Honda shows off lighter, sleeker Pilot at Chicago Auto Show

New curvacious Honda Pilot sheds 300 pounds and boxy SUV styling

Honda will replace its boxy, aging Pilot SUV with a new model that looks more like a crossover, the automaker announced Thursday at the Chicago Auto Show.

Pilot sales fell 14% last year, to about 109,000 units. It lags far behind the Ford Explorer, the market leader, and its rival, the Toyota Highlander.

The new Pilot, set to go on sale this summer, will be larger, lighter, more powerful and more efficient. It will have a curvaceous body and the 3.5-liter, direct-injected V-6 engine also used in the top version of the Honda Accord.

Honda hasn’t yet provided the exact power rating of the engine, which will be tuned differently from the sedan to handle a bigger vehicle and provide towing capacity.

“We were looking to make something that was much more modern, sleek and premium,” said Marc Ernst, chief engineer for the Pilot.

The new design sheds the boxy, truck-like look that once characterized all SUVs. Most other automakers have already made that switch.  

Styling of the new Pilot took place at the automaker's design studio in downtown Los Angeles. It will be built at a Honda factory in Alabama.

During development of the new model, Ernst said, consumers told Honda that the Pilot had to work as a family hauler but provide more distinctive style.

This is the first complete redesign of the Pilot since 2009. It was badly needed, said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific Inc., an industry consulting firm.

“The current one was designed at a time when SUVs were meant to look like a truck, and has become very dated,” Sullivan said. “But now crossovers are more like big station wagons.”

Sullivan said the Honda is packing the new model with an assortment of features — available video screens, numerous device charging ports — that will appeal to families. He thinks that will grab sales from minivans.

Depending on trim level, the new Pilot has up to five USB ports, including four that that provide faster recharging through their 2.5-amp output, allowing them to power up iPads or smartphones, even while in use.

The crossover also has an auxiliary jack for other audio players, an HDMI port for a video gaming console, two headphone jacks, two 12-volt power outlets and a standard 115-volt outlet.

The new model is up to 300 pounds lighter than the vehicle it replaces, depending on trim level and equipment.

Honda used more ultra-high-strength steel in certain sections of the Pilot to meet new safety targets and reduce weight. Honda also used more magnesium and aluminum.

Though fuel-economy testing is not complete, Ernst said Honda is certain that the new model will beat the 21 mpg of the current two-wheel-drive version.

In addition to equipping the Pilot with a new engine, Honda made other changes in the drivetrain. When the vehicle hits cruising speeds, unneeded cylinders will shut down for improved fuel efficiency. Some trim levels will have the engine shut off when the vehicle stops and then restart when the driver lifts their foot off the brake pedal.

The new engine is mated to one of two advanced new transmissions — a Pilot-first six-speed automatic transmission or, on upper trims, a nine-speed automatic transmission — that are expected to smooth the ride and improve fuel economy. The crossover will be available in front-wheel and all-wheel-drive configurations.

Honda will release the price closer to the vehicle’s sales date.

Honda should see sales rebound when it gets the new model on the market, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with car-shopping company Edmunds.com.

Caldwell observed that the 2016 Pilot resembles its smaller CR-V sibling. The automaker sold 335,000 CR-Vs last year, making it one of the bestselling vehicles in America.

“Having something like the CR-V but that is larger is a good idea,” Caldwell said.

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