. Honda has already dropped it from the redesigned 2017 CR-V, so my bet is that it will vanish from the Pilot and other Hondas in a year or two.
Finally, for the second time in two years, I observed the Pilot’s Honda Sensing technologies wrestling with road and traffic conditions on the northbound lanes of California’s Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu and Point Mugu. Between the curves, the oncoming traffic appearing around the curves, and the widening and narrowing of traffic lanes, the Pilot’s Honda Sensing systems regularly struggled to execute in terms of accurate, smooth, and transparent operation.
Honda doesn’t need to try hard to sell the Pilot, and the company prices the SUV in such a way that big rebates or other incentives are unnecessary in order to entice consumers. That’s why discounts are usually small and why the warranty and roadside-assistance programs merely meet rather than exceed the standard.
Impressive resale values help Honda offer appealing lease deals, which can reduce monthly payments. Observed fuel economy came in right where the EPA predicted it should, so you can accurately plan your gasoline budget. And while Consumer Reports and J.D. Power net out to a big, fat “meh” as far as reliability predictions are concerned, Honda’s reputation for dependability precedes it, giving consumers faith in the Pilot’s expected longevity.
While the cost-effectiveness related to buying a 2017 Honda Pilot might be average, as midsize crossover SUV vehicles go, this is a good choice. Whether or not you think it’s a great choice depends on your tolerance level for its idiosyncrasies.
Either way, to answer the question I posed at the start of this review, yes, the Pilot makes my life easier. Not quite to the degree that a minivan might, but then, no crossover SUV can.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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