DETROIT – Honda Motor Co. Ltd. provides a glimpse of its upcoming ’09 Pilot SUV with the unveiling of a prototype version at the 2008 North American International Auto Show today.

The next-generation Honda Pilot, which first debuted as a ’03 model in July 2002, goes on sale in the U.S. this spring.

“The Pilot’s engineering formula improves for 2009 by enhancing its combination of refinement and efficiency with even more traditional SUV strengths,” John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president, says in a statement.

Boasting a new, more utilitarian look, as well as improved interior space, the Pilot retains its unibody chassis. However, the vehicle’s platform has been redesigned, resulting in a roomier third row that is easier to access from the split second row, which now moves further forward.

Honda claims an “above-average-size adult male” should be able to sit comfortably in the third row. Occupant space and legroom has been added to all other seating positions, as well.

Both the second and third rows fold flat independently, or together, for more cargo capacity. The third row, as with the second, is split 60/40.

Honda says the new platform is beneficial for off-road conditions, providing increased ride comfort and handling refinement.

The ’09 Pilot will boast the highest-strength steel in any Honda model to date. The auto maker’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering body structure, which aims to reduce frontal collision forces between vehicles of varying sizes, also is employed.

Honda does not disclose the engine displacement but says the Pilot again will be powered by a V-6, this time with the company’s new Variable Cylinder Management system, available on the ’08 Accord with 3.5L V-6 and 5-speed automatic transmission.

The latest VCM advances the prior system on the Pilot by adding a 4-cyl. mode to the existing 3- and 6-cyls.

As with the first-generation Pilot, the ’09 model was designed and developed at Honda R&D Americas Inc. sites in Raymond, OH, and Torrance, CA.

Honda last year transferred production of the Pilot exclusively to its Lincoln, AL, plant from Alliston, ON, Canada, which already was building some of the SUVs.

After four years of growth, Pilot deliveries in the U.S. fell in 2007, down 23% to 117,146 units, Ward's data shows. However, the volume was enough to make it the year’s sales leader in Ward's large cross/utility vehicle segment.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com