It’s funny how a sudden change in plans can work out in your favour. My family was set to take a couple four-day vacations within our home province of New Brunswick and across the bridge in PEI. As to what vehicle we would take, although there were a few choices available (a perk of being an automotive journalist), my wife and I settled on a new Honda HR-V.
That choice gave me pause and a few sleepless nights as the vacation period approached. It's a sub-compact car, after all, and as I tallied up how much gear and food we’d need for us and our six-year-old daughter, I grew increasingly concerned about the available space.
I went into full panic mode when, with hours remaining before we left, the HR-V wasn’t to be found at its regional facility in Halifax. Credit to Honda Canada for pulling a brand-new 2016 Pilot Touring into the breach instead. Turns out it was the vehicle we should have chosen in the first place.
When the Pilot arrived at our house, it had only a few hundred kilometres showing on its odometer. By the time it left 10 days later, that reading had ballooned to nearly 3,500. In the interim, it proved to be quiet, comfortable and almost perfect as a family vehicle.
From the outside, the changes over the previous Pilot are obvious… gone is the chunky, square styling, replaced by swooping metal and plastic. It really does look like a CR-V on steroids.
I’m not a real fan of the appearance, especially the grille and headlights that look stolen from the last generation Ford Fusion. Coming around the back it looks better, however, with different LED taillights that bleed onto the fenders and rear hatch.
The Pilot seems to have learned some of its sibling Odyssey’s tricks since the interior is quite clever. The door panels had room for two drink bottles each, and there are shelves and pockets occupying the remaining real estate.
Also, between the instrument panel and various locations in and around the centre console, there are a quartet of USB ports, one HDMI port, a pair of 12-volt receptacles, and even a 110-volt receptacle. Given the number of phones and tablets we brought, each one had its own place to charge quickly and securely.
Some of our praise for the Pilot's interior came from the bits exclusive to the top Touring trim level – things like the rear-cross-traffic alert and cheek-cooling ventilated front seats. And the enormous panoramic moon roof, which my daughter appreciated as she could easily spot bald eagles and ospreys during our coastal drives.
My wife and I both appreciated the 10-way adjustability of the driver’s seat, as even after hours spent behind the wheel, neither of us had any numb-bum whatsoever. That’s more impressive given the more than one-foot difference in our height. It’s worth repeating that the front seats are ventilated, and both front and middle rows are heated too.
In the second row, our daughter loved the sheer amount of stretch-out space she had. She could unpack her Summer Fun Bag on the wide console separating the two captain’s chairs, and still have a drink within reach.
When we needed to knock off a couple hours of travel, the built-in rear screen kept her entertained with movies. The system comes with a pair of wireless headphones so that we could theoretically be listening to something else up front, but we just forced the balance to the rear speakers instead. That meant we could have some grown-up conversation and still keep one ear on a movie’s upcoming scary parts.
My daughter also loved the seating position, which was high enough to see clearly out of the side windows, and the fact that the receiver portion of the buckle was tall and secure enough for her to do herself.
The excellent buckles in the Pilot were made even more obvious by the Subaru WRX and Dodge Charger that bracketed the Honda on my test-drive schedule. Both were terrible, compared to te Pilot's, and caused lots of frustration for parents and kid alike.
The cargo area itself is massive, with 510 litres behind the rear bench, expanding to 1,557 litres with just the second row in place. If we had needed it, there is 3,072 litres of space available with both seats folded.
Accessing the cargo area is made easier by a self-opening hatch, although the loud squawks emitted every time it opened made us feel guilty about wrecking our fellow campers’ serene experiences.
What's wrong with a shift lever?
One of our few gripes came from the adoption of an Acura-style ‘control’ for the transmission. The row of buttons occupies the same amount of real estate on the centre console as the traditional shift lever does in the rest of the Pilot’s trims.
But the buttons for neutral and drive are easily confused if trying to operate it instinctively, which forces a long look down to confirm you’re doing things correctly. It is awkward to operate quickly, which becomes a safety issue if you need to do a three-point turn against oncoming traffic or with less-than-perfect visibility.
No complaints about the excellent transmission itself, however. The nine-speed in the Touring – vs six-speeds in the rest of the lineup – not only helps acceleration but also improves in-town fuel economy by a significant chunk. NRC ratings of 12.4 L/100 km in the city and 9.3 L/100 on the highway seem bang-on, since we averaged 9.6 L/100 km during our time with the vehicle.
That figure is even more impressive given how much cargo we carried, and with the air conditioning running constantly thanks to some of the hottest days our area had seen this year.
The Pilot's new 3.5-litre V-6 engine is borrowed from the Acura MDX. It uses direct injection to produce 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, which are gains of 30 horses and nine lb-ft respectively over the outgoing model. It also gets fuel-saving auto stop-start, which proved one of the better systems reaction-wise, although given our extra-urban routes it didn’t see much use.
Our tester also had all-wheel drive, with standard variable torque and traction management, which made sure the Pilot never felt anything but stable and secure.
There are four selectable modes for the AWD based on the surrounding conditions: normal, snow, mud and sand. The latter two not only alter throttle response, but also loosen up the intervention from the ABS and stability control.
I played around with the system briefly while driving along some of PEI’s oldest and still active dirt roads, which changed from packed red dirt to mud to sandy bits all on the same stretch. But, while fun, they weren’t any challenge for the big Honda. After that, I just left it in auto as there wasn’t any appreciable difference for what small challenge the conditions provided.
Benign ride quality
The new Pilot rode very well over the dozens of different paved roads or unpaved trails we encountered, helped by new reactive suspension dampers. And the 20-inch Touring-spec wheels with 245/50-series Michelin tires were admirably quiet from inside the cabin.
When you turn a corner, the Pilot’s mass is reasonably kept in check by the supple suspension. While I prefer more feedback and control that a stiffer, sportier setup would provide, my wife much prefers the tuning of this big Honda.
Pricing runs as expected, meaning around $36,000 for entry level models, up to $50,490 in our tester, which is about right in line with its rivals.
The scope of competition at this range is vast, with the Kia Sorento and Ford’s heavily refreshed Explorer being the other new faces in the class. Notwithstanding our complaints about excessive buttons on the transmission tunnel and not enough around the radio, the Pilot easily earns a spot on the must consider list.
My wife dubbed it “the ultimate family vehicle” and I think it’s pretty darn close. Especially for the easy way it helped us create some real family memories.
Model: 2016 Honda Pilot Touring
Price: $35,490 base; $50,490 as tested
Engine: 3.5-litre SOHC V6, 280 horsepower, 262 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Fuel Consumption (city/highway): 12.4 / 9.3 L/100 km
Length: 4941 mm
Width: 2296 mm
Wheelbase: 2820 mm
Mass: 1978 kg
Competitors: Buick Rendezvous, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Hyundai Santa Fe XL, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander