Walk-Off Home Run
The term “walk-off home run,” coined by Oakland A’s relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley, originally applied to the losing team. Specifically, to the pitcher who’d just thrown the game-ending home run and then had to walk off the field in shame. These days, it’s often applied to the winners, who can walk off the field immediately rather than play out the rest of the game.
A walk-off home run occurs when a batter for the home team hits a home run in the bottom of the last inning (not necessarily be the ninth that gives his team the lead. As there is no opportunity for the visiting team to score again, the game ends on the spot. Everyone walks off the field.
Calling the 2016 Honda Pilot a walk-off home run is bold for a number of reasons. First among them is that the game will never be over; the competition always gets another chance at bat. Second, it implies a neck-and-neck finish, which doesn’t give Honda enough credit. See, Honda was confident enough in the new Pilot to bring nearly all the competition to the launch event for expedited, on-the-spot comparison tests. Not only did Honda bring a Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, and Toyota Highlander, but it also brought top-spec, loaded examples, not cut-rate base models. Our normal comparison test procedure requires multiple editors and a lot more testing and arguing, so don’t consider this the final word, but at this event the Honda knocked off all of them with ease.
What makes this new Pilot so good? It starts at the bottom. The new Pilot shares its platform with the new Acura MDX, and it’s an excellent platform. The Pilot’s impressive handling and body control are evidence. Should customers be terribly late to soccer practice and hustling the car for all it’s worth, they’ll find a very willing partner in the Pilot. It turns in sharply, smoothly transfers its weight, grips like a sedan, holds its line perfectly through a corner, and handles bumps as minor annoyances, not threats to stability. Topping it off is best-in-segment steering that not only feels nicely weighted, exhibiting no on-center dead spot and requiring no mid-corner corrections, but even returns a little road feel. It doesn’t drive like a massive, eight-passenger SUV. It drives like the moderately sporty family sedan you gave up because you needed more space.
That’s just how it goes around a corner. There’s also the way it goes and stops. The fully revised 3.5-liter V-6 is more powerful than before and a touch more efficient. More important, the Pilot is nearly 300 pounds lighter, which contributes greatly to the improved driving experience. The engine feels strong and responsive, not overburdened like some of the competition. Acceleration from a stop and for passing is more than adequate. The lineup’s real gem is the all-new nine-speed automatic transmission that comes on the top two trim levels. If you’re willing to spend the money, go for it. The standard six-speed auto shifts just as nicely, but the nine-speed’s wider gear ratio spread allows for more aggressive acceleration in lower gears and lower engine speeds in higher gears, giving you a stronger sense of acceleration from a stop and passing without hurting you on fuel economy. Either way, seamless cylinder deactivation and nearly seamless automatic engine start/stop will help keep the mpgs up. Front-wheel-drive models do experience a bit of torque steer, which isn’t appreciated. On the other end, the Pilot brakes strongly and confidently with a nice, solid pedal.
Should you wish to leave paved surfaces, Honda says the new Pilot is significantly more capable thanks to its new all-wheel-drive hardware. Rather than the cheaper and more common brake-based system, Honda’s gone ahead and given the Pilot a proper clutched rear differential that can vector torque across the rear axle to the wheel with the most grip. The Snow, Mud, and Sand modes were tested across the globe in countries where people actually use them regularly, and they are said to be quite capable, but our drive through sunny northern Kentucky afforded me no opportunity to test those claims beyond climbing a rutted dirt road that turned out to be a private driveway.
Of course, we all know handling isn’t a top purchasing consideration in this class, but given how hard and fast some people drive their big SUVs, it ought to be. No, things such as utility are real priorities, and the Pilot’s got that in spades, too. The old Pilot was already a lesson in interior packaging, and Honda’s matriculated the new one to another level. The whole vehicle is longer, and most of the extra length has gone to the passenger and cargo space. The latter is particularly impressive as there’s actually an unusual amount of cargo space with the third row seats up—enough for a massive ice chest, Honda says. The passenger space impresses less, only because the old Pilot was already so big. This interior feels enormous and comfortably seats adults in the third row, unlike in most competitors. Getting in there is also easier now thanks to a wider opening and one-touch fold-and-slide second-row seats so simple a toddler can operate them. And of course, while eight-passenger seating is standard, you can now get two captain’s chairs in the second row rather than the bench if you want to spend big on the top-shelf model.
Then there’s the front. Up there, things are worlds better than they used to be. The dash now looks modern and sophisticated, not like a time capsule from 2005. You’ll see a clear family resemblance to the smaller CR-V, which isn’t a bad thing. The materials range toward the nicer end of the class, and the build quality is top notch. The center console is as functional as ever with room for about anything you’d want with you in the front of the car. Honda’s new all-touch-sensitive entertainment and information display is standard and is generally quite good. I say generally as the volume control continues to be a problem. When Honda showed a system prototype, the touch-sensitive volume control worked brilliantly, but Honda seems to have significantly reduced the sensitivity in production models, leading to constant and annoying difficulties setting something as simple as the radio volume. On the plus side, it now features a DVR-like function that allows you to skip back to the beginning of a song on any satellite radio station you’ve made a preset. It’ll also allow you to turn a number of satellite radio stations into a playlist, skipping randomly from station to station as each song ends.
Then there’s the tech. In addition to those audio system tricks, the Pilot also promises more active safety tech than anything in the class. Equip the full Honda Sense suite and you’ll get automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and a host of other features that together practically drive the vehicle themselves on the freeway. Toyota‘s planning a similar system for the Highlander, but it won’t be available for at least a year.
Other than the lack of a volume control knob, there’s little not to like about the new Pilot. I think it looks like a CR-V crossed with an Odyssey—and not in a good way—but Honda says the family resemblance is intentional. Apparently, one of the main reasons customers gave for passing on the old Pilot was its shipping-container shape, which they (wrongly) assumed meant it got 3 mpg. (It was actually upper-mid-pack in segment.) I’ll certainly grant that this new one looks sleeker.
Objectively, though, it’s more spacious, it’s more fuel efficient, it drives better, and it’s more capable, and that’s all compared with the previous model and the rest of the segment. The last time we did a proper comparison, the Pilot finished poorly on account of its ride quality, the busy dashboard and center stack controls, and the simple fact that it looked and felt old. This new Pilot has dispatched every one of those complaints, and I suspect the next time we compare full-size crossovers, we’ll arrive at a very different result. Walk-off home runs are rare, but when they happen, they’re worth the hype.