DETROIT – Honda R&D Americas Inc. Chief Designer Dave Marek has a message for those who criticize the new for ’09 Pilot cross/utility vehicle’s styling: It will grow on you.

Marek recalls a General Motors Corp. executive at January’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit saying the new Pilot was “a license to print money” because of its interior roominess.

“I think it’s evolved into something more modern; it’s just going to have to be in the public eye to get it more identified,” he says of the ’09 model going on sale in the U.S. this week.

Honda enthusiasts posting online, as well as journalists’ reviews, question the ’09 Pilot’s boxy, truck-ish look at a time when most CUVs are shapely and car-like. Some question its floating grille, with one website poster calling it “goofy.”

Marek admits the final version is not in keeping with what designers originally envisioned, noting the number-crunchers won out.

“I think (after seeing) that car on the road, people will go, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’” Marek tells Ward’s following an Automotive Press Assn. luncheon here.

“At one point, we thought we weren’t being careful,” Marek says of the Pilot’s original styling, which he describes as “more iconic, aggressive,” and possessing “more character.”

“The Pilot definitely is a successful vehicle and part of the core of the Honda lineup, so it’s easy to be careful,” Marek says, noting the CUV has been selling more than 100,000 copies annually.

“The (controversial) grille was a case of taking something that was on something else…and kind of massaging it to fit,” he says. “On the mockup, (it) looks good. When you actually manufacture it, oops! That’s actually what happened. It’s hard to foresee. (But) I think when (the ’09) is out on the road, people will appreciate it.”

Marek initially was involved with the redesign of the Pilot, but following a staffing reorganization was taken off the project. “And then (the new model) came out,” he laughs, hinting some stylistic tweaks might be happening sooner than later.

Honda designers have carte blanche when it comes to challenging executives’ opinions, with the success of the CR-V supporting their case, Marek says.

Despite getting a drubbing for its design when it launched in 2006, the current CUV has become the best-selling utility vehicle in the U.S., surpassing the Ford Explorer last year by delivering 219,160 units, Ward’s data shows.

That kind of success makes it easier for designers to be heard, Marek says. “I can stand up at a board of directors meeting and say, ‘Are you people stupid?’ And nobody goes, ‘Get him out of here.’ They’ll say, ‘What are we doing wrong?’

“We researched the subject; we built the car. You should trust us,” Marek says he tells American Honda Motor Co. Inc. officials when questioned on styling decisions. “You have to earn their trust, and then you have to prove that trust by making a few (hit cars).”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com