2016 Honda Pilot Elite review: You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay…

2016 Honda Pilot Elite

2016 Honda Pilot Elite

We’re in a quandary about what to call the 2016 Honda Pilot. No, really. It sounds like a cliché, to debate whether the Pilot would better be defined as a crossover or an SUV. It’s predecessor was clearly an SUV, boxy and square, and even lacking the dual-range transfer case for all-wheel drive versions, it was capable of moderate off-roading—more than just muddy roads—even if that ability was rarely used.

The new 2016 Honda Pilot, however, banishes the box. There’s no confusing the 2016 Pilot from its predecessor. While the earlier Pilot could have been designed with little more than a straightedge and a carpenter’s square, the 2016 has curves and exotic obtuse angles. The Honda Pilot has changed.

2016 Honda Pilot Elite interior

The 2016 Honda Pilot Elite is large inside, just like outside. (click to enlarge)

Yet it hasn’t. The Honda Pilot still has nominal front-drive, with all-wheel drive optional. The engine is still a 3.5-liter V-6 set transversely under the hood, but engine is new, with direct injection and variable valve timing and lift single-overhead-cams. A new feature for the engine is variable displacement—Honda calls it Variable Cylinder Management—that runs the engine on the front three cylinders of the transversely-set V-6 under light load. Special “active” engine mounts counteract any vibrations from the odd power pulses during three-cylinder operation. The switch from six-cylinder to three-cylinder and back again can’t be felt or heard.

What also can’t be felt or heard is the new nine-speed automatic transmission, standard on the Touring and Elite top trim levels, the latter our test vehicle. The lower trim levels have the six-speed transmission from last year, though with the new engine. The nine-speed has two modes, one full automatic, the other, Sport, is still automatic but Honda claims it’s for more “more performance-oriented driving,” keeping gear ratios higher, closer to the power peak for quicker response to the throttle.

Ah, performance-oriented driving. As great as the engine is, it’s still 280 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque, and that to move the 4300 pounds of our test vehicle. Admittedly that’s not overly heavy for a three-row SUV, it’s still a lot of weight for the engine to move. It’s not pokey, but it’s still hard to think in “sports” terms.

2016 Honda Pilot Elite shift buttons

The 2016 Honda Pilot Elite has shift buttons rather a shift lever. The button with the SUV profile changes AWD mode. (click to enlage)

That it’s a tall vehicle mitigates against any kind of a sports car approximation. However, as an Elite trim level, our Honda Pilot test vehicle came standard with four/all-wheel drive. Along with the new trans, the all-wheel drive system includes “Intelligent Variable Torque Management.” The system not only varies torque distribution between front and rear axles, based on traction available, but also to the left and right side of the rear axle. By using hydraulic torque vectoring side-to-side rather than braking one side or the other, the Pilot has a more natural feel and resistance to an all-wheel vehicles natural inclination to go straight.

The 2016 Pilot also uses data from various chassis sensors to determine when more steering should be added to the front wheels, and with the electric power steering the Pilot adds steering pressure to the nudge the wheel toward where the car should be going.

2016 Honda Pilot Elite instrument panel

The instrument panel of the 2016 Honda Pilot has an analog tachometer and digital speedometer. (click to enlarge)

The result is somewhere short of “agile,” the word Honda keeps tossing about, but the 2016 Honda Pilot is less ponderous than it might otherwise be.

More than just a pretty—as SUV/crossovers go—face, Honda engineered genuine off-road ability into the Pilot. In addition to steep-for-a-crossover approach and departure angles—18 degrees front and almost 20 degrees rear—the all-wheel drive system has four selectable traction action modes, Normal, Snow, Mud and Sand. Front wheel drive models have Normal and Snow modes only. Snow and Sand are not in the FWD repertoire. The switch for the modes is located on the console between the front seats.

Also on the console is something that will take some getting used to, pushbutton shifting. Something that most manufacturers had given up in the early sixties, the Honda Pilot revives. Because the large manual shifters for automatic transmissions are linked electronically, not mechanically, to the transmission itself, manufacturers have been experimenting with different shifters, including small push-and-return levers used by BMW, the twist knobs favored by Jaguar and in FCA’s Chrysler, Dodge and Ram brands. Now Honda has pushbuttons. Just a peculiarity: Despite the novel shift buttons, the Honda Pilot still has an old-fashioned foot-applied parking brake.

2016 Honda Pilot cargp max

The 2016 Honda Pilot seats fold to make a flat load floor. The rear section hides a foot-deep mini-trunk. (click to enlarge)

We didn’t take the 2016 Honda Pilot Elite offroading, driving it instead like the typical owner would, on the highway, local roads and supermarket parking lots. What we learned is that the Honda Pilot is big. It doesn’t look nearly as large as it is, but it’s 78 inches wide and 194 inches long, and the turning circle is almost 40 feet across. It doesn’t help that the Pilot’s corners can’t be seen from the driver’s seat, thanks to the rounded body panels that hide the corners, and the Pilot’s hood height which largely obscures cars parked in the slots on either side. No doubt the little lady* will be swinging the Pilot into parking spaces with aplomb, but it had us gingerly feeling—no, not “feeling”—edging our way in to park.