1. home
  2. vehicle reviews
  3. 2009 Honda Pilot Vs. 2009 Subaru Forester - CUV Trail Test

2009 Honda Pilot Vs. 2009 Subaru Forester - CUV Trail Test

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.

What's Hot:
Smooth, vibration-free powertain; supple suspension for a unitbody; handles fairly rough sections of trail with ease; well-mannered traction control; good tires.

What's Not:
Low ride height; so-so rear visibility; slightly wallowy on-road ride.

Our Take:
Comfy, cushy, and capable in the dirt.

2009 Subaru Forester
Introduced in 1997, the Forester occupies the lower-priced end of the CUV segment, competing with the likes of the Toyota RAV-4 and Honda CRV for market share. For 2009, the Forester gets a complete remodel, with a taller and wider stance, a retuned engine and drivetrain, and substantial refinements for on-road ride.

For the coming model year, the Forester still offers a one-size-fits-all motor: The 16-valve 2.5L four-cylinder engine that comes in both naturally aspirated (170hp) and turbocharged (224hp) versions. Transmission choices are the standard five-speed manual and the four-speed automatic. Unfortunately, you can only get the turbocharger with the auto gearbox (read on), and Subaru recommends premium fuel to feed it as well.

The Forester employs two distinct all-wheel-drive systems: A viscous coupling-type center diff with the five-speed manual, and a variable-rate electromagnetic clutch with the automatic, which delivers power to the wheel(s) with the most traction based on continuous readings of throttle and wheelspeed variation. Suspension is four-wheel independent, with MacPherson struts and coils in front and double wishbones in back.

On-road, the new Forester is a pleasure to drive with the five-speed; clutch feel is light and engagement a tad abrupt, but with a little practice, rowing through the gears becomes progressively more fun, though the engine takes its time to generate max power. The close-ratio four-speed, however, is crude, unpredictable, and robs the turbo'd engine of a great deal of power. On the other hand, chassis tuning is very tight, steering feel is terrific, and handling is crisp at highway speed, with minimal body sway and quick return-to-center. Our testers' cloth seats could have used more lower back support and side bolstering, but thanks to a suitably tall ride height and skinny side and rear pillars, visibility in all directions is exceptional. For a smallish CUV, the Forester is also commendably roomy inside, with ample head- and elbowroom for a 6-foot driver.

Off the pavement, the Forester provides a mixed bag of manners. On stretches of high-speed dirt, the little Forester offered a firm, controlled ride and was a blast to drift in corners and launch from small berms (oh yeah, these guys also build Impreza rally cars, huh?). On nastier, slower-speed sections of trail, though, the Subaru's variable-clutch AWD system was slow to get power to the rear wheels (the viscous coupling with the five-speed behaved much more efficiently); the ABS traction control didn't always engage when we would have expected it, resulting in a sometimes-jerky ride; and powering up steep hills was accompanied by a fair amount of rear wheelhop and undercarriage scraping. Bottom line: The new Forester is much happier taking you and your trail toys down dirt country roads to your favorite trailhead; just leave the gnarlier routes to the Jeep guys, and enjoy the ride in a capable, if slightly quirky, crossover rig. And trust us, you don't need to wear Birkenstocks.

What's Hot:
Streamlined styling; high fun factor with the five-speed; excellent sight lines all around; decent mileage; premium tires.

What's Not:
Power-robbing four-speed; suspension too stiff for rough trails; turbocharger only offered with the auto trans; turbo'd engine requires premium fuel.

Our Take:
A capable, if slightly quirky, contender against the RAVs and CRVs of the crossover kingdom.

Vehicle/model: {{{2009 Honda Pilot}}} 2009 {{{Subaru Forester}}}
Base price: $27,500 $19,995
Engine: 24-valve 3.5L SOHC V-6 16-valve 2.5L SOHC I-4
Max hp & torque (lb-ft): 250/253 220/226 (with turbo)
Transmission(s): Five-speed automatic Five-speed manual/Four-speed automatic
Transfer case: VTM-4 full-time one-speed N/A: full-time AWD
Low-range ratio: Nope N/A
Frame type: Steel unitbody Steel unitbody
Suspension, f/r: MacPherson strut IFS, stabilizer bar/IRS multilink, MacPherson strut IFS, coil springs, stabilizer stabilizer barbar/Double-wishbone IRS
Ring-and-pinion: 4.31:1 4.11:1 (five-speed), 4.44:1 (four-speed)
Steering: Variable power rack-and-pinion Variable power rack-and-pinion
Brakes, f/r: 13.0-inch vented disc/13.1-inch solid disc 11.7-inch vented disc/11.3-inch solid disc
Wheels (tested): 17x8 alloy 17x7 aluminum alloy
Tires (tested): 245/65R17 Michelin LTX {{{M}}} + S 225/55R17 Yokohama Geolandar A/S
Wheelbase (in): 109.2 103.0
Length (in): 190.9 179.5
Height (in): 71.0 66.9 (including roof rails)
Base curb weight (lb): 4,499 3,250
Max approach/departure angles (deg): 28/25 25/25
Minimum ground clearance (in): 8.0 8.7
Max cargo volume (cu. ft.): 83.1 68.3
Max towing capacity (lb): 4,500 2,400
EPA mileage figures, city/hwy (mpg): 16/22 20/26
Fuel capacity (gal): 21.0 16.9