On the 2016 Honda Pilot

Honda put its people in California, Ohio and Alabama to work to develop an all-new, third-generation three-row crossover, the Pilot.

When you think of “Honda,” you probably think “Accord and Civic.” Those two cars are essentially synonymous with the brand, and their sales, particularly at the retail level (i.e., as distinct from total sales that can include transactions with fleets, which is something that Honda doesn’t like because, Jeff Conrad, senior vice president and general manager, Honda Div., explains, fleet sales have a negative consequence on the residual values of vehicles), are class-leading. 

That said, Honda trucks are a big part of the company’s business.

No, not “trucks” as in classical pickups like the F-150, Silverado and Ram.

The closest thing that Honda has to something like that is the Ridgeline, and you sort of have to squint to see the resemblance. (Yes, it has a cab and a bed, but . . .) There will be, incidentally, a new Ridgeline next year.

But it is “trucks” as in the crossover category that Honda is a company to be reckoned with.

Like the CR-V. The HR-V. And the all-new 2016 Pilot.

The Pilot, which is highly beneficial to Honda because according to its internal data, it has the youngest average buyer age, 47, in its competitive set* as well as leads to a brand retention rate of a whopping 62.6%, is, like some other vehicles in the company’s lineup, a U.S. phenomenon.

That is, the Pilot was designed at the Honda R&D Americas’ design studio in southern California. It was engineered at the Honda R&D Americas’ facility in mid-Ohio. And it is being built exclusively at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in Lincoln.

Speaking of the vehicle and its develop-ment, Marc Ernst, the large project leader (LPL, a.k.a., chief engineer) on the Pilot says, “Our U.S.-based development team lives with the midsize family SUV every day and we have applied our deep understanding into the development of this best ever, third-generation Pilot.” (Ernst, incidentally, is based at Honda R&D Americas in Raymond, Ohio.)

As for the “deep understanding,” Ernst mentions that he has a wife and two sons, aged 12 and 16, and that he knew that it was important to address their needs or he’d hear about it for the rest of his life. While that, of course, is an exaggeration, it points to the fact that the development team did focus on what people—families, in particular, as the Pilot can seat up to eight (when the second of the three rows is a bench, rather than captain’s chairs that are also now available)—are looking for in an SUV.

This is the third-generation Pilot. The first appeared in model year 2003 and had a five-year run. The second-generation appeared in model year 2009. This vehicle was designed to be much more rugged in appearance, and it has a machine-like aesthetic both outside and in. Perhaps this appearance was in reaction to the fact that the first-generation vehicle was one of the early unibody SUVs. The 2009 Pilot would look more capable (which is not to say that it was all show and no go: it offered an available four-wheel-drive system that has a lock mode which provides maximum torque transfer to the rear wheels).

But one of the consequences of the appearance of the vehicle is that even though the second-generation Pilot was offering best-in-class fuel efficiency (the 2015 two-wheel-drive models are rated at 18 city, 25 highway, 21 mpg combined), consumers, Honda researchers discovered, thought that it was a fuel inefficient vehicle.

So, Ernst explains, one of the goals in developing the 2016 model was to make it no less capable and family-friendly, but to increase the visible and actual levels of style and comfort. Consequently, the exterior design appears to be much more aerodynamic, and overall, the vehicle has a 10% improvement in its coefficient of drag (Cd). They chose not to achieve a reduction through notably reducing the frontal area, Ernst says, but worked very hard both digitally—via computational fluid dynamics—and physically—with a 40%-scale wind tunnel that they have in Ohio—to make the vehicle more efficient in the air.

Fuel economy is, of course, not entirely predicated on aerodynamics. And fuel economy is not the only reason why someone might buy an SUV. Perform-ance is important. So the engineering team worked on combining fuel efficiency with performance in developing the powertrain. The Pilot has a 28-hp, 262 lb-ft. 3.5-liter, direct injected V6 engine. The all-aluminum engine features Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), which means that depending on driving conditions, the engine can operate on the front bank of three cylinders while the valves on the rear bank are kept closed, thereby minimizing pumping losses. There are active control engine mounts, which help maintain a smooth operation. The engine is mated to either a six- or nine-speed automatic transmission. When equipped with the nine-speed, there is Idle-Stop, another fuel-saving measure.

All in, they’re looking at a 2 mpg fuel efficiency increase compared to the previous model. The two-wheel-drive Touring trim (which includes the nine-speed) is expected to provide 20/27/23 mpg, city/highway/combined.

In addition to which, there is a new torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, an electrohydraulic system, that is quicker than the previous unit (by 46%) and provides more torque capacity (by 20%). What’s more—or what’s less, as it were—the system weighs 22 lb. less than its predecessor.

Speaking of weight, weight reduction was another one of the drivers that Ernst and his team worked toward.

Compared to the previous-generation Pilot Touring model, which weighs 4,632 lb., the new Pilot Elite model weighs 4,343 lb., a 289-lb. difference. And the new Pilot EX-L weighs 4,306 lb., which is 37 lb. less than the Elite.

This weight-down is predicated through the use of a combination of advanced materials, including ultra-high-strength steels, which account for 21.3% of the body. This includes 1,300-MPa steel door reinforcement beams and hot-stamped 1,500-MPa front door outer stiffener rings. Also, 34.6% of the body consists of high-strength steels.

But there are other materials, as well. For example, there are a cast-magnesium steering hanger beam that saves 7.5 lb. compared to the previous steel part; an aluminum front bumper beam that saves 2.2 lb., and a composite battery base that saves 4.6 lb.

As this is a family vehicle, safety was paramount. One place where safety is enhanced while mass is saved is in the underbody. Under the front floor there is what is called a “3 Bone” structure that channels frontal collision energy along three paths, or backbones, beneath and around the passenger cabin. This crash-energy management system saves 61 lb.

Another factor that contributes to better crash performance is that the vehicle is 3.5-in. longer than the previous model (the total length is 194.5 in.), with an increase in the wheel base of 1.75 in., of which an additional 1 in. is ahead of the front wheel for crash (and the 0.75 in. in the back helps contribute to increased cargo capacity: with the second and third rows folded, there is 109-ft3 of cargo space).

Yet even though the mass is reduced, Ernst says that the torsional rigidity of the vehicle is increased by 25% and the mount rigidity is improved by 67%.

Of course, it’s not all about steel and structures, aero and aluminum. Style and technology play roles, as well.

There are available LED wing-shaped daytime running lights, LED low-beam projector headlamps and wing-shaped LED taillights.

Then there are, of course, screens on the inside. There is a 4.2-in. multi-information LCD screen in the center of the gauge cluster to provide the driver with info. There is an available 8-in. capacitive touchscreen on the center stack. It is an Android-based system, but iOS partisans should know that it supports iPhone integration (upper trim levels EX and above—which are estimated to account for 95% of all vehicles—offer Siri Eyes Free mode).

One interesting aspect is that the Pilot offers a navigation system that was developed in cooperation with Garmin (which means that it has a familiar Garmin interface, which is undoubtedly familiar to far more people than would 
be the case for OEM-proprietary systems).

The 2016 Pilot is available with the Honda Sensing package, which obtains information via millimeter wave radar and a monocular camera. Functions included are adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, road departure mitigation (which includes actual steering and possibly even braking assist), collision braking mitigation system (for vehicles and pedestrians: alerts the driver, and if action isn’t taken or is insufficient, autonomous braking is engaged), forward collision warning, and lane departure warning.

While those are all frontal, there is available blind spot information and rear cross-traffic monitoring, which are based on radar sensors fitted in the corners of the rear bumpers.

According to James Jenkins, manager, Light Trucks, Honda Project Planning, there were three reasons why they found why people would reject a Pilot. Exterior styling and fuel economy are two, which, as we’ve seen, they’ve addressed in significant ways. And the third was one of the reasons why people were buying the Pilot: pricing. (The Pilot LX with 2WD and a six-speed starts at $29,995; the top end is an Elite with navigation, rear entertainment, AWD and a nine-speed, at $46,420.)

Seems like the people at Honda R&D have checked all the boxes. 

*According to James Jenkins, manager, Light Trucks, Honda Product Planning, the primary competitive set for the Pilot consists of the Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder. The secondary set includes the Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Ford Explorer. The tertiary competitive set is the Hyundai Santa Fe long wheel base and the 
Jeep Grand Cherokee.