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2003 Honda Pilot Road Test

By Brian Moody
Photos by Charles Ofria

Category: $25,000 - $35,000 Mid-Sized Sports Utility Vehicle
Who should buy this car: Someone looking for a car-based SUV with room for 8 an plenty of practical utility.
Comparable models in this class: Buick Rendezvous, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Isuzu Trooper, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mercury Mountaineer,  Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Nissan Pathfinder, Oldsmobile Bravada, Toyota Highlander
With the introduction of the new Pilot SUV, Honda has again shown that they have no desire to be first, just the best. Honda was certainly not the first Japanese automaker to bring cars to the U.S., norwere they the first to build a car based mini-SUV. Honda was not the first company to offer a minivan, luxury SUV or high performance sports car under $40,000, but one could argue that they have done all those things better than the competition. The S2000 is one of the most solid, well-built sports cars for sale at any price and their amazing 100 hp per liter is almost an embarrassment to American muscle cars. The Honda Odyssey is the best minivan on the market (waiting lists at local dealerships prove that) and the Acura MDX is the current must have for luxury SUV shoppers.  

Along comes the Pilot, again its not the first car-based, mid-size SUV from an import automaker but it could very well be the best. Of course that all depends on your perspective.  Todays market is teeming with capable, competent SUVs that can cost as little as $25,000 and others that can tackle off-road duties only a fool would attempt in a lesser vehicle. The Pilot is all about what you need and what you dont need. 

Anyone shopping for a mid-size SUV should visit a dealership and see the Pilot up close. In pictures it quite frankly looks like a CRV, but in the real world the Pilot clearly stands head and shoulders above the mini-utes like the RAV4 and CRV. Although it seems smaller at first glance, the Pilot is about the same size as the Oldsmobile Bravada/Chevy TrailBlazer and the Ford Explorer.  

Inside the Pilot, quality is obvious right away. While vehicles like the Chevrolet TrailBlazer have a distinct horsepower advantage over the Pilot, the Honda interior lacks the cheap, hard plastic feel of many American made SUVs. This is not to say that the Pilot is great looking inside its not. The previously mentioned Bravada and the Explorer twin Mercury Mountaineer boast a more luxurious looking interior than the rather bland Pilot.  

Although its nothing to brag about from a styling perspective, the materials used inside the Pilot have a quality look and feel. Knobs feel sturdy and tight, buttons and switches move with precision.  White on black analog gauges give the instrument cluster a fresh look. Like most Honda products, the Pilot has an ergonomic clarity that gives the driver confidence and the ability to keep eyes on the road. The only exception to this rule is the optional DVD navigation system which employs a small screen mounted center dash, but has the function buttons on the right side of the screen rather than on the left side where the driver would be able to more easily access them. Perhaps this is a subtle hint from Honda that the driver ought NOT to be the one fooling with navigation buttons.  

There is no shortage of storage bins and containers inside the Pilot. The EX has a total of 9-cup holders, while the LX must make do with 7. Each door has a storage pocket, and the back of both front seats has additional storage in the form of netting. Up front there is a rather ingenious center console that can be arranged and re-arranged to suit the needs of the day. A sliding cover allows valuables to be stored out of sight, while a movable dual cup holder can be installed in as many as three different positions. The center armrest/storage bin is fair sized, but the really cool thing about it is that it includes a novel, flip out cell-phone holder without detracting from useable storage space.  

Seats are comfortable, front and back. The driver is treated to an 8-way power seat. Leather is available on the EX, but dont expect soft and cushy Lexus like leather - the leather on the Pilot seems purpose made for durability. Leather is perforated on the seating area to allow comfort even during long stints behind the wheel.  

A bit of a disappointment is the fact that memory seating is not available on any trim of the Pilot, nor is a power passenger seat. At over $30,000, those simple features should be included on the loaded EX version. Second row seats are roomy enough for adults to ride comfortably with adequatelegroom, hip room and headroom. Rear seat passengers have their own heating and ventilation controls, with a separate A/Cevaporator, heater and fan that provides cold or warm air independent of the front A/C system.

In terms of seating, Honda has two distinct advantages over the competition: seating for eight passengers, and fold flat third row seats. The Explorer/Mountaineer offers third row seating, but the Toyota Highlander does not. GMs TrailBlazer/Envoy/Bravada trio offer special extended length model variations on two of those vehicles to accommodate a third row seat, but the normal sized versions do not have that option. The Bravada is not available with third row seating at all. The Pilots third row seat will accommodate adults, but no one in their right mind would want to ride longer than half an hour back there. Children under 15 should fit without much of a fight. 

With the rear seats folded down, the Pilot offers cavernous cargo capacity. The Pilot feels very wide from the inside compared to the Highlander and TrailBlazer/Envoy. Although it doesnt look quite as big on the outside, the Pilot in actuality is almost the same size as the Explorer in length and height, but is roughly 5 inches wider. 

All Pilots come with the same 3.5-liter V6 that powers the Acura MDX and Honda Odyssey, and all Pilots are all-wheel drive. The Pilots V6 is good for an impressive 240 hp with the Highlander offering 220 hp and the Explorer V6 making a mediocre 210 hp. In fairness to Ford, the Explorer and Mountaineer are available with a V8. But when comparing similar vehicles, the Pilot is second only to GMs powerhouse 4.2 liter straight-six making a class leading 270 hp in the TrailBlazer, Envoy and Bravada. The Buick Rendezvous barely registers with a meager 185 hp. The Nissan Pathfinder equals the Pilots V6 output with 240 hp as well. 

Even with 240 horses under the hood, the Pilot still manages to deliver adequate fuel economy with 17 city and 22 highway. The underpowered Buick Rendezvous delivers 18/24 and the Highlander offers 18/22. All others offer very truck like ratings, often as low as 15 mpg in city driving. 

On the road, the Pilot performs adequately. Acceleration is average, which can be a little disappointing when considering the Pilots 240 hp. The TrailBlazer by comparison is downright fast and feels very lively when stomping the gas from a dead stop. Perhaps the real story here is torque. The Pilots V6 produces 242 lb ft of torque, but truck-based competitors offer much more as high as 295 lb ft in the Durango and 275 lb ft in the TrailBlazer. This could be why the Pilot delivers only adequate set-you-back-in-your-seat performance despite the promise of big numbers in the brochure. This is important information if frequent towing is required.

Handling is somewhat car-like. The Pilot feels smooth and stable on all types of road surfaces, uni-body construction might not be best for traversing switchbacks, but boy does it give a serene ride on the road. Open highway ride quality feels like that of a luxury sedan this could be the perfect road trip vehicle. Somehow the Pilot is able to deliver a seemingly quieter ride than its sister the Acura MDX. When cornering, body roll is present, but not excessive the Pilot weighs in at a hefty4,439 lbs and it shows. There is simply a dullness to the handling characteristics especially in emergency or avoidance maneuvers. It all feels very safe, but somewhat uninspired. Steering feedback is very good. The Pilot lacks the ultra-light steering feel of many SUVs, but the reward is increased road feel. 

As mentioned earlier, all Pilots are all-wheel drive. The Pilot is effectively a front-wheel drive car, with a drive shaft constantly providing power to a rear differential that engages the rear wheels only when electronic sensors detect slippage. This is a seamless system that requires no input from the driver the vehicle utilizes electromagnetic clutches so there are no hubs to lock or levers to pull, the Pilot does it all for you. So seamless is the system that most drivers will never know when the rear wheels were putting power to the ground. The only clue that the system is working is an occasional chirp from the rear tires when cornering AND accelerating hard on wet or sandy pavement frankly we were trying to make it happen, most people will never notice a difference between all-wheel and two-wheel drive.  

Honda calls this system VTM-4 for Variable Torque Management 4-wheel drive system now thats a mouthful. The VTM system can manually lock the rear differential via a dash-mounted switch giving you full time 4-wheel drive for mud, snow or sand. True, car based SUVs do not typically offer the off-road prowess of their body-on-frame counterparts, but the Pilot does offer a full 8 inches of ground clearance and a skid plate to protect the fuel tank. 

Typical Pilot owners will most likely venture off-road only occasionally, but when they do, the DVD based navigation system can help. Generally, navigation systems are of little use to off-road explorers because once the vehicle leaves a known road, the satellite has no reference point with which to guide you. Ah Ha, says Honda, they have a clever device called the bread crumb feature. Once you leave a known street or highway, you can use the bread crumb feature to track your way back to civilization should you become lost. 

Generally Honda products dont offer much in terms of options. Most Hondas are offered with features and options divided into groups or trim levels. Like the Honda Odyssey, the Pilot is available only in LX and EX trim, but there are a number of notable options available. As mentioned earlier, a satellite/DVD navigation system is available as is a DVD player with a flip down screen for rear seat passengers. With the optional DVD player, rear seat passengers are treated to separate audio controls with video game jacks and headphones. When ordering the navigation system, another option becomes available; a rear mounted reverse camera. Order this option and the nav screen will change to a view of whats behind you as soon as the shift lever drops in to R. Other options include: wood trim, leather seating, self-dimming rear-view mirror, fog lights, cargo cover, and rear park assist.  

The LX version of the pilot is slightly less expensive and does not come with such features as Homelink, climate control, power drivers seat, alloy wheels, rear privacy glass, remote entry, and a 7 speaker stereo w/ subwoofer. Ordering the upscale EX allows the customer to order more options not available on the mid-trim LX. 

Overall the Pilot is an incredible SUV would we expect anything less from Honda?  The low points are: lack of optional power passenger seat, lack of memory seating, and less than stellar acceleration. Pluses on the Pilot are many.  Standard equipment is almost too much to contemplate, and options only add to an already lengthy list. A well built, roomy, comfortable, versatile and value laden SUV, the Pilot is the biggest baddest, most expensive vehicle ever to wear the Honda name (in the U.S.). Those who remember the Passport will gasp in disbelief when they realize the three-fold improvement Honda has made over the old Isuzu based SUV.  

Now for the bad news, Capitalism works on the theory of supply and demand. Guess what, demand for the Pilot is high; therefore the chance of you buying one for MSRP or less is unlikely. Many dealerships arecharging $2,000 - $5,000 over MSRP and selling as many Pilots as they can get their hands on. Waltzing into your local Honda store and telling them I know how this works then offering $200 over invoice will not work.

In certain areas of the country, a loaded Pilot EX with nav system, leather and a DVD player can sell for as much as $41,000. At that price youre firmly in Chevy Tahoe territory. The Pilot is a great SUV, and like most of the finer things in life, its going to cost you.


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2003 Honda Pilot EX Mid Sized Sport Utility Vehicle
Engine Type  3.5L single overhead cam (SOHC) V6
Horsepower 240 @ 5,400
Torque 242 @ 4,500
Fuel Recommended Regular  Unleaded.
Transmission  5-speed automatic transmission
Drive Type Full Time 4-Wheel Drive
Tires P235/70SR16 all-season tires
Overall Length 188"
Wheelbase 106.3"
Width 77.3"
Turning Diameter 38 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 4,439 lbs.
Fuel Tank 19.2 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon City 17 mpg, Highway  22 mpg
Acceleration 0 to 60 8.2 Seconds
Base Sticker Price  $29,270   Plus $460 Destination Charge.

Standard Equipment

All Models

  • Full time 4WD
  • Rear locking differential
  • Seating for 8 people
  • cruise control on steering wheel
  • front and rear Air Conditioning
  • AM/FM in-dash single CD stereo system w. 4 speakers
  • 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
  • traction control
  • front side-mounted airbags
  • four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizers
  • front console with storage
Pilot EX Adds..
  • alloy rims
  • 8-way power driver seat
  • front and rear climate controls
  • interior air filtration
  • audio and cruise controls on steering wheel
  • privacy glass
  • roof rack
  • cargo net
  • universal remote garage door opener
  • AM/FM cassette in-dash single CD stereo system w. 7 speakers

Major Available Options

  • Navigation System
  • Leather Interior
  • Entertainment System

For more information on the Honda Pilot, visit

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