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 the sheet metal is dull and dated. Compared with dramatically styled CUVs such as the Buick Enclave, the Pilot is the wallflower at the prom. 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.

Since launching in 2002, the Pilot has been No.1 in Ward's Large CUV segment. But competitors are coming on strong in this powder keg of a sector. The Pilot held 52% of the market in 2006. One year later, its share plummeted to 28%.

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: The Pilot is wider, taller, heavier and able to hold more gas (21 gallons [79 L]).

The heart of any Honda vehicle is the engine. The Pilot offers the segment's most technically advanced engine, 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.

During our Pilot test drive, the switching between modes was seamless. Other journalists complained the various modes were too noticeable.

Honda engineers managed to boost horsepower and torque, while 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 one includes an “eco” light that coaches fuel-efficient driving by shining whenever the vehicle is achieving the advertised combined fuel-economy rating.

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

On the highway, 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. The powertrain, integrating a 5-speed automatic transmission, never felt underpowered during a day of winding roads.

The new Pilot handles with confidence, thanks to bigger wheels 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 GMC Acadia, which has the most responsive steering in the segment.

Inside, clever cubbies abound, including three small storage areas positioned directly above the glovebox. 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. 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.

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.

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[+] PROS/CONS [-]
Honda quality Sterile sheet metal
Tech-savvy power No 6-speed auto
Spacious cabin Black hole console

'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/heads

Power (SAE net): 250 hp @ 5,700 rpm

Torque: 253 lb.-ft (343 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 109.2 ins. (277 cm)

Overall length: 190.9 ins. (485 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