The mid-size Honda Pilot hits all the sweet spots when it comes to three-row family minivans—plenty of space, good power, decent handling, comfort and even optional all-wheel drive.
The Pilot is generally called an SUV, but lines between vehicle categories are blurring. Car and Driver magazine says the Pilot has "minivan-based underpinnings" and thus it is essentially a minivan with an SUV-style body. It could be called an SUV/minivan. Or just a minivan.
The 2012 Pilot has sleeker front styling, a redesigned instrument panel, upgraded audio systems and more sound-deadening. Never mind the boxy old-school general styling—it allows plenty of room for passengers with the third-row seat in its normal position.
Honda claims the four-door hatchback Pilot seats eight, but six is a more reasonable number, at least for adults. The second-row split seat, which has a center armrest with cupholders, slides fore and aft. But climbing in and out of the third-row seat to add to that number is awkward. And leg room is tight for adults behind the second-row seats.
The high floor causes a high step-in, although occupants have a good view of surroundings once settled.
Cargo room is modest with all seats in place, but the fold-flat second-and third-row seats significantly enlarge it.
There are four trim levels (LX, EX, EX-L and Touring). List prices start at $28,470 for the base front-wheel-drive LX and go to $40,820 for the top-dog Touring model. The LX costs $30,070 with all-wheel drive, an extra $1,600 for all trim levels. That drive system allows decent off-road capability, although the Pilot is no Land Rover.
This Honda has a 3.5-liter 250-horsepower V-6 that provides good 65-80 mph passing and Variable Cylinder Management that lets it shut down certain cylinders to maximize fuel economy. But towing capacity isn’t very good.
Fuel economy is an estimated 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on highways with front-drive and 17 and 24 with all-wheel drive. A 21-gallon fuel tank provides a respectable highway driving range.
Economy probably would be a little better if the Pilot had a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a five-speed unit, which seems dated. But the easily reached short shifter juts from the center of the dashboard so it doesn’t take up room.
I tested the full-boat $40,820 Pilot all-wheel-drive Touring. Its wealth of items include a DVD rear entertainment system, navigation system, Bluetooth connection, seat and mirror memory, backup camera and sensors and a power tailgate, which is handy when your arms are full of groceries. The hatch has a strap and indented interior slot to help close it you don’t want to wait for the automatic tailgate operation.
Still the base model has plenty of stuff, including a premium sound system, air conditioning, keyless entry and power windows and mirrors. The EX adds a power driver seat, multizone automatic air conditioning and steering wheel audio controls.
The EX-L adds a sunroof, power front passenger seat, heated leather-covered front seats and the power tailgate.
Safety features include anti-lock brakes with brake assist and strategically placed air bags.
I couldn’t tell when the smooth V-6’s cylinders were cutting out or in during highway cruising. Acceleration was strong off the line and during 65-80 mph passing. The transmission works effectively, and the ride is comfortable, if a bit soft. After all, this is no sports sedan, but a vehicle designed for family passenger comfort.
The variable-assist power rack-and-pinion steering is nicely geared, although a little heavy. Handling is pretty good, assisted by the Pilot’s standard stability and traction control systems, along with front and rear stabilizer bars—not to mention my test vehicle’s all-wheel-drive system. However, you can feel this is a heavy, rather softly sprung 4,300 to 4,600-pound vehicle during quick maneuvers.
The brake pedal has a nice linear action, and stopping distances during normal driving are good. The foot-operated emergency brake, though, seems old-fashioned.
The interior has easily read gauges, but the audio and climate controls are small to medium in size, and there are many similar-looking dashboard buttons. Front seats provide good support.
The front console has two conveniently placed cupholders with a large sliding cover, and the other two seating rows also have cupholders. Rear windows lower all the way so kids don’t spill drinks handed to them by workers at fast-food drive-through lanes.
Large rearview mirrors and my test Pilot’s backup camera helped a lot when maneuvering in tight spaces, but the turning circle for this rather long minivan is just average.
The outside hood-opener latch is easy to find, which isn’t the case with many vehicles. But the hood is held open with a prop rod, instead of more convenient hydraulic struts.
The solid, nicely built Pilot should be on every minivan shopper’s list.
Pros: Ungraded front styling. Roomy. Good punch. Nice ride. Decent Handling. Available all-wheel drive. Acceptable highway fuel economy.
Cons: Fairly high step-up. Hard-to-enter third-row seating. Only a automatic.
Bottom Line: A "best-buy" among minivans.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for moe than 40 years. To read more of new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.