Sometimes, You Don't Really Need A Low-Range Gear ... Unless, Of Course, You Do
Hold on now-before you fire off any more hate mail, take a good look around your 'hood. See a few of these CUV rigs parked on your street, or alongside the trail? You may not own one, but we'd wager there's a fair chance that your wife, or your neighbor, or your boss, or your boss' wife has one as a daily driver and weekend play rig. And besides, any time an automaker boasts about its vehicles' "off-pavement prowess," well heck, we're always ready to put their rigs to the test.
Let's face it: all-wheel-drive crossovers-or CUVs, or XUVs, or soft-roaders, or whatever you want to call them (keep it clean, please; there are children in the room)-are a fast-growing industry segment, and even diehard 4x4 brands such as Jeep and Land Rover are building them now. At Four Wheeler, we've always believed in staying abreast of current trends (and besides, we've been testing these things since Day One), so here are our takes on two new crossovers we had the chance to 'wheel in the backcountry.
2009 Honda Pilot
Once based off the Isuzu Rodeo (R.I.P.), Honda's upscale crossover has evolved over time into a reliable if somewhat stodgy member of the midsize SUV segment. For 2009, the Pilot gets a complete interior and exterior refreshening, as well as substantial tweaks to its engine and drivetrain.
Power for the Honda comes in the form of the 250hp 3.5L V-6 (now with variable displacement) and five-speed automatic transmission also found in the Ridgeline SUT. Nominally a front-drive under normal operation, the Pilot's infinitely variable VTM-4 four-wheel-drive system utilizes a single-speed transfer case and a pair of coil-actuated electromagnetic clutches to transfer torque to the rear wheels under acceleration and/or whenever slippage is detected; a "VTM-Lock" setting splits torque 30/70 front to rear at speeds under 18 mph. Suspension is independent at both ends, with MacPherson struts and coil springs up front and mutilinks, coils, and trailing arms in the rear. The Pilot also gets the equivalent of a towing package as standard equipment-bigger-capacity radiator, transmission cooler, and integrated hitch for a 4,500-pound max tow rating.
On the pavement, the Pilot's ride and handling are surprisingly wallowy for a unitbody, with noticeable body lean in corners and unremarkable steering feel. Visibility is decent to the front but only so-so to the rear thanks to closely-spaced rear pillars and the presence of the (generally useless but easily removable) third-row seats. On the plus side, the V-6 and five-speed work as smoothly (and quietly) as any similar powertrain we've ever tested in a midsize SUV; the eight-way-adjustable power leather seats that came with our tester's top-line Touring package were a delight to sit in; the Honda satellite Nav system is easy to use; and anyone who has spent any time in a Honda in the last 10 years will have little problem locating all necessary instruments and switchgear.
Once off the tarmac, that somewhat spongy chassis tuning comes in very handy as the Pilot's suspension-especially the link rearend-cycles quite suppley on slow-speed trails. On steep hills of loose dirt, the Honda's traction control behaved predictably and progressively; getting power to the rear wheels was never a problem in "Lock" mode; the new-for-'09 Hill Assist kept us from rolling backwards at idle; and on rocks; and the M + S-rated Michelin LTX tires provided decent grip and minimal slip. While listed ground clearance is barely 8 inches, the Pilot seems to behave on the trail like a much taller vehicle. You can coax the Pilot into some nice lateral drifts at speed-just be ready for a bit of body lean. All told, the new Pilot's off-pavement manners surpassed our expectations, and we suspect it could handle an even tougher trail regimen than what our hosts at Honda had in store for us.
Smooth, vibration-free powertain; supple suspension for a unitbody; handles fairly rough sections of trail with ease; well-mannered traction control; good tires.
Low ride height; so-so rear visibility; slightly wallowy on-road ride.
Comfy, cushy, and capable in the dirt.