PALM SPRINGS, CA – Thank goodness Honda Motor Co. Ltd. makes terrific automobiles.

Because if vehicle buyers made their decisions on looks alone, they might not find many reasons to darken a Honda dealer’s door.

A case in point is the all-new Pilot cross/utility vehicle. It drives well, gets decent fuel economy, is spacious and comfortable and performs every task asked of it without a fuss.

But let’s be blunt: The sheet metal is dull and dated. Compared with dramatically styled CUVs such as the Buick Enclave and Mazda CX-9, the Pilot is the wallflower at the high-school prom.

Where the Pilot is stiff, sterile and upright, the Enclave is smooth, alluring and suave.

Where the Pilot’s front end is cold and uninviting, like the pursed lips of an angry librarian, the Enclave is a Hollywood starlet.

Honda has a good explanation for the Pilot’s appearance: It must appeal to CUV buyers who want car-like handling, and it must look like a traditional, rugged SUV for the customer who enjoys a little off-roading. Honda doesn’t have one of each. The Pilot pulls double duty – and does it very well.

In 2002, when the first-generation Pilot launched, it was king of the emerging Large CUV jungle, as defined by Ward’s segmentation.

It remains No.1, but competitors are coming on strong in this powder keg of a segment. The Pilot held 52% of the sector in 2006. One year later, that share plummeted to 28%.

General Motors Corp.’s late-arriving CUVs have ganged up mercilessly on the Pilot. At the end of 2007, the Enclave, Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia combined for 33.3% of the segment. Three months later, the trio held 38.3%, eclipsing Pilot’s 30.8%, according to Ward’s data.

The Pilot’s uphill battle will grow steeper when Chevrolet gets its large CUV, the ’09 Traverse, this fall.

But do not discount the Pilot. It is a well-mannered, capable, versatile ute with plenty of cargo space and an attractive, inviting interior that accommodates eight and upholds Honda’s sterling reputation for quality and fit and finish.

Honda continues a trend of upsizing most dimensions from one vehicle generation to the next: Like most Americans, the Pilot is wider, taller, heavier and able to hold more gas (21 gallons [79 L]).

And it has good genes, sharing about 65% of its components with its architectural sibling, the well-regarded Acura MDX CUV. The previous Pilot shared its platform with both the MDX and Honda Odyssey minivan.

The heart of any Honda vehicle – and the source of great corporate pride – is the engine. The Pilot continues the tradition, with the most technically advanced engine in the segment, a 3.5L SOHC V-6 with Variable Cylinder Management.

A version of this engine, tested in the all-new Accord coupe, won a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award in January.

Honda’s VCM system, standard on all Pilots, switches automatically between 6-, 4- and 3-cylinder operation, depending on throttle inputs and driving styles. VCM deactivates certain cylinders by using Honda’s Variable Valve-Timing and Lift Electronic Control system to close the intake and exhaust valves.

During our Pilot test drive, the switching between modes was seamless. Other journalists complained the various modes were too noticeable, although the vehicle’s Active Noise Control system, integrated with the stereo, is supposed to minimize certain frequencies associated with VCM.

Honda engineers pulled off the difficult task of boosting horsepower and torque, while simultaneously improving fuel economy, to 17/23 city/highway mpg (13.8/10.2 L/100 km) for 2-wheel-drive versions and 16/22 mpg (14.6/10.6 L/100 km) for 4-wheel-drive Pilots.

Like the previous Pilot, the new model includes an “eco” light that coaches fuel-efficient driving by shining whenever the vehicle is achieving or surpassing the advertised combined fuel-economy rating. The light might come on in 3-, 4- or 6-cylinder mode, depending on wind, grade and how much weight is onboard.

The previous Pilot allowed drivers to reach about 65 mph (105 km/h) with the eco light on, but the new model allows the icon to stay lit up to about 75 mph (121 km/h), says Robert Keough, senior product planner, American Honda Motor Co. Inc.

While emphasizing fuel economy, the powertrain team managed to give the new Pilot a snorty growl of an exhaust note – not far removed from that of a larger V-8 – when pushed hard. Keough says customers made it clear they wanted an engine that sounded big and burly, more like a traditional SUV. So, unlike the previous Pilot, the new model gets dual exhaust.

’09 Honda Pilot EX-L
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 8-passenger cross/utility vehicle
Engine 3.5L SOHC V-6; aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 250 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 253 lb.-ft (343 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Compression ratio 10.50:1
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 109.2 ins. (277 cm)
Overall length 190.9 ins. (485 cm)
Overall width 78.5 ins. (199 cm)
Overall height 72.7 ins. (185 cm)
Curb Weight 4,544 lbs. (2,061 kg)
Price range $27,500-$40,000
Fuel economy 16/22 mpg (15/10.6 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Highlander, GMC Acadia/Buick Enclave, Ford Explorer, Hyundai Veracruz, Mazda CX-9
Pros Cons
Honda quality Sterile exterior design
Honda quality No 6-speed auto
Spacious, comfy cabin Center-console black hole

The fully automatic Variable Torque Management 4WD system carries over from the last Pilot and is expected to appear on 65% of the mix.

For enhanced traction, especially off road, the driver can lock the VTM-4 system via a dash-mounted switch while driving in first or second gear, up to speeds of 18 mph (29 km/h). The system sends power to the wheel that has the most traction.

Our test drive here was supposed to include off-roading in Joshua Tree National Park, but overzealous park rangers inexplicably revoked Honda’s permit for the event.

In normal highway driving, when the VTM-4 system is off, most of the power is channeled to the front wheels. During acceleration, a greater proportion of power (up to 55%) goes to the back wheels, Keough says.

The vehicle never felt underpowered during a day of winding roads through the desert, uphill and down.

The 5-speed automatic transmission has been upgraded for better durability and wider gear ratios to boost low-end response. Unfortunately Honda does not yet offer a 6-speed automatic.

An integrated trailer hitch is standard on the Pilot, unlike key competitors. The 2WD CUV is rated to tow 3,500 lbs. (1,587 kg), while the 4WD version can handle 4,500 lbs. (2,041 kg). The old Pilot could tow a 4,500-lb. boat, but only if the vehicle had a proper hitch.

The new Pilot handles with confidence. Keough says its road-holding capability is up 25% over the previous model, thanks to bigger wheels and lower-profile tires with a larger contact patch and enhanced suspension geometry.

Honda redesigned the MacPherson strut front suspension with a new aluminum lower control arm that improves low-speed maneuverability. The rear suspension consists of a multi-link trailing arm layout.

Customers complained the steering was too light in the previous Pilot, so Keough says Honda set out to firm up the new Pilot. During our test drive, the steering was appropriately weighted but still felt a bit loose, especially compared with the Acadia, which has the tightest, most responsive steering in the segment.

Inside, Honda designers had plenty of space to work with, and they used it wisely. Clever cubbies abound, including three small storage areas positioned directly above the glovebox, each lined with rubber inserts to prevent objects, such as sunglasses, from rattling about. Fit and finish throughout was excellent, even in these pre-production models.

The instrument panel is thoughtfully and efficiently laid out to convey a sense of upscale ruggedness at home in the subdivision or the backwoods. Buttons and knobs are where they are expected, surrounded by a bright, translucent bezel that lends a futuristic air to the cabin. Gauges and display screens are readily visible.

The center console is vast, open, reconfigurable and easily concealed with a sliding tambour door.

But the design creates a problem not easily solved: Opening the tambour door all the way exposes a storage bin below the center stack that’s large enough to accommodate a purse but extremely hard to reach. Think of it as a black hole sure to swallow loose items.

The gear shifter also has moved from the steering column to the dashboard. The position takes some getting used to, but it does not hinder access to dashboard controls.

Seats are supportive and comfortable, even in the back rows. The second row slides forward for easy access to the back.

Often a penalty box in vehicles of this ilk, the third row accommodates two adult males (or three children), even with the second-row seats pushed all the way back.

In a back-to-back comparison, the Acadia had more head room, but the Pilot had more foot room.

Assembly of salable units began April 17 at Honda’s plant in Lincoln, AL. The new Pilot arrives at Honda dealerships May 22, priced between $27,500 and $40,000. Honda expects to sell 140,000 units annually.

With the addition of an upscale Touring trim package, the all-new Pilot surely will hold its own against encroaching rivals.

Critics might call the exterior styling cold and unemotional, but that might mean nothing. After all, Honda customers have been proving for decades that looks aren’t everything.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com