US rental car companies have huge fleets, and at a large location, such as one of the major airports, the customer is spoiled for choice, with a vast array of different models available to suit almost all needs, tastes and budgets. Companies such as Hertz tend to buy in bulk, so once the decision to bring an individual model onto the fleet is made, there tend to be plenty of examples on offer. But there are a few cars where – for whatever reason – there are only a handful, and you may not even see them parked up awaiting a customer, let alone be able to sample one. The first car of my September 2018 US trip was one of those, a Honda HR-V, which although it had clearly been on fleet since mid 2017, I had no knowledge was even potentially available until I found it following a careful search of the whole LAX facility. It was what I called the “unicorn of rental cars”. Imagine my surprise when arriving the following day, and I found a second, and different unicorn. This time I knew that there had been at least a couple of these models in the fleet, as when I was out in Arizona in March 2018, I spotted a white Honda Pilot on Florida plates a couple of times, but on both occasions, it was allocated to someone else, so I was unable to test it. I happened to mention that I’d seen this car to the staff at Los Angeles airport a few days later, and they said that they also had one. Just one, also on Florida plates, and theirs was blue. I did not see it, and suspected that as it was an out of State car, it would doubtless have headed further east by the time of this trip. And yet, here was a 2017 model Honda Pilot, on Florida plates, in blue – which Honda call Steel Sapphire – parked up and available for rent. Very likely the self-same car that was mentioned six months earlier. I’d actually reserved a 7-seat SUV for the day, so been allocated one of the Honda’s competitors, so it was easy enough to get the allocation swapped over, so I could – finally – get to test my second rental Unicorn of the trip.
The Pilot is Honda’s entry in the Full-Size SUV segment, aimed primarily at the North American market. It is now on its third generation, Honda having produced their first vehicle with this name back in 2002 after a few years offering a rebadged version of the Isuzu Trooper. The third generation model, with styling that is a little less boxy than the second generation model, and notable reductions in overall weight, was launched at the 2015 Chicago Auto Show, and entered production, in Lincoln Alabama, three months later as a 2016 model. It competes in a crowded market, with just about every manufacturer selling cars in the US having a similarly-sized rival, and it is hardly a surprise, as whereas the saloon models of this size were once America’s top sellers among non-trucks, SUVs are taking over. The Pilot has always sold steadily, trading on the fact that it is a Honda, with all that this denotes, this latest generation have made around 20% more sales per annum than its predecessor, at around 120,000 – 130,000 units a year. Although you would not necessarily guess it by looking at them, the Acura MDX and Honda’s Odyssey MiniVan share much under the skin. For the first three years on sale, the Pilot changed little, but a mild refresh of the styling and a few detailed spec changes are being introduced for the 2019 model year. The test car dated from 2017, and had clearly been hiding somewhere as it only had 19.000 miles on the odometer.
All Pilot models come with a 3.5 litre V6 putting out 280 bhp, and there is a standard automatic gearbox. Six speeds in the case of the test car, though you’d struggle to count them all, so smooth is the transmission in operation. The engine is smooth, willing and refined, though not really that much fun. But it is a V6. Several of the Pilots’ rivals have switched to 4 cylinder units in at least versions, and no matter what clever technology is applied, a V6 will always sound more pleasurable. I only drove the Pilot one-up, but you have to remember that this engine has to cope with the potential for 7 adults and some luggage to be on board. From my experiences, it was fine, but it might feel a bit more sluggish if fully laden. I took the Honda up into the mountains, so it had to contend with relatively steep inclines and swooping bends, and it was fine. The gearbox always seemed to have the Pilot in the right gear for the moment, but there are paddles if you want to help it along. My test encompassed 186 miles, and it swallowed exactly $30 of regular unleaded to refill it, which at LA prices means 8.47 gallons, giving an average of 21.96 mpg US or 26.2 mpg Imperial, a decent enough figure, and rather better than the 18.6 mpg showing on the trip computer (which I did not reset). Progress generally was peaceful, with the engine noise well suppressed and road noise only moderate even on the some of the sections of highway that tend to create more din.
Keen drivers would probably be better off with a Mazda CX-9 (I’ve not driven the latest one, as it has yet to appear in the Hertz fleet since its 2016 refresh), but the Pilot is not bad. The steering has some feel to it, and is weighted just enough. It means that you can hussle the Pilot through the bends with some confidence, which is what will want to do on the canyon roads where I took it. There is some body roll and if you go into the turn with a little too much enthusiasm, understeer is evident, but it is all very predictable and safe feeling. Large 215/60 R18 alloy wheels connect you to the road and these contribute to a comfortable ride, with the Honda absorbing many of the ridges and bumps very nicely. There were no issues with the brakes. There is a foot pedal parking brake. Visibility was also not a concern. The test car featured Honda’s Lane Assist feature with an extra camera built into the passenger side door mirror to help with blind spots. A rear parking camera helped to judge the rear of the vehicle, although it was not that hard to assess it yourself anyway.
Having stepped out of one Honda and into another one, there was a clear family resemblance in the interior. This one, however, was not all black. For starters, the leather upholstery was a beige colour, and this also featured on the lower half of the dashboard and the door casings. The upper part was black, formed from decently soft-touch plastics, and there were inlays to provide some textural contrast in what overall was a neat if rather unassuming sort of design. Only the very hard plastics on the lower part of the door casings looked and felt very cheap. The instruments are digital, only lighting up when the keyless ignition button is pressed. They are arranged in a sort of elongated figure of eight on its side, with a rev counter on the left and a conventional pointer-based fuel level and a bar chart style fuel consumption duo on the right, leaving a large central speedometer. They all proved easy to read at a glance. A pair of column stalks operate lights and indicators on the left and front and rear wipers on the right hand stalk. Cruise control and audio repeater buttons are on the steering wheel spokes. The centre of the dash contains the neatly integrated 8″ touch screen for the HondaLink infotainment system. This proved to be very similar to the one in the HR-V, just with more features, and an inch larger. That means that there are no buttons, everything is done from the touch screen, which is far too fiddly when you want to adjust the volume of the radio or retune when driving. There was an expired subscription XM Satellite radio here was well as Pandora and various links to iPod, AUX, Apple Car Play and Android Auto, as well as lots of other settings options. Sound quality from the 7 speaker system was very good. Beneath this unit is the dual zone climate control, and this, thankfully, did have knobs and buttons, making it easy to use. The clean and uncluttered look is all very well, but usability has to come first. It is notable that Honda has relented and introduced some knobs for the audio on the 2019 models.
The Pilot comes in five trims: LX, EX, EX-L, Touring, and Elite, all of them mechanically the same, except for the fact that the Touring and Elite models have a nine-speed automatic instead of the six speed that features in the cheaper models. Front-wheel drive comes as standard, and all-wheel drive is available for $1,900. Among them, the Touring is probably the most sensible choice, as it comes with plenty of driver assistance features, navigation, and a rear-seat entertainment system. The base 2018 Honda Pilot LX starts at $30,900. Standard features include push-button start, a seven-speaker audio system, a 5-inch display, a multi-angle rearview camera, Bluetooth for phone calls and streaming audio, and a USB port. Next up is the EX, which starts at $33,330. It comes with infotainment upgrades like an 8-inch touch screen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Pandora integration, and XM Satellite radio. The EX also features remote start, a proximity key, tri-zone automatic climate control, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, and Honda LaneWatch. The EX-L, the spec of the test car, costs $36,760 and gives you leather upholstery, heated front seats, a power-adjustable passenger seat, and a one-touch power-folding second row. But it’s not all about the seats; the Pilot EX-L also features a moonroof and a power tailgate. For $41,970, you can get the Pilot Touring, which many will say is worth the jump in price from the EX-L based on the added safety features alone. You get forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, a road departure mitigation system, adaptive cruise control, and front and rear parking sensors. Infotainment upgrades include a Blu-ray rear-seat entertainment system, navigation, and second-row USB ports. The Touring trim is also equipped with the nine-speed automatic transmission, which comes with stop-start technology and paddle shifters. The Pilot Elite starts at a whopping $47,470, but it’s the most loaded trim of the bunch. It comes with all-wheel drive, which is optional in every other trim. It features the nicest interior in the Pilot line-up, complete with perforated leather upholstery, a heated steering wheel, and ventilated front seats. It also has heated second-row captain’s chairs, which decrease seating from eight to seven. Other Elite goodies include a panoramic roof, HD Radio, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, automatic high beams, and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
You are just aware of the fact that you are getting in to something that bit higher riding than a conventional saloon car. Once in, then there’s lots of adjustment of the seat and steering wheel on offer. It’s all electric for the front seats, with a lumbar support on the driver’s seat only. There are heating elements in both front seats of this trim. The steering column telescopes up and down and in and out, and there are armrests attached to the side of each front seat, so it was easy to get comfortable. and thanks to the shape of the seat, to stay that way. Space for odds and ends is well provided for, as you might expect in a vehicle sold on practicality. There is a vast central bin under a cover in the console, as well as a lipped tray in front of the gearlever, bins on the doors and a decently sized glovebox.
The middle row of seats will easily accommodate three large adults. There is an almost flat floor, and the SUV-styling means plenty of headroom. The seats are on sliders, but even when set well forward, there is ample space for knees and legs and there is a limited range of adjustment on the angle at which you can set the backrests. There’s a drop-down central armrest, with a cup holder in the upper surface. Occupants here get their own USB connectors in the base of the centre console where you will also find the controls for seat heaters and climate control. There are nets on the back of the front seats and bins on the doors. The third row is pretty good, as these things go, and adults could sit here more comfortably than is the case in some rivals. There’s no elegant way of getting in and out, but the middle seats do tip forward to the vertical to provide plenty of clearance as you scramble in. There are cup holders and stowage recesses moulded into the side panels.
With all seats erect, luggage space is a bit limited, but as you gradually fold seats down, it becomes ever more commodious. The rear-most seats are split 60/40, and once the headrest is dropped down, simply push forward to the floor. The middle row, also asymmetrically split do much the same, and the result if a long flat load space, with plenty of height to it. There is a well under the boot floor right at the back of the car which would take a few odds and ends. The tailgate is electrically assisted, which is no bad thing, as it is big and heavy.
So, is the Pilot any good? I think it is. It is not remotely exciting, but then that really is not the point of cars in the class. They are designed to meet the varying needs of a family as they need to transport lots of people, a mix of people and luggage, go on long journeys and also be manageable in urban situations. Practicality, equipment levels and safety come well above driving finesse when these sort of vehicles are being conceived and indeed when they are bought. And the Pilot ticks pretty much every box. It is roomy enough, with space for 7 adults (though may be for long distances), plenty of luggage room when there are 5 on board, in the EX-L trim of the test vehicle, well enough equipped with everything you need, and it drives well enough without feeling like you are driving a boat, or a house. I’ve sampled most of the direct rivals, and in my opinion, it beats the Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer, all of which are good cars, and it wins hands down on space over the GM duo of the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain and the venerable Dodge Journey, as they are all that bit smaller inside. If I needed a 7-seat SUV, it is the one I would pick. Of course I don’t, as I sampled this out of curiosity rather than need. For those who do need one, though, the reality is that as that rental car unicorn, the chances of finding another one on fleet are slight indeed.