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2003 Honda Pilot Review - First Drive

Front View Trail
Jon Thompson | Writer
Posted July 1, 2002

Built For American Family Adventure, The Company Says

A Honda SUV? Right, it's the 2003 Pilot, designed in California and built in Canada.

If you're a car manufacturer, your product line isn't complete unless it includes a sport-utility vehicle. Up to now, in a time when it's critically important to get customers and keep them for life, Honda's has not. True, the Passport has been present in the company's showrooms, but the Passport is not a Honda product. It's a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo, a very competent SUV that nevertheless sold in very small numbers. So Honda stood by while about 9 percent of its buyers emigrated from Honda showrooms to those of Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, and others.

Honda's counterpunch to this trend is the Pilot. Designed here in the U.S. and built in Canada, the Pilot will rely on technology and equipment that debuted two years ago in the Acura MDX.

Power comes from this transverse 3.5L (about 213ci) V-6, which produces 245 hp. Most of the time, the Pilot is front-wheel-drive, but when a lack of traction is detected, a sophisticated traction-control system shifts torque to the rear axle.

Though the Pilot is based on the MDX, it's a quite different vehicle. The MDX is aimed at upmarket trend-setters who rarely would go off-pavement. The Pilot, meanwhile, used as its design theme the phrase "American Family Adventure." Honda very much intends it to be used on moderate two-track backcountry trails, and has designed capability for that use into the Pilot.

Nope, no two-speed transfer case, so the amount of trouble the Pilot can get into, and out of, will be limited. Lack of a two-speed T-case however doesn't mean that the Pilot is without capability. It relies on the same transverse 245hp 3.5L SOHC V-6 seen in the MDX, and also the same Variable Torque Management 4-Wheel Drive system. This latter component relies on a sophisticated electronic management system and a set of electro-magnetic clutches to lock up the rear diff when required. Suspension is fully independent, and benefits from spring and shock values that provide a very smooth, well-controlled ride that is more oriented to comfort than it is to sport.

Leather, seen here in the upmarket EX version of the Pilot, is optional in the well-appointed interior. So is a DVD-based entertainment system that comes with a remote and a pair of wireless headphones.

Another design theme used to help achieve its family-outing theme was the common haul-everything daypack. The Pilot is filled with clever daypack-like storage spaces-indeed, storage spaces within storage spaces, and with a second-row seat that features a fold-down tray complete with a receptacle for the sauce for the kids' drive-through meal. There is a third row of seats as well, and once the headrests have been removed, both rows easily fold flat into the floor to create a huge, completely flat cargo area. Clever touches abound, including a special seal on the bottoms of the doors to keep mud off the door sills, and therefore off one's pantlegs.

Honda paid special attention to the driver's needs, providing a good seating position that provides a claimed 308 degrees of visibility. Indeed, the driver can see out of the Pilot, at all angles, like he can see out of few other vehicles.

Pilot will appear in June in two models-base LX, and more fully equipped EX. Honda says the Pilot LX will be priced between $25,000 and $30,000. The company expects to sell 80,000 Pilots in the vehicle's first full year of production. Whether that will happen, whether Pilot is the counterpunch Honda needs to keep its customers from straying into other people's dealerships, remains to be seen.

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