It wasn’t the flashiest new vehicle at the recent Detroit auto show. But it may have been one of the most important.

Up on a carousel, tucked in a back corner of Honda’s display was a bright red Pilot, a new cross/utility vehicle (CUV) that likely is making many U.S. Big Three executives nervous.

The Pilot’s styling won’t take anyone’s breath away. A big brother to Honda’s successful but much smaller CR-V crossover, the Pilot looks its role, with exterior sheet metal drawn right from its little sibling.

But this is the Honda brand’s first entry into America’s fastest growing segment – midsize CUVs – sport/utility-like vehicles based on car platforms. And if the Pilot can do for Honda in the CUV market what the Odyssey has done for the brand in the minivan segment, then the Japan-based auto maker will have laid some pretty significant tracks in trucks in a very short time. Not even a player until 1993, Honda’s share of the light truck market is now 3.5% -- and climbing.

The Pilot, based on the pricier Acura MDX, is expected to be priced in the $25,000-$30,000 range and feature room for eight passengers. Honda, which will build the new model at its Canadian plant in Alliston, Ont., is looking for modest sales, only about 70,000-80,000 annually. But that’s around the volume Honda initially planned for its Odyssey minivan, which last year sold roughly 130,000 copies and continues to be in short supply. In November, the auto maker launched Odyssey production at a second 150,000-unit capacity plant in Lincoln, AL, in an effort to meet growing demand.

More important than the Pilot, itself, is what it portends – an all-out assault on the CUV market by offshore auto makers. And that is what has Detroit worried.

The Japanese and Europeans largely have beaten the U.S. Big Three to the CUV punch. With successes such as the Toyota Highlander, BMW X5 and Lexus RX 300, importers control half of the CUV market, expected to nearly double in size by 2006.

And the Pilot is far from the last volley. Honda will build a youth-oriented CUV based on its Model X concept of a year ago. Nissan has a new CUV coming in ’04 and BMW has two new models on the way by ’06. Korea’s Hyundai is scouring the U.S. for land to build a new assembly plant to produce a new crossover of its own.

“The Japanese strategy is to build trucks from car platforms,” notes Merrill Lynch auto analyst John A. Casesa, adding that there will be eight to nine new assembly plants worth of light truck capacity – including CUVs – built between now and 2005. The Japanese, alone, should have annual capacity to produce 1.8 million trucks – 845,000 CUVs – by then, he says.

“Have you seen the Pilot?” one Big Three executive asks reporters at the Detroit show. “That’s one you guys should pay some attention to.”

No doubt he – and a lot of other industry insiders – already are.