The '09 Honda Pilot: Unashamedly SUV–But a CUV

The second-generation Pilot continues as an SUV in form but not entirely in substance. (Hint: it isn't a body-on-frame.)

A Little Bit Country.

A Little Bit Country. A Little Bit...

Maybe the Donnie and Marie Osmond reference isn't exactly the sort of thing that the Honda designers and engineers had in mind when developing the 2009 Honda Pilot, but as they worked to come up with a rugged-looking, fairly capable, utile vehicle with Honda-like road manners, when they worked knowing full well that they don't need to create something that is just a half-design box away from a minivan, as the company's Odyssey is considered among the best in the business, they came up with a sport utility vehicle (SUV) that is a crossover utility vehicle (CUV). A little bit country. A little bit rock and roll. So to speak.

Stylistically, the '09 Pilot is SUV-like. Among the cues are the evident clearance for off-roading (the Pilot is said to be for medium-duty off-roading; e.g., its approach and departure angles are 27.8° and 24.5°, respectively; it can ford nearly 19-in. of standing water), separate open-able tailgate glass, and a standard trailer hitch (the 2WD Pilot can tow 3,500 lb.; the 4WD can tow 4,500 lb). SUVs, however, ride on frame rails (OK, this isn't exactly a stylistic feature unless you're under the vehicle in question). Among the cohort of SUVs that the Pilot could be considered part of the set are the Nissan Pathfinder, the Toyota 4Runner and the Ford Explorer. 

But the Pilot doesn't have frame rails. It has unibody construction. Which is a fundamental characteristic of the CUV. In this category there are vehicles including the Hyundai Veracruz (it is slightly SUV-like in exterior appearance), the Mazda CX-9, the Toyota Highlander, and the GMC Acadia. Taking those vehicles straight on, Kerry McClure, assistant large project leader-Design, points out that the Pilot leads in several categories. It has seating for eight, not seven. It has four positions for the child restraint LATCH system (all mid row positions and one in the third row), not two. It offers 152.7-ft3 passenger volume and 20.8-ft3 rear cargo volume, which is greater than the other vehicles. It has best-in-class cargo width (it is capable of carrying a four-foot-wide sheet of plywood flat on the floor, a metric admired by partisans of Home Depot and Lowes, alike).


Engineered like...a truck.

Honda has been increasing the amount of high-strength steel (HSS) that it uses in its vehicles. The '09 Pilot now has more than any of its siblings: 52% of the body structure uses HSS, grades 340 and above (440, 590, 780, and 980). This should be compared with 13% for the first-generation vehicle. The bending rigidity is increased by 25% and the torsional rigidity by 7%.


More power. Less gas.

The first-generation Pilot has a 3.5-liter V6. The new one has a 3.5-liter V6, which has an aluminum alloy block and cast-in-place iron cylinder liners that are produced via a centrifugal spin-casting process (this means that there is minimal porosity in the liners). The heads are also an aluminum alloy; they are produced via low-pressure casting. The exhaust manifolds are incorporated into each head to reduce part count and to facilitate flow and light off of the catalyst. There is a forged steel crankshaft. But consider the improvements of the new i-VTEC six. Compared to an '08 model, the '09 has 250 hp @ 5,700 rpm, better than the 244 hp @ 5,750 rpm the other has. Torque is improved, as well: 253 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm vs. 240 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm. Yet for all that, there are improvements in fuel efficiency: for a two-wheel drive version, it is 17/23 mpg (est.) city/highway, up 1 mpg in each compared to '08; for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, it is 16/22 mpg (est.) city/highway, up 1 mpg and 2 mpg city/highway.

Part of this is based on the improvement of the Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system. The system automatically closes both the intake and exhaust valves of cylinders that are not needed for operating conditions; it uses the VTEC—Variable Valve-Timing and Lift Electronic Control—to do this. Parameters measured to make the determination include the throttle position, vehicle speed, engine speed, and gear selected. The powertrain control module cuts fuel to the deactivated cylinders. It can operate on six, four or three cylinders. When operating on three cylinders, the rear cylinder bank is deactivated. When operating on four, the left and center cylinders of the front bank and the right and center cylinders of the rear bank operate. (It should be noted that the spark plugs continue to fire in deactivated cylinders in order to keep their temperature elevated and thereby minimize the possibility of fouling when the cylinders are reactivated.)

One of the issues related to cylinder activation/deactivation is vibration. Several measures are taken to minimize this: the ignition timing, drive-by-wire throttle position, and the torque converter lock-up are all adjusted. In addition to which, there is an Active Control Engine Mount; it has actuators at the front and rear of the engine that work to cancel engine vibration. What's more, to further minimize any untoward noise associated with the VCM activation-deactivation, there is an Active Noise Cancellation system that works through the vehicle's audio system, which provides output that "cancels" the vibration (i.e., "noise") being emitted from the powertrain during the switch. Arguably, this is the sort of thing that you wouldn't have in an SUV, which is more "rugged" by nature. Arguably it is the sort of thing that you would have in a CUV, which is more "refined."

Which brings us back to the original premise about the '09 Pilot: A little bit...