2012 Honda Pilot 4WD Road Test

A desert-skimming Conestoga Wagon for the 21st century.

Who It's For
Families big and small who are the adventurous type.
Best Thing
Comfortable, smooth, and solid, with enough room to host a sporting event within its five doors.
Worst Thing
Bouncy suspension, forcibly chunky styling means plenty of wind noise; center console is still confusing to anyone without an aeronautics background.
Snap Judgement
It may trace is roots to Honda's minivan, but the Honda Pilot hides its lineage well while retaining all of its spaciousness.


The Joshua tree takes its name from the Mormons, who in their religious-inspired bout of wanderlust stumbled across the southeastern California desert in the 19th century. The Yucca brevifolia they saw reminded them of the prophet Joshua, hands outstretched towards heaven in prayer. It was a better name, they assumed, than "burning bush." They believed that the Joshua Tree would point the way to the Promised Land, though they probably didn't expect to find it in Utah, where there are considerably fewer Joshua Trees but plenty of salt.

Rather unsurprisingly, Joshua Tree National Park takes its name from its eponymous plants that spread themselves over the arid, dusty ground like so many dark-colored grains of sand in the distance. It's desolate, serene, and unforgiving territory -- rattlesnakes and four-inch long desert scorpions are all native to the area -- yet despite the whims of nature, it's ruthlessly tamed by the United States National Park Service. The perfect place, then, to take your loved ones -- and the 2012 Honda Pilot is nothing if not made for these adventurous, yet safe-from-a-distance family outings.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Despite the mechanical kinship the Honda Pilot has with the Honda Odyssey minivan, the Pilot feels tougher and more trucklike, perhaps a reflection of its hilariously chunky styling. There's no reason why a family shouldn't be able to drive a Pilot down Pinto Basin Road--past Willy Boy's Saloon (motto: best barbeque for the next 250 miles, because where else are you gonna eat?) and the World Famous Crochet Museum, shaped like a lime-green Viewmaster -- without fuss or drama. See, if the Mormons had a Honda Pilot, they would have gotten to the Promised Land a lot, lot sooner.

What We Drove

Our Honda Pilot was a fully-loaded Touring model with four-wheel drive, which came with everything short of the kitchen sink and a cocker spaniel: satellite navigation, a 10-speaker audio system, satellite radio and a automatic climate control, Bluetooth, a DVD rear entertainment system that we didn't use, backup camera, heated power mirrors, a power tailgate, and enough buttons on the center console to befuddle the most seasoned of Boeing operators. All in all, our Pilot came in at $41,630, including an $810 destination charge, which is a pretty significant chunk of change for a large family. If that's the price to pay for a DVD entertainment system and headphones to get the kids to keep quiet, then it's probably worth it.

All Honda Pilots come equipped with dual-stage front airbags, side curtain airbags for all three rows, and rollover protection with plenty of sensors. Vehicle stability and traction control are features on all models, and there are LATCH points in second row seats and on the right seat in the third row.

The Commute

Driving eastwards on Interstate 10 could certainly count as a commute, especially if you live in Twentynine Palms, the last bastion of civilization before the impenetrable Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, and as far removed from Los Angeles as Olympus Mons. The driving position of the Pilot is school-bus upright, with plenty of legroom for front passengers and a high ride height that lets you peer at the gams of other drivers. Seats are firm and supportive, and despite their apparent flatness offer adequate support for your ribs and thighs. Both front seats are powered, with height adjustments and lumbar support.

Steering took on the sort of heavy, arm-pumping feel reminiscent of real trucks. Honda weighed the suspension for comfort, but it crashes on every road aberration and keeps shaking long after the fact, like a 1978 Cadillac Eldorado Custom Biarritz Classic and just as long. The brakes were mushy but compliant with less feel than what we would have liked, but given the size of the Pilot--4608 pounds as tested, or weighty enough to cause a team of Department of Transportation bridge inspectors to follow in its wake--the brakes have no easy job in the first place.

Honda simplified the center stack for 2012, and though it's slightly more intuitive with the appropriate buttons in their appropriate sections, it's still the last thing you want to remember how to use when barreling down a highway at 70 mph. So wait, there are redundant buttons for the radio presets, above a bunch of similar-looking buttons for the vents, and a random cubby bin for some reason, and the navigation joystick is on the bottom?

And this is the simplified version! Viewing the 2011 model's center stack could possibly give STS-135 Space Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson an aneurysm, or qualify its drivers for nuclear submarine navigation. Controls for the satellite radio were fussy, but nothing new in this current generation of Hondas.

The Pilot's dash-mounted shifter is a Honda staple, a trait shared with the CR-V and Odyssey. And while it looks strange at first--like Honda designers left out the most important part of the dashboard--it frees up room for a center console so deep and wide that it fit a digital SLR camera on top of a week's worth of fruit snacks, granola bars, and other provisions for the wilderness, which mostly consisted of beef jerky. When you're in the desert it becomes the food of gods. And when you're stuck in 405 traffic, you'll need all the provisions you can get.

The Grocery Run

With the second row upright, the Honda Pilot can fit 47.7 cubic feet of stuff in the hatch, or you can fit three in the third row and still have about 20 useful cubic feet of cargo space behind the seatback. With the second rows folded flat, there's enough room to hold a Pee-Wee soccer tournament in the cargo area. Head- and legroom was available in spades for those sitting in the front and second row, and while tall passengers stuck in third row may find themselves hugging their kneecaps, it's not meant as a place for adult humans anyway. On the other hand, there's enough room for kids that seating them there won't result in a call to Social Services. Plus, even the third row gets leather seats.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

One worrying prospect is that the load floor slopes towards the rear, as the seats don't entirely fold flat -- so take care in opening the rear tailgate, lest your eggs, beer bottles, and pickle jars slide out from like in a bad Vaudeville act.

Forty thousand dollars is a fair chunk of change, but two features will help you out at the supermarket: the power folding tailgate and the backup camera. Unless you hold a commercial driver's license, the latter is a necessity for a vehicle this large and shaped like a shipping container. But the power-folding tailgate is a neat parting trick: hold down a button on the key fob and the rear tailgate beeps into action, which is perfect for armloads of groceries and screaming kids. The glass hatch lifts up separately for smaller stuff, tight spaces, or to avoid the spillage mentioned earlier. Visibility all around is good, thanks to the chunky squared-off windows, large expanse of rear glass and relatively slim pillars, and the oversized mirrors do much to vanquish blind spots (if not wind noise). But there's no denying the Pilot's size, and for most drivers--and innocent parking lot bystanders -- the backup camera will be a welcome necessity.

The Weekend Fun

Route 62 is a winding two-lane split highway that connects Yucca Valley to the 10 freeway, carved through impenetrable rock walls and constantly winding uphill, barren rock formations always casting their shadows over the road so that little sunlight reaches the road surface. An ugly piece of terrain, but one our Pilot navigated with aplomb. Despite being just a five-speed automatic, its transmission never became flustered at the constant grade changes, sweeping corners, and occasional downhills when held at cruise control. Roadholding with the AWD drivetrain was admirable. And while the 3.5-liter V-6 engine's 250-horsepower may be behind its full-size competition, it was a silky smooth powerplant that never struggled or gasped for more steam. Unfortunately, to get it up to highway speeds comes at the cost of acceleration and fuel economy, and our Pilot returned a figure of 19.6 mpg, lackluster considering that it was mostly highway driving. That's what happens when piloting a Pilot with the aerodynamics of a two-bedroom split double in Midtown. Wind noise happens, too: while the interior is quiet and serene at lower speeds, the constant whooshing of air on the highway provides a dull soundtrack that underlies any conversation, like a dark and stormy night when you're trying to sleep.

Most of the roads in Joshua Tree are unpaved, rutted with the grooves of treaded vehicles much more intimidating than ours, and -- most distressingly -- stretching towards any number of horizons, far longer and distant than any map could indicate. Get on one path, and it seems like it's headed towards another state, perhaps Coahuila. The Pilot performed admirably at attempting to quell the jostling of these noisome dirt aberrations, rendering them into one long, continuous droning sound that made us take pity upon our stalwart beast as if it was sounding its death throes. Fortunately, our Pilot didn't break down or leak embarrassingly.

Honda claims that the Pilot can forge through 19 inches of water. We didn't do that, mostly because our insurance agents would throw a fit. Instead, we drove past such evocatively named hiking paths as "Hall of Horrors," "Nurn's Romp," "Exorcist," and "Diamond Dogs," but not "Suffragette City." We parked the Pilot in a cloud of fine dust that blanketed everything like anthrax, in front of the Joshua trees that littered the horizon like so many upright lawn darts. Did you know that such a tree can grow up to 50 feet? Which dwarfs the 6-foot Pilot, though the latter's driving position certainly seems as tall. The beautiful thing about the Pilot, however, was that we could have probably taken it down any number of fearsome off-road trails with confidence, so confidence-inspiring was its unassailable chassis.

Lastly, styling the Pilot to resemble some sort of Schuetzenpanzer is a bold move by Honda, and almost tongue-in-cheek; in a world where expressive design has trickled down into the unexciting realm of people carriers, the Pilot's styling seems almost sarcastic, like a caricature of a tough-looking crossover rather than a genuine effort. It could be a tough-looking machine if not for those bulging headlights, like a grinning cartoon character up front split by a three-bar grille that's new for 2012 and looks more generic than ever before. Give it the gift of speech and put it in a series of animated commercials for a popular chain of gas stations, and consumers will be none the wiser.

Summary

Joshua Tree can still be dangerous -- the last fatal coyote attack happened here, only one of two recorded instances -- yet, people still want to drive down paved roads to the Coyote Corner gift shop and pick up some novelty scorpion lollipops. Likewise, with truck looks, truck steering, a truckish suspension, and truck-like capacity, the Pilot may have come from a minivan platform, but it's moved far beyond it. Its Honda traits permeate it with smooth powertrain, slick controls, and an immediate sense of familiarity. If there's any vehicle to take to the desert, the Pilot is on a very short list.

Uninspiring yet efficient in every way (except fuel economy), the Honda Pilot inspired no outright adulation from our staffers, but plenty of respect. And in a family vehicle, maybe that's exactly what you need.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $41,630
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 17 MPG
EPA Highway: 24 MPG
EPA Combined: 20 MPG
Estimated Combined Range: 420 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"Unlike its awkward SUT-like Ridgeline sibling, the Pilot excels in every category it was designed for." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"There's a lot to like about the Pilot--it may not be very exciting, but it is good, practical, and well thought out." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"I wish Honda didn't make you step up to the most expensive models just to get navigation, and I would definitely pine for better fuel economy, but overall the Pilot is easy to recommend." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"The Honda Pilot is literally perfect in every way for anyone who wants an SUV. But I'll take less perfect with more personality every day of the week." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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