At 188.0 inches, the Pilot is 3.6 inches longer than the Highlander but shorter than the Explorer and the TrailBlazer, and at 106.3 inches, its wheelbase is the shortest of them all. The Pilot isn’t quite as tall as its Ford and Chevy rivals, either, although it stands 2.3 inches taller than the Toyota. However, the really telling specification is width. At 77.3 inches, the Pilot is wider than anything else in its class, a prime source of its excellent cargo volume, which is among the best of the mid-size utes. The major storage capabilities, as in other Honda family haulers, are enhanced by a dozen cargo tie-downs and supplemented by all sorts of nooks and bins into which folks can stuff the rich and varied small essentials of family travel, from cell phones to crayons. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

And that, of course, is what the Pilot is all about. Honda calls it the “ultimate American family adventure vehicle,” and if this assertion is perhaps a bit grandiose, it’s clear the Pilot was conceived to combine a minivan’s usefulness with sport-utility style and versatility. There’s stadium seating for eight–two, three, and three (although Honda freely admits the third row “is for kids”)–with a half-dozen child-seat anchors in rows two and three and separate rear-seat climate controls. The front console has a sliding lid, a cell-phone pocket, and a power point, and EX models have a rear center console, replete with storage for ketchup and other goopy stuff, that Honda calls “a kids’ activity center.” In all there are nine cup holders strategically scattered, and six big map pockets: two in the front doors, four in the seatbacks. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>


Naturally, there’s plenty of audio: good in the LX, better in the EX. Like so many other family haulers, the Pilot offers a DVD entertainment system to preempt rear-seat civil wars–about $2000–and when you get that, you also get separate audio channels back there. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

The Pilot offers the option of Honda’s navigation system, also about $2000, but there’s a catch or two. You can’t get the nav system and the/media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgi> DVD entertainment system; the nav system eats up too much dashboard space. Also, in order to get the DVD system, you must opt for the leather-trim package (first- and second-row seats), which adds about $800./media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

All the fancy options are offered on the upscale EX, which is expected to start at just under $29,000. However, the LX is no stripper, including, as it does, air conditioning; a good audio system; cruise control; and power windows, mirrors, and locks. The EX adds aluminum alloy wheels, automatic climate control, body-color mirrors and moldings, and a power driver’s seat./media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

Considering all the standard comfort-and-convenience features, the Pilot may seem a tad light on passive safety gear: Only the front-seat occupants get front and side airbags, no curtain bags. Honda concentrated on structure, which pays off with five-star frontal and side-impact crash ratings. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

Like the MDX, the Pilot is propelled by a 3.5-liter SOHC 24-valve VTEC V-6 rated at 240 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque, mated to a five-speed automatic. Honda expected best-in-class acceleration from this powertrain, but it’s hitched to a fair amount of mass–4426 pounds–and our best 0-to-60-mph run was 8.1 seconds, distinctly quicker than the much lighter Highlander (by 438 pounds) but 0.2 second slower than the more powerful TrailBlazer. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

Mass also seems to be the enemy in the Pilot’s braking performance. The system looks formidable, with big rotors at all four corners, and it’s hard to provoke fade, but we’d call the 205-foot 70-to-0-mph stopping distance so-so. We’d also apply that rating to the towing capacity. The Pilot, like the Highlander, is rated for 3500 pounds, unless it happens to be a boat, whereupon the limit is 4500 pounds. Interesting distinction, yes? It turns out that since a boat has much better aerodynamics than a closed trailer, it increases the towing capability by a half-ton. However, that’s still well south of the TrailBlazer’s 6400-pound rating. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

As noted, the Pilot has no dynamic vices. Although far from harsh, it’s a little firmer underfoot than the Highlander, but that’s deliberate–Honda wanted the Pilot to be a little less carlike and a little more SUV rugged, something that’s reflected in the rather generic SUV styling. The steering is a bit slow at 3.3 turns lock to lock, but it’s also accurate and tactile. Similarly, if the Pilot exhibits more body roll in hard cornering than the sportier MDX, it is unfailingly competent and composed. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

If there’s any complaint to make–aside from a column shifter that makes gear selection unacceptably tricky–it’s that the Pilot’s dynamic persona is a little too family-oriented. Aside from its ability to make entertaining work of sloppy going on low-adhesion surfaces, fun to drive isn’t really part of this vehicle’s character./media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

But that’s like criticizing a superb character actor for not being a leading man. Honda is forthright in its target here–the word “family” appears with relentless frequency in Pilot publicity materials, and the product is nothing if not true to that ethic. It’s also typically Honda–beautifully crafted and well appointed, with exemplary ergonomics. Moreover, like the Highlander, it provides another excellent example of where the SUV middle class seems to be heading: away from the world of trucks. In that sense, the Pilot may be the best yet. /media/61/assets-image-020503145610jpg-photo-8566-s-inline-image.jpgp>

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