New Coke, the Apple Newton and McDonald’s Pizza are all exhibits in the pantheon of corporate flops, proof positive that even brilliant companies can make mistakes.
Honda is not an enterprise prone to blunders, yet the maker of the wildly popular CR-V compact crossover hasn’t exactly seen lightning strike twice with its midsize Pilot sport-ute.
The eight-seater Pilot – seemingly styled after the carton your refrigerator came in – has all the right gear and accommodations to ferry a family to the ends of the earth, but somehow hasn’t captured the hearts and wallets of SUV-crazy buyers.
What Canadians did clamour to buy last year were the Ontario-built Ford Edge and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the two dominant badges in the intermediate sport-ute category, followed by the Toyota Highlander. The Pilot languishes way down the sales ranking at number nine, eclipsed by the Atlas, Volkswagen’s recent entry.
The Pilot’s underwhelming appeal in a lucrative segment might have to do with a certain impression some people get when they climb in.
“The redesigned Pilot is more of a minivan than an SUV,” reads an online remark. “Just sitting behind the wheel makes you feel like you’re in a minivan with flimsy fold-down armrests.”
Turns out that the minivan feeling is not far off the mark. The Pilot has been sharing the Odyssey minivan’s unibody platform since its inception in 2003 – not a bad way to go, as the Pilot inherits the latter’s cavernous interior and clever utility. All that’s missing are the sliding doors.
The third-generation Pilot, released for 2016, grew longer by nine centimetres, but remained noticeably smaller than the spacey Odyssey. Stylists sanded off the former Pilot’s blocky edges to present a smoother face to the wind, while engineers trimmed 130 kg from its curb weight by adopting ultra-high-strength steels that are lighter than the typical metal used in structural composition.
The interior got a lot of attention with improved finishes, more cupholders (16 of ‘em!) and bins for personal items, and a new 8-inch touchscreen that ups the technology content – although many owners found the interface to be not as intuitive or responsive as other touchscreen systems. The cabin remains as roomy and versatile as ever, with the longer wheelbase augmenting the legroom in the third row.
Some trims replace the three-place second row of seats with a pair of captain’s chairs. The second-row seats tilt and slide forward with the push of a button, but the resulting pass-through is still a narrow squeeze. Once past that obstacle, passengers are rewarded with real adult-sized seating in the third row. Cargo space is not as big as in the Odyssey, however, because the Pilot has to make room for the all-wheel-drive hardware underneath.
Large glass area and slender roof pillars give the Pilot best-in-class driver visibility, and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded it with its five-star crash test rating. The Honda Sense suite of driver-assist safety features includes forward-collision alert, automated emergency braking, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control.
Every Pilot comes with a direct-injection 3.5-L V6 good for 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. Standard Variable Cylinder Management switches between six- and three-cylinder modes depending on the power demand. Most models are equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, while Touring and Elite models get a nine-speed automatic supplied by German cogmaker ZF. The all-wheel-drive system not only sends power front and back, but also between the left and right rear wheels for improved stability.
The Pilot subsequently received some minor revisions, including the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility in 2017. It got a minor styling update with LED lamps for 2019, along with a smoother-shifting ZF transmission and new tech features, including a revised infotainment touchscreen. Honda Sensing became standard issue on all models.
Driving the Pilot is a bit of a surprise, thanks to the energetic V6 that rarely is caught napping on the job. Zero to 97 km/h comes up in just 6.0 seconds – performance that beats a V6-powered Dodge Challenger. Unfortunately, the nine-speed transmission exhibits some low-speed indecision and rough shifts; even the regular six-speed autobox is a tad inelegant at times.
Too bad the chassis doesn’t quite keep up with the athletic engine. The electric steering is too light in this application, and even the slightest bit of steering input causes the softly sprung suspension to lean. One critic noted that the Pilot seems designed to ride better when it’s loaded down, much like an old-school pickup truck. On the positive side the Pilot is good with fuel, averaging 11.3 litres/100 km (25 mpg) in mixed-use driving.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
The Honda Pilot is revered by owners for its versatile, roomy interior with its surprisingly spacious third-row seating, its velvety compliant ride and decent fuel economy from what is a powerful V6 engine. Weaknesses include a fussy infotainment system and finicky driver-assist tech that sometimes becomes intrusive, poor cargo space behind the third row of seats, and utterly forgettable styling.
On the dependability side, some serial Honda buyers habitually buy the next generation of their favourite model sight unseen, confident in the notion that a Honda, any Honda, won’t let them down. In this case, we’d counsel a used Pilot shopper to examine their choice carefully. The big lug has been the subject of some significant owner complaints, not least of which involves the compact ZF automatic transmission.
The world’s first nine-speed automatic transmission debuted in the all-new Land Rover Evoque and Jeep Cherokee for 2014 and was quickly adopted by other manufacturers, including Honda/Acura. Despite its advanced technology, the slushbox has been problematic; reported issues include sudden lunges from unexpected downshifts, no kickdown when merging on a highway, front-axle vibration in low gears, and outright mechanical failure.
“Can’t find the right gear, car stutters and will launch you downhill. Low speed driving is terrible, can’t maintain a constant speed,” posted one 2016 Pilot owner online. ZF provided updated software to address the bad behaviour, but many owners have complained the transmission reverts to its old ways. A bad wiring crimp was also blamed. Pilot shoppers might be wise to pick one with the aging six-speed tranny.
Another disconcerting issue is the V6’s direct-injection system, which performs brilliantly – until it doesn’t. Some owners have observed the dashboard warning lamps lighting up like a Christmas tree; a visit to the dealer may result in the owner footing the bill for a fuel injection repair kit that replaces all six injectors, the fuel rail and fuel filler cap to the tune of more than $1,500. Apparently, fuel injectors are not covered by Honda’s powertrain warranty.
Beyond these two noteworthy issues, owners have catalogued problems with the air conditioner, water leaks infiltrating the cabin, popping noises coming from the suspension, short-lived batteries and infotainment displays that freeze or go dark completely – an annoyance that may be traced to the wiring harness.
Despite the flaws, we wouldn’t nominate the Pilot into the pantheon of corporate duds. The Alabama-built Pilot remains a well-engineered product that wears the Honda “H” proudly. We do question the company’s decision to buy a German transmission when Honda makes some very good gearboxes itself. As for the minivan DNA that lurks underneath, we think it’s a better SUV for it.