Over the last decade, the mid-size crossover utility vehicle market has steadily grown amid tighter fuel mileage regulations and economic recessions. Gone are the sales heydays of larger, V8-powered sport utilities with body-on-frame construction – consumers are electing to go with lighter, more refined offerings that can still handle both cargo and people. New for this year, the latest iteration of a Japanese favourite, this 2016 Honda Pilot Touring 4WD, aims to carry on the strong sales and high accolades that the prior two generations have enjoyed.
Finished in Black Forest Pearl, our test car was fresh out of the box with just over five hundred kilometres on the odometer. The Touring trim level is the top-dog for the Pilot range, and includes a panoramic moonroof, a Blu-Ray Rear Entertainment System with 9-inch display, heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats, as well as Honda’s suite of active safety assists (Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Assist, and Adaptive Cruise Control, among others). Outside, the Touring gets 20” aluminum-alloy wheels with 245-section tires, chrome door handles, and projector-beam LED headlights.
Most families who purchase a Honda Pilot do so for the generous interior space and high-quality cabin, and the 2016 model does not disappoint. The front buckets, middle-row captain’s chairs, and third-row bench are covered in supple leather for all seven passengers. The captain’s chairs have a power-folding feature, making access to the third row as convenient as a push of a button. In terms of legroom, front and middle-row passengers enjoy ample space for long trips, but the third-row should be limited to children, adults for short durations, or family members you don’t like. When transporting cargo instead of people, the third row is easily folded flat from the back of the car with the liftgate open.
Rounding out the inside of the Pilot is a plethora of storage and utility solutions. The USB charging ports are capable of high current output – with 2.5A and 1.0A output available for speedy charging of tablets and smartphones. There are plenty of cubby spaces for your belongings, and the centre console is particularly deep. EX-L RES and Touring trims also get an 110V AC power outlet. In terms of electronics and gadgetry, the Pilot Touring 4WD gets the latest version of HondaLink with navigation. The touch screen is more responsive than Hondas past, and the menu system is fairly intuitive and easy to use. Bluetooth phone pairing was a cinch, and audio quality is enhanced by a 540-Watt, ten-speaker system. The gauge cluster is home to a secondary information screen that compliments the main touch screen well. To keep the younger or restless ones entertained, there’s an HDMI and Blu-ray rear entertainment suite with wireless headphones.
On the road, the Pilot enjoys a very quiet cabin with minimal road noise. Drivers and passengers alike will enjoy long trips in this vehicle. The suspension tuning is typical for most Hondas – slightly firm, allowing for reasonably sharp handling response without being overly harsh. Steering effort is light with the electric power assist, but it makes short work when it comes to piloting the Pilot in tight spaces.
Under the hood, Honda’s ubiquitous “J35” 3.5L V6 makes a return appearance with added direct-injection, accompanied by a resultant power bump. Output is now 280 horsepower at 6,000RPM, and torque is rated at 262 lb-ft at 4,700RPM. Compared to the 2015 model, this represents an increase of 30 hp and 9 lb-ft, respectively. Even though this engine family has been around in various forms since the mid-1990s, it remains a poster child for smoothness, and power delivery and has gotten even better with time. Idle is imperceptible, and the V6 builds revs willingly with excellent throttle response and a pleasant-sounding baritone. Even while giving it the beans on hard throttle applications, the J35 never sounds or feels overworked.
There is something to be said about the refinement of a six-cylinder configuration – with ever tightening fuel economy regulations, many automakers are eschewing their larger engines in favour of relatively coarser turbocharged four-cylinder setups. Kudos to Honda for keeping the V6, while still maintaining great fuel efficiency – more on that later. An electronically-controlled 4WD system helps with keeping traction during harsh Canadian winters. Only base LX trims can be had in front-wheel drive.
With the updated V6, Honda has elected to pair up with German gearbox manufacturer ZF in order to provide a nine-speed automatic transmission (yes, nine!) in the Touring trim. Lower LX, EX, and EX-L make do with a six-speed unit. Touted to provide increased performance combined with decreased fuel consumption, the ZF 9HP manages to have nine forward gears while maintaining a size and mass profile closer to that of the older six-speed transmission. With a wide spread of gear ratios to choose from, the engine can remain at an optimal point in the rev range to maximize efficiency and performance.
While these improvements sound excellent on paper, the Pilot’s real-world transmission performance was slightly dampened by what appear to be odd calibration quirks which affect how the car behaves. When cruising around town at steady speed and light throttle anywhere between 25 and 65 km/h, the transmission’s torque converter constantly underwent a locking and unlocking operation. In plain English, it feels like the transmission is constantly shifting, resulting in an unsettled and less-than-smooth feeling, even though no shift is actually taking place. Secondly, during rolling stop manoeuvres, medium-to-heavy throttle application upon acceleration occasionally resulted in a hard clunk as the transmission selected and engaged a gear. Revised calibration and software changes may alleviate these concerns. On the plus side, under all other conditions, shift quality remains excellent and the paddle shifters on all nine-speed Pilots allows for finer manual control if the need arises.
Fuel economy is one big advantage with the slightly quirky nine-speed automatic transmission, and ZF and Honda deliver as advertised here. In a combined driving cycle with some bias towards highway driving, observed test fuel economy was an excellent 10.0 L/100km. Honda advertises 12.4 L/100km in the city and 9.3 L/100km highway for all nine-speed Pilots. Additionally, the 3.5L V6 is equipped with Variable Cylinder Management, which shuts off three of the six cylinders under light load conditions for further fuel savings. In practice, the cylinder deactivation is a seamless and imperceptible system – the engine remains buttery smooth at all times. Start-stop technology is also included on all Touring models, which further bolsters fuel economy in city driving.
With an as-tested retail price of $50,490, the Pilot Touring is approximately $4,000 costlier than its archrival, the Toyota Highlander XLE AWD. However, the Pilot includes some extra features that are not available on the Highlander – namely the fuel-saving nine-speed automatic, LED headlights, 20” aluminum-alloy wheels, and the rear entertainment suite. A Pilot EX-L Navi is equipped similarly to the top-trim Highlander, and comes in at slightly cheaper than the Toyota. The nine-speed automatic transmission in the Touring does have its quirks, however the fuel economy and performance gains negate most concerns – and if not, the 6-speed automatic is still available and has always been a great shifting unit. At the end of the day, the 2016 Honda Pilot Touring 4WD is an excellent contender in the competitive crossover SUV market.