2020 Honda Pilot Elite ・ Photo by Honda
When you need a Honda Odyssey, but you want an SUV, the 2021 Honda Pilot is ready to marry your daily-driving requirements with your adventurous soul’s desires. In fact, the Pilot is built on the same vehicle platform that Honda uses for the Odyssey, and they’re assembled in the same factory in Lincoln, Alabama (along with the Honda Passport and Ridgeline).
Equipped with three rows of seats and up to eight-passenger capacity, the 2021 Pilot ranks among the larger vehicles in its segment and supplies a ton of utility with a pinch of panache. It comes in LX, EX, EX-L, new-for-2021 Special Edition, Touring, Elite, and Black Edition trim levels. Prices range from $33,370 to $51,040, including the $1,120 destination charge. Our test vehicle arrived in Black Edition specification wearing extra-cost Platinum White Pearl paint. This is a new color choice for the Black Edition; previously it was offered only in black. The window sticker amounted to $51,435, including destination.
The Honda Pilot LX offers plenty of equipment, but you’ll need to choose the EX trim in order to get blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, heated front seats, heated side mirrors, rear climate controls, remote engine starting, and a much better infotainment system.
Upgrade to the EX-L, and the Pilot includes leather seats, a power rear liftgate, a power sunroof, and sunshades for the rear side windows. The Special Edition trim is new for 2021, building on EX-L equipment with black 20-inch aluminum wheels, roof rails, a hands-free power liftgate, and wireless smartphone charging. The Touring trim equips the Pilot with machined-finish 20-inch wheels, parking sensors, a navigation system, a premium sound system, and HondaLink subscription services including a Wi-Fi hotspot. This version of the SUV also offers heated second-row captain’s chairs as an option. The Pilot Elite is the luxurious version, including the captain’s chairs and adding perforated leather, a panoramic glass roof, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and standard all-wheel drive. The Black Edition is a Pilot Elite with a blacked-out exterior appearance, red interior accents and highlights, and black wheels.
Photo by Honda
The 2021 Honda Pilot’s bulky front and rear overhangs and slab-sided design do it no favors. It is clearly designed around function rather than emphasizing form.
Climb into the Honda Pilot and you’ll be amazed by the outward visibility. In nearly every direction, you can actually see out of this SUV. But, that same excellent visibility reminds you of what it’s like to drive a minivan, and the Pilot’s front captain’s chairs separated by a low console further cement that impression. Controls are logically laid out, but a tuning knob is missing from the infotainment system, and temperature knobs would be preferable to rocker switches on the climate control panel. The steering wheel controls aren’t always intuitive, either, though using them gets easier with practice. Pilots exude quality, and this is especially true with the soft leather that comes in Elite and Black Edition trim. Also, Honda supplies a ton of storage in this SUV, and even carves useful shelves into the door panels.
Photo by Honda
All Pilots have triple-zone automatic climate control, and all but the base LX come with heated front seats and 10-way power driver’s seat adjustment. No matter how much you spend, though, the front passenger’s seat doesn’t offer a height adjuster.
Up front, the Pilot’s seats are comfortable and supportive. The SUV offers so much headroom that even with the driver’s seat raised as high as it will go, it still feels like it’s mounted too low. Front passengers are even worse off since that seat doesn’t adjust for height at all. Second-row comfort is good, and the side window shades that are standard in all Pilots with leather seats are perfect for helping to block sunlight when you’ve got a baby aboard in a rear-facing child seat. While the Pilot’s front seats offer ventilation on the top trim levels, the rears are only heated. Third-row comfort is average for the segment, Honda supplying a low, flat, and unsupportive cushion in this location. Adults won’t be very happy, but kids will be fine. Cargo space behind the third-row seat measures 16.5 cubic feet, including a generous underfloor storage compartment. Fold it down, and you’ve got a generous 46.8 cubic feet at your disposal. Maximum volume measures 83.9 cubic feet.
Photo by Honda
There are many reasons to skip the basic Pilot LX in favor of a more expensive version of the SUV. An improved infotainment system is one of them. Starting with the EX trim, the 2021 Pilot is equipped with an 8-inch touchscreen display, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, SiriusXM satellite radio, text-messaging support, and basic HondaLink connected services. Upgrades from here include wireless smartphone charging, navigation, HondaLink subscription services including a Wi-Fi hotspot, and a 10-speaker premium sound system.
Our Black Edition test vehicle had all of these features, plus a rear-seat entertainment system with a Blu-Ray disc player and a Cabin Talk function allowing the driver to communicate with passengers via the SUV’s speakers and wireless headphones. Overall, though, the Pilot’s infotainment technology is rapidly aging. The 8-inch screen is increasingly small by segment standards, the voice recognition technology doesn’t respond to naturally spoken commands, and the rear entertainment system offers just one screen and limited content compatibility. Plus, Wi-Fi is restricted to the Touring, Elite, and Black Edition trim levels.
Photo by Honda
Similar to its infotainment technology, the 2021 Pilot’s safety systems are showing their age. Honda Sensing is standard equipment, and this is the name the automaker gives to its collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). It includes now-common driving and collision avoidance aids, though blind-spot monitoring and a rear cross-traffic warning are unavailable for the base Pilot LX.
In use, the ADAS suite is accurate but lacks the sophistication demonstrated by similar features in competing models. The adaptive cruise control isn’t smooth as it works to maintain proper following distance to the vehicle ahead, and the lane departure warning system wobbles the steering wheel as though a front tire fell off the SUV. (Still, I’ll take the wobble over an annoying beep any day of the week.) Furthermore, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is unable to give the 2021 Pilot a Top Safety Pick rating due to its performance in the passenger-side small-overlap frontal-impact crash test, in which it rates Acceptable rather than Good. In tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Pilot’s front-passenger frontal-impact rating is also a notch below the top score, earning four stars out of five.
Photo by Honda
Honda offers just one engine choice in the 2021 Pilot, and it’s a sweetheart of a 3.5-liter V6. It generates 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, but it feels stronger than that. This year, Honda drops the less-efficient six-speed automatic it had used in lower trim levels, so now all 2021 Pilots get a nine-speed automatic transmission.
The transmission powers the Pilot’s front wheels unless you choose the available all-wheel drive. The AWD system features torque vectoring, and it can put up to 70% of the engine’s output to a single rear wheel when necessary. Normal, Snow, Mud, and Sand driving modes help the Pilot to handle different surface situations, while the transmission offers a Sport mode that makes the SUV hustle a bit quicker. According to the EPA, a 2021 Pilot with AWD should get 22 mpg in combined driving. The test vehicle averaged 21.5 mpg.
Photo by Honda
It is worth noting that the Pilot’s intelligent variable torque management four-wheel drive (i-VTM4) is basically the same system used in Acuras, where it is referred to as Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD).
With that as background, and considering that the Pilot has a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension coupled with 20-inch wheels wrapped in 245/50 tires, this SUV feels unexpectedly athletic. Accurate, properly weighted steering contributes to the Pilot’s sense of driving enjoyment, but when the SUV is loaded, the weather is warm, and the road is mountainous, the brakes start to bake a little too early. Though it offers just 7.3 inches of ground clearance, and the approach, breakover, and departure angles are pretty dreadful, the Pilot can handle light off-roading assignments without an issue. However, this SUV is most at home in cities, in the suburbs, and on freeways, where its excellent outward visibility, zippy driving character, and comfortable seats help it to shine.
Photo by Honda
Honda hasn’t completely redesigned the Pilot since the 2016 model year, so it is due for a big makeover. The addition of a Special Edition to the lineup is usually a tell-tale sign from Honda that an all-new model is waiting in the wings, so expect the 2022 or 2023 Honda Pilot to be a dramatically different SUV.
In the meantime, your list of alternatives to the 2021 Pilot is a long one. It includes the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, and Volkswagen Atlas. If you decide that you don’t need a third-row seat, the Honda Passport is basically the same SUV but with five-passenger seating and a more rugged look.
Photo by Kia
In addition to appealing lease deals, what’s great about the 2021 Honda Pilot is the SUV’s sheer utility, the high level of interior quality, the enjoyable driving dynamics, and reputation for reliability and resale value.
At the same time, the Pilot’s minivan personality, drab design, and aging technology are liabilities. Based on IIHS and NHTSA crash-test ratings, it’s not the safest family-sized SUV you can buy, either. Our recommendation, then, is to shop the alternatives or wait for the next-generation Honda Pilot that we expect soon. If neither option works for you, we think the Special Edition and the Touring trim levels provide the best blend of features and value.
Photo by Honda