Road Test: Honda Pilot is a strong, sensible family workhorse

Honda's SUV/crossover hybrid Pilot takes pride of place for family conveyance without overt bling.

The second-generation Pilot adheres to the more traditional SUV attributes of ruggedness, towing capability and three rows of seats.
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Sport-utility vehicles might not be politically correct in the rest of the world, as automakers distance themselves from the once-popular and profitable segment, the marketing departments playing the spotlights on hybrids, electric vehicles and other less-intrusive forms of transportation. But SUVs and the more socially acceptable and stylish "crossover" are still many families' not-so-secret go-to conveyance.

Within the SUV/crossover sphere, Honda's Pilot stands out from its rivals courtesy of its conservative cut - squarish, forthright and devoid of overt bling. The second-generation Pilot adheres to the more traditional SUV attributes of ruggedness, towing capability and three rows of seats. But that doesn't mean it's truck-like or strictly utilitarian. It also combines the handling and refinement characteristics of an upscale crossover, notably in top-of-the-line Touring form.

No matter the trim level, all Pilots are found with a 250hp, 3.5L i-VTEC V6 under their hoods. It might not be the most sophisticated engine in the segment, but the unit is no lump of iron either, being fitted with Variable Cylinder Management. VCM works in six-cylinder mode under standard operating conditions, switching to three- or four-cylinder mode when advantageous for better fuel efficiency.  It's mostly seamless in operation, although you can occasionally catch the engine activating the eco mode. And, in case you can't, there is a large, green ECO icon that lights up in the instrument panel when the Pilot is being frugal. Still, taking into consideration the SUV's brick-like styling and a weight of 2,090kg, outstanding fuel economy is not one of its strengths - I averaged 16.8L/100km in a week.

For essentially the same reasons - weight and frontal area - the Pilot's performance doesn't cause any arched eyebrows, either. Any sport in the sport-ute appellation is purely coincidental, but this one has sufficient grunt to launch itself to 100kph in 8.8 seconds, which is in the same range as other V6-powered SUVs. As for passing acceleration, the Pilot covers the 80-to-120kph spread in 7.5 seconds.

The V6 is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission and goes about its duties quietly and efficiently. There is nothing wrong with the transmission per se, but it is worth noting that the newest SUVs are seeing more ratios added to their gearboxes to smooth out power flow and aid fuel economy.

Ride and handling seems to be in keeping with the Pilot's personality: straightforward and with a solidity that feels unshakable. There's nothing special underneath, just the familiar MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension with trailing arms. But the ride is comfortable, with little body roll in the turns, and the steering is well weighted. Despite its size, the Pilot is easy to manoeuvre and park, aided by good all-round visibility thanks to a generous greenhouse and - in the case of the Touring - a backup camera.

Being the topline model in the Pilot range means the Touring edition comes with all the bells and whistles, including heated second-row seats, satellite-linked navigation, the aforementioned rear-view camera, DVD entertainment system, satellite radio and four-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, power tailgate, wireless telephone interface and a USB device connector. Although the added content doesn't really turn the Pilot Touring into a luxury SUV àla Lexus RX 350, it does improve the liveability of the rig, especially as a family hauler. Speaking of family, the rearmost seats are best left for agile pre-teens.

But I was mightily impressed that, once I folded the second and third rows of seats, there was more than sufficient room to swallow a fully assembled elliptical trainer.

The Pilot does lack the elegance of the current crop of crossovers and SUVs, but there is a workhorse honesty to it that remains appealing. It impresses by what it does, not by how it looks.