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car review

2013 Honda Pilot

Since its debut in North America – in 2002 for the 2003 model year – the Honda Pilot has been an unmitigated success.

Always near or at the top of the mid-size SUV heap, it has received tons of awards over the years and consistently sells well across the country. Virtually every other car maker cites the Pilot as the benchmark in this segment of the market and I've attended numerous new-model launches where the manufacturer has named the Pilot as the one to beat in the mid-size crossover/SUV marketplace. People like it.

Why? After all, it's just a box with four-wheel-drive. Its off-road abilities are acceptable but not exceptional. Its V-6 engine is lively but not the most powerful one out there, it delivers decent but not the best fuel economy, and isn't particularly affordable. My tester, for example – the Touring version – will set you back more than $50,000 after taxes.

But first, a few specs. Now available in five trim levels, the Pilot shares its platform with the equally successful Ridgeline pickup truck and is powered by a 3.5-litre V-6 engine. In this trim, it develops 250 horsepower and is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission only.

This engine has been around a while and features Honda's i-Vtec variable valve timing arrangement in tandem with a variable cylinder management system. At certain times, the engine management system shuts off up to half of the cylinders – during low-speed highway cruising, for example – and, theoretically, at least, eases fuel consumption and engine wear and tear. I still have reservations about these systems – with all manufacturers – but Honda's may be the most seamless and unnoticeable of them all. All Pilots have an Eco mode that tells you when the system has been activated, but otherwise, you don't notice it. Whenever I drive a V-6 Honda equipped with VCM, I have to remind myself about its presence.

The Pilot also has full-time all-wheel-drive, although, as of 2006, the base LX model is 2WD. The 4WD system has a front-drive bias that sends power to all four wheels during acceleration and when things get slippery. The price difference between a 2WD LX and 4WD LX is about three grand and the front-drive model is a smidgeon thriftier – both on the highway and around town: 10.0 litres/100 km combined city/highway versus 10.5.

One of the keys to the Pilot's success is its equipment level. Standard kit includes second-row HVAC controls, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering, vehicle stability assist program, back-up camera and a hill-holder. My top-of-the-range Touring also features a power rear tailgate, leather interior, fog lamps, heated front and second-row seats,and a 650-watt sound system. They haven't missed much here.

Capacity-wise, lower the 60-40 rear seats and fold down the second row and there's 2,464 litres of cargo space. According to Honda, you can seat up to eight people in a Pilot, but it'd be snug. By way of comparison, the Toyota Highlander offers a titch more than 2,700 litres, but only seats seven. Ford's new Explorer, meanwhile, has 2,285 litres.

So what makes the Pilot so popular? In a nutshell, it's just so damn driveable. Like virtually all Honda products, it's an effortless vehicle to drive and doesn't challenge the driver. It's comfortable, easy to get in and out of, loaded with thoughtful extras, refined, and features excellent peripheral visibility. Hondas have always had an excellent driver's position, giving you a commanding view of the road without isolating you from the switchgear and ergonomics. There are exceptions, of course – the MDX comes to mind – but for driver-friendliness, Honda products are tough to beat.

How about reliability? Aside from a few issues with paint and trim, climate control systems and body hardware, Consumer Reports gives the Pilot top marks in all categories – right from 2003 onwards. Nothing is perfect, but compared to everyone else, the Pilot comes out smelling like a rose. Observes C.R.: "The Pilot manages to combine the best of a wagon, SUV, and minivan." It gives the current iteration its "Good Bet" seal of approval. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has two safety recalls and four technical service bulletins on file for the '13 edition.

My tester was a 2013 model, but the Pilot has changed little over the years – a new grille treatment here, engine upgrades there, interior embellishments over there, but it's much the same now as it was in 2003. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

Tech specs

2013 Honda Pilot

Base Price: $34,990 as tested: $48,590

Engine: 3.5-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 250 hp/253 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel/all-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.3 city/8.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Tahoe, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Nissan Pathfinder