It's lonely at the top, they say. Well, they haven't been to the summit of the midsize sport utility segment.
The three-row, family-hauler space is as bitterly contested as a juniors soccer league. After dominating the segment it invented in 1991, Ford's Explorer had grown fat and complacent by the turn of the century. Catching the lumbering veteran off guard, Honda's Pilot — one of the first mid-SUVs to sport a car-like unibody — blew by into first place. Game on.
Explorer reinvented itself to claw back to the top of Hamburger Hill in 2011. The unibody Ford also introduced a dizzying array of tech and functional innovation: Versatile, three-way, third-row backseats, collapsing second-row seats, high-tech MyFordTouch infotainment.
Midsize frontier rediscovered. Explorer, indeed.
Now Honda is back with its best Pilot yet. Yet its extreme makeover is a reminder of just how good the Ford is. And with its own, mid-cycle refresh this year, the Explorer is hardly standing still. Good grief, don't these all-stars ever get tired?
What's better? Who's stronger? Like a referee in a soccer scrum, I waded into this battle to see. Pilots vs. Explorers. Bring it on.
Ford Utility Marketing Manager Craig Paterson is known inside his company as "Yoda" for his endless knowledge of the industry. Yet when Patterson tells me that 65 percent of Explorer buyers don't have kids, I am incredulous. I mean, c'mon people. The Explorer is a family vehicle. Three rows of seats to fit kickballers and their pals. Four-wheel drive to get them to the game. Command seating so Mom and Dad can negotiate the field of battle.
If you are young without kids, why aren't you cruising topless in a Mustang? If you're an empty-nester, shouldn't you be exploring the Outback in your Jeep Grand Cherokee?
But maybe that's the charm of utes. They are hip beyond the wonder years. Drive a minivan and you're tattooed for life. Drive a midsize crossover and you shed the mom label without throwing away third-row cargo flexibility. Moms like Mrs. Payne who drove our comely, AWD Chrysler Pacifica crossover well after our rug rats had moved on.
With their chiseled exteriors and AWD capability, midsize utes like the Explorer, Chevy Traverse, and Toyota Highlander swagger with style. Honda's homely, boxy Pilot had some catching up to do.
With the '16 model, Pilot has car-like curves to go with its car-like chassis. Its exterior gains the sharp, forward look of little brothers CR-V and HR-V with tapered windows and a bold, three-bar front end right out of the, um, Explorer's playbook.
But where the Honda catches up, the '16 Explorer stands out as a segment icon.
Endowed with its trademark flying buttress c-pillar and sculpted shape, Explorer's face nonetheless looked puffy, swollen. Like it had just driven through a swarm of bees. The new look is leaner with less calogen in the lips. New corner fog lamps echo the "c-clamp" headlights on the Ford F-150 pickup. Advantage, Explorer.
Americans live in their cars — midsize utes in particular. They're family. Like the family dog, they have names — Explorer, Pilot, Pathfinder — rather than cold, alphanumeric badges like the Brother MFC-J5620DW printer sitting on my desk.
Their interiors fit like home. Explorer and Pilot are particularly distinguished.
No one can touch the Explorer's rear-end versatility. This baby's got back. It's Swiss Army Knife third-row seats fold forward, independently, flat — even backward as tailgate chairs. To access them Ford has added its trademark kick feature found on the Escape and Edge SUVs. Stagger up to the tailgate with a load of groceries in one arm and a screaming hellion in the other, kick under the bumper with a spare leg and — voila! — the rear hatch rises.
While Pilot can't match this show, its engineers have nonetheless invented a brilliant solution to the muddy cleat. Flip the floor aft of Row 3 to rubber-side up, and wee footballers can kick off their mud-crusted shoes, saving the seats from total annihilation.
Ford's instrumentation remains a class leader. But from dash to moon roof, the Pilot has set a new standard for interior usability. Its console is no longer a dog's breakfast of screens, shifter knobs and instrument stacks, but Ford-simple, with one touchscreen and a button shifter.
The sliding center console storage space is a Mom magnet. It'll hold a handbag on top. Or within. Its slat-less construction won't harbor crumbs.
Second-row captain's chairs collapse forward with a single button mounted low so even Cindy Lou Who can reach it. Oh, and that third row! It fits adults and even gains sunlight thanks to a moon roof with its own sun shade, so even if the front passengers have been burned to a crisp, back-benchers can still worship the Sun god.
Ford's excellent interior (its one-button trick buckles the second row seat like Rocky Balboa hitting Drago) feels dated only next to Honda's Extreme Makeover. Advantage Honda.
But the Explorer's real secret is under the hood where it offers three — count 'em, three — engine options: A base 3.5-liter V-6, 3.5-liter V-6 Turbo, and new-for-2016 2.3-liter turbo-4.
Pilot options? A 3.5-liter 6-cylinder. Honda being Honda (this is a company providing engines to both IndyCar and Formula 1), it dazzles with best-in-class V-6 fuel economy. But its choices come only in trannies: A 6- or 9-speed.
My Ford engine of choice is the turbo-4 — essentially the same engine that powers the Mustang. But whereas the four doesn't quite fit a muscle car (ya gotta have a V-8) it's a perfect fit for the ute.
This four-banger would make Europeans blush with its muscly 280 horses and 310 pound-feet of torque. It not only shames turbo fours found in, say, an Audi Q5, but also outpowers Ford's traditional 3.5 six. What's more, it is quieter than the six even at full throttle — a crucial advantage inside a cabin where Mom is on the hands-free phone with Dad at the same time she is hearing the details of Junior's day from the backseat.
More? The turbo four rivals the Honda in fuel economy despite the Explorer's considerable heft.
From a base price of $30,000 to premium packages upwards of $50K, the midsize Explorer and Pilot appeal to demographics well beyond the soccer mom. No wonder everyone wants to be at the top of the mountain. No wonder Explorer and Pilot are at the top of their game.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2016 Ford Explorer
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, 7-passenger sport ute
Price: $31,595 (Base)-$53,495 (Platinum)
Power plant: 3.5-liter V-6; 2.3-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder; 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V-6
Power: 290 horsepower, 255 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 280 horsepower, 310 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4-cyl); 365 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque (twin-turbo V-6)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.9 (twin-turbo V-6) - 7.4 (V-6) seconds (Car & Driver)
Weight: 4,457 pounds (FWD) - 4,890 (AWD)
Fuel economy: EPA 16 city/23 highway (V-6); 18 city/26 highway (turbo 4-cyl); 16 city/22 highway (twin-turbo V-6)
Highs: Sculpted styling; Turbo-riffic
2016 Honda Pilot
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, 7 or 8-passenger sport ute
Price: $30,875 (Base) - $47,300 (Elite)
Power plant: 3.5-liter, direct-injection V-6
Power: 280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 6 or 9-speed auto
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2-6.6 seconds (Car & Driver est.)
Weight: 4,054 (2WD)-4,317 pounds (AWD)
Fuel economy: EPA 18 city/26 highway/21 combined (6-speed auto, AWD); 19 city/26 highway/22 combined (9-speed auto, AWD)
Highs: Innovative, roomy interior; Refined styling
Lows: Slow center screen; Another engine option, please?