First Drive: 2016 Honda Pilot Elite

Like Liz Lemon, Honda’s 2016 Pilot comes close to ‘having it all’

Honda’s 2016 Pilot might not be able to drive itself, but, inside its comfortable cabin, tech-savvy families will feel like they can ‘have it all.’

The 2016 Honda Pilot is a bit like Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) from the famed NBC sitcom 30 Rock. Along with running her show within a show and wrangling the wild characters that orbited her, Liz was constantly striving to “have it all.” She wanted a successful career, fulfilling love life, and, eventually, kids. Most of these things, however, were hilariously out of her reach – for most of the show, anyway.

Now, don’t get me wrong; comparing the Pilot to miss Lemon is a good thing. The Pilot, like Liz, is tough, capable, and undeniably lovable and – not to mention that both sport rather child-friendly shapes, an observation oft made of Liz by characters on the show. While neither the Pilot nor Liz is foible free, both will quickly steal your heart.

Styling and seating

For 2016, Honda has smoothed out all the lines of the Pilot and made the crossover longer and lower, turning what was once a boxy truck fit for a family of reliability-obsessed ruffians into a friendly, accessible, and tech-savvy living room on wheels. I think it looks like a CR-V in the front, a Mercedes-Benz GL-Class in side profile, and an Acura MDX from the rear – with all the distinctive design lines from all three ironed into nonexistence.

Though still a bit bland, the exterior is a far sight better looking than the outgoing Pilot, which, if slathered in red paint, could have been mistaken for a barn.

Thankfully, on a car like this, exteriors don’t so much matter; it’s the interior that sells. Accordingly, it’s on the inside where the Pilot truly shines. In the cabin of the all-new Pilot, families will be greeted with eight seats (only seven on the top Elite trim) that are exceedingly easy to access thanks to a 1.2-inch lower ingress and an automatic folding second-row, which leans and slides forward with the push of a single illuminated button.

If you’re seated up front, you’ll find optional heated and cooled seats, a moon roof, 8.0-inch touchscreen powered by an Android OS, a simply capacious center storage cubby with a sliding lid strong enough to hold a bag, several cup holders, no fewer than two smartphone trays, and a slick push-button shifter for the transmission. In the back, the kids will be treated to an optional ‘panoramic’ moonroof that can open independently of the front moonroof (you’re welcome, parents) and a roof-mounted flip-down entertainment screen. Honda was keen to keep both the entertainment screen mounted to the ceiling and retain a second moonroof … because today’s kids simply have to have it all.

The Pilot is tough, capable, and undeniably lovable.

Occupants will also find five USB ports strewn throughout the cabin, four of which have been wired with a 2.5-amp charging capacity. So, pretty much wherever you are in the new Pilot, you won’t be far from a charging port for one of your gadgets.

In the way back, even with the third row of seats up, Honda has found more space than some large, five-seater crossovers. The rear stowage area even includes a reversible cargo lid with a rubberized finish on one side and a carpet cover on the other. The lid can either cover the extra trunk-like cargo area, lock into a mid-point for extra above carrying space, or be removed altogether, which extends the rear area vertical carrying capacity significantly. I only dwell on this little addition because I find it exceedingly cool and something I wish every car offered.

Power and efficiency

Under the new, round-y hood, Honda mounted a direct-injected 3.5-liter V6, which produces 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Depending on trim level, the engine is mated one of two automatic transmissions: six- or nine-speed. Buyers can also specify any trim from LX to Elite with front- or all-wheel drive (AWD).

2016 Honda Pilot Elite

Nick Jaynes/Digital Trends

While this powertrain is fairly plebian by full-size crossover standards, the Honda has a trick up its sleeve. Unlike its competitors, the AWD Pilot is fitted with an Intelligent Variable Torque Management AWD system, which Honda boasts is the most technologically advanced AWD system offered in a mainstream, three-row SUV. In addition to the torque-vectoring rear differential, Honda has developed the Intelligent Traction Management system, allowing drivers to choose what kind of surface they’re driving on, including Normal, Snow, and Mud and Snow, further improving inclimate weather capability.

Even with seating for eight and a techy AWD system on board, Honda anticipates the EPA to rate the 2016 Pilot to achieve between 18 and 20 mpg in the city and 26 and 27 mpg on the highway (depending on trim and powertrain) on regular octane gasoline, which is pretty darn good, considering its size.

As for driving dynamics, not that those much matter in this segment, I’d have to say the Pilot’s handling was good — if not a bit boat-y in the bends — and its steering quite relaxed … in a good way. Beyond that, like the SUV of the Year-nominated CR-V, the driving experience is pretty darn forgettable. Admittedly, this is great for most of the buyers attracted to the Pilot. They have enough to remember; how their car handled shouldn’t be one of them.

As a whole, the Pilot seems like a knockout. And it is … but just like our beloved Liz Lemon, it’s not perfect.

Foibles

During my day of testing the new Pilot, a few weaknesses showed through its list of achievements. In downtown Cincinnati, for example, the Garmin-powered navigation couldn’t find the car among the buildings and showed us driving through buildings – in 3D. Honda chalked this up to the Pilot having been parked underground over night. To which Liz Lemon would say, “Nope, that’s not a thing.”

Then, on the open road, I found much of the same Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS) issues that plagued Peter Braun in his recent excursion in the new CR-V. The solution to these, I wager, is to only activate LKAS while using adaptive cruise control … or simply not at all.

Conclusion

Really, while I found those issues aggravating, in the grand scheme of things, knocking a car for its imperfect piloted driving technology is like dismissing a TV show because its witty writing is a bit too cerebral (like 30 Rock); it’s actually more of a compliment than a criticism.

It was clear to me that, when creating the new Pilot, the Honda engineers did truly want buyers to have it all. And they’ve succeeded.

The 2016 Pilot Elite parallels the capability of the Honda’s minivan, the Odyssey, without losing any of the utilitarian charm that attracted buyers to the first two Pilots. It might not navigate you through a city so well … or drive itself … but it is a reliable, extremely capable family runabout that truly makes us “want to go to there.”

Highs

  • Sleek – not boxy — styling
  • Storage you could get lost in
  • USBs galore
  • Real torque-vectoring AWD
  • Comfortable as the day is long

Lows

  • Imperfect piloted driving tech
  • No volume knob on infotainment unit
  • Forgettable driving experience
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