Review: 2016 Honda Pilot

May 20, 2015 03:30 PM EDT | Jeff Jablansky

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Suburban families, rejoice: There is a new Honda Pilot!

The sport-utility vehicle that truly put Honda on the map for families who rejected minivans is redesigned for 2016, and not a moment too soon. We joined Honda in Kentucky for a first look at the all-new model.

What is it?

This is Honda's third iteration of the Pilot. It stays true to the three-row formula that made the original model so successful across the United States.

New for the third-generation Pilot is the top-tier Elite trim level, which is nearly as luxurious as an Acura when specced thusly. For the first time, the Pilot is available with features like a panoramic glass roof, as well as an unobstructed rear-seat entertainment system. Honda expects the lowest LX trim level—which is equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission instead of upper trims' 9-speed automatic—to account for approximately 5 to 10 percent of sales. Eight seats remain standard, with a seven-seat captain's chairs option, as does front-wheel drive.

If you liked the Pilot in its previous iterations, prepare to enjoy this one, as well.

How does it drive?

Smoothly and without drama. Stomp on the accelerator, and the 280-hp V-6 comes to life with alacrity. The race to 60 mph may be a secondary concern in this segment, but it's certainly not a bad thing that you can smoke most of the sport-utility vehicles in the cul-de-sac. We liked the smooth feeling of the accelerator and brake pedals, but could do without some of the electric assist in the steering that adds lightness regardless of vehicle speed.

A 6-speed automatic transmission is standard on the lowest-grade Pilots, while a 9-speed automatic is offered on the Touring and Elite models. We drove Pilots equipped with each of the transmissions, and felt no discernable difference right away. Defeatable idle stop, which appears for the first time on a Pilot, is standard on 9-speed models.

The Pilot continues to offer minivan-level ride quality and comfort in a sportier-looking package. We could easily imagine ourselves back in middle school carpool, enjoying the ride. The Pilot hardly feels as big to drive as the Ford Edge does, with a gentler rake to its windshield, even though the seven- or eight-passenger SUV is at least as large.

Don't expect a hybrid version or a Pilot with a four-cylinder engine, however, even as the Pilot's competitors continue to expand their lineups. Honda's product planning experts are counting on the 3.5-liter V-6 to carry the front- and all-wheel-drive lineup.

What's it like inside?

Savvy journalists that we are, we made sure to test out the third row, heretofore reserved only for the short of stature. Let us put that claim to rest: The rear seat was so comfortable, with headroom to spare and unexpected amounts of knee-room and legroom, that we fell happily asleep for nearly an hour.

The interior strikes the balance between refined and family-friendly, with stylish surfaces throughout and plenty of power points and drinks holders.

What's its specialty?

Serving as Honda's halo car. This Pilot is that well-executed.

Most innovative feature?

An intuitive navigation system. For the first time in the Pilot—or any Honda product—a Garmin-based navigation system is available, replacing Honda's best-avoided proprietary system. Granted, it's not as advanced as General Motors' MyLink technology, but it's the clear, right step in enhancing the user experience inside. Trust us when we say, if you've had an off-putting experience with a Honda nav unit before, you're going to like this one.

Second only to the infotainment system in innovation is the Honda Sensing aggregate of safety features, featuring adaptive cruise control and driver assistance systems. We liked it in the 2015 CR-V, and it's exciting that the systems have migrated to the Pilot, making it one of the most engaged in its class on the road.

How's the competition?

Rampant. Everyone from Kia to Toyota offers a family SUV, meaning that there's more competition for the Pilot than ever before. We had the chance to drive some of the 2016 Pilot's competitors in Kentucky, and the Pilot proved itself as a standout leader. The Toyota Highlander was marginally quieter at speed, but it was no match for the Pilot's forward thrust and efficiency on the highway.

Overall:

Cheerful, expansive utility at the right price.

Highs:

Pleasant styling, powerful engine, big-feeling interior, smooth ride given its large wheels and tires.

Lows:

Overboosted steering, confusing push-button 9-speed transmission, no alternative powertrain options.

The ideal setup:

If you can live without a rear entertainment system, the panoramic roof, and rear heated seats, but can't live without navigation, we'd suggest springing for the Pilot EX-L AWD ($39,585). You won't miss an appreciable difference in fuel economy by choosing the 6-speed automatic, and you can put the money saved toward some of life's other big purchase decisions. (You know you have them.) Money no object, however, and it would be a Pilot Touring AWD ($41,900).

By the numbers: 2016 Honda Pilot

MSRP: $30,875 (LX FWD, includes $880 destination charge)

Power / drive wheels: 3.5-liter, 280-hp V-6 engine / front or all-wheel drive

Transmission: 6 or 9-speed automatic transmission

EPA fuel economy (mpg): 19 city / 27 highway (LX FWD), 19 city / 26 highway (Elite AWD)

In showrooms: Now

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