DETROIT – While most auto makers have fully embraced the trend of swoopy car-like unibody utility vehicles, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is driving in the opposite direction.

The new ’09 Honda Pilot SUV, which goes on sale late in the spring, builds on it original boxy styling, with a more aggressive grille and larger dimensions.

“We think it gives a little bit of a family resemblance to Ridgeline, which helps, but also it’s a little bit unique in that segment,” John Mendel, executive vice president-American Honda Motor Co. Inc. says here following the auto maker’s press conference at the 2008 North American International Auto Show.

“Everybody’s gone to car-based, car-look SUVs. We think the (design) kind of echoes its toughness,” he says.

Admitting the “market has not been kind to the segment the last couple months,” Mendel nevertheless hopes to improve upon current Pilot sales volume in the U.S., which fell 23% in 2006 to 117,146 units. Honda is projecting 1.4 million Honda-brand sales this year in the U.S.

Mendel says the prototype Pilot shown here is very close to the production model. Honda is releasing scant details, except to says 52% of the new Pilot’s structural steel will be high-strength, and a new Touring trim will be offered for buyers desiring more premium content.

However, Mendel declines to discuss expected fuel economy at a time when consumers are facing historically high pump prices.

However, Honda does have “green” plans, which include the FCX Clarity fuel-cell car, currently being leased in limited quantities in Southern California, and its coming i-DTEC 4-cyl. turbodiesel engine, which is on display here at the Acura stand.

Honda CEO Takeo Fukui reiterates today that an Acura model will be the first recipient of a diesel mill next year.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com