Honda Refreshes Tired Pilot SUV, Trying to Recapture Lost Ground

The Honda Pilot is unabashed about what most sport-utility vehicles try to hide. For all the commercials about crossing rivers and scaling rocks, most SUVs are family haulers that don’t conquer anything but pavement. Essentially, they’re dressed-up minivans.

Honda Motor Co.’s promotional material says the Pilot’s blend of sophistication and utility make it ideal for daily errands, a road trip or an evening on the town. There’s no mention of mud or trails.

For a while, the strategy worked. As recently as 2010, the Pilot was the top-selling midsize SUV in the U.S. But Honda let the model go too long without a makeover -- the most recent was in 2008 -- and it had fallen out of fashion by the time Americans fell back in love with the SUV. U.S. sales of the Pilot fell 14 percent last year while the midsize segment grew 5.2 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

At the Chicago Auto show Thursday, Honda unveiled the model’s long-awaited reboot.

“The Pilot is coming at almost the exact perfect time in an extremely SUV-friendly market,” Karl Brauer, an analyst with KBB.com, said in an interview. “It should do really well.”

Cheap Gas

America’s rekindled affection for trucks and SUVs started early last year and then intensified as gasoline prices started their slide toward $2 a gallon. Ford Motor Co.’s Explorer was the midsize SUV leader with nearly two times the Pilot’s 108,857 in unit sales.

Jeep took a similar marketing path to the Pilot’s when the automaker brought back the Cherokee SUV in 2013. The company built a Trailhawk version for Jeep’s traditional off-road enthusiasts. For the rest of us, Jeep has Cherokees, Grand Cherokees and Renegades built for the pavement. The strategy has been a success. The Cherokee helped Jeep reach a company record of 1 million in sales last year.

“Honda isn’t trying to convince their target buyers that they are rugged outdoorsmen when it knows they’re not,” Brauer said. “Most companies know they’re not either but they like to make it sound like they could be. Honda seems to avoid playing that game. They’ve got a really good SUV crossover for moving people around in. And that’s where you do your best volume anyway.”

Big Brother

Honda has sold 1.4 million Pilots since the model was introduced in 2002. The new version -- designed, developed and produced in the U.S. -- looks like a big brother to the company’s CR-V, the No. 5 nonpickup in the U.S. last year.

The new Pilot is 3 1/2 inches longer than its predecessor, but has fewer angles and is less boxy so looks smaller. In terms of styling, it fits between the CR-V and Honda’s Odyssey minivan.

The addition of aluminum to the hood makes the new model about 300 pounds lighter, depending on the trim level, an effort to improve fuel mileage.

The Pilot’s safety technology includes a cruise-control option that adapts to the speed of the vehicle ahead. Optional Road Departure Mitigation can slow down if necessary and gently steer away from a lane’s edge.

The vehicle also has an optional stop-start system, which briefly cuts the engine when it isn’t needed: at stop lights, for example, or at highway cruising speeds. A nine-speed automatic transmission is available, too.

Family Friendly

In line with the Pilot’s family-friendly DNA, Honda offers options for five USB ports for charging tablets and mobile phones, a rear-seat DVD system and a panoramic roof.

Honda concedes that the Pilot redesign took longer than would ideally be the case. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan put a crimp in Honda’s research and development, John Mendel, Honda’s executive vice president of U.S. sales, said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters.

“We rode the existing model a little longer perhaps than we would have normally” he said.

Honda said it would announce pricing and mileage estimates closer to when the vehicle arrives in dealerships, which is planned for summer.

The Pilot was the 20th most-shopped crossover and midsize SUV on Autotrader.com last year, down from the 10th in 2010.

Honda may be able to climb back toward the top in shopping interest, thanks in part to the revamped Pilot, said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Autotrader.com.

“New stuff in the market excites the market, even in a down market,” she said. “In a market that’s hot, like midsize SUVs, they should get attention. It’s the freshest thing in the segment.”