Honda aims to boost sales with new 2016 Pilot SUV

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

American Honda Motor Co. Inc. rolled out its new, more premium looking and family friendly 2016 Honda Pilot at the Chicago Auto Show Thursday, the third generation SUV that hits showrooms this summer.

The new Pilot, with a new front that looks more like the CR-V and HR-V siblings, is 3 1/2 inches longer with more cargo and passenger space than the current Pilot. The three-row SUV will be more fuel efficient, offering best-in-class fuel economy, said Marc Ernst, a Honda chief engineer.

"The all-new Pilot really raises the stakes in the midsize SUV segment," John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co. Inc., said in a call with reporters this week.

Mendel said Honda expects to increase sales over the outgoing Pilot "pretty significantly."

Honda sold 108,857 Pilot SUVs last year, down 14.1 percent from the 126,678 sold in 2013. But January sales nearly doubled from January 2014 to 12,315, setting a new monthly record for Pilot. It competes with SUVs such as the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Chevrolet Traverse.

The Pilot, which shed about 300 pounds in weight, gets a new 3.5-liter V-6 engine that uses cylinder deactivation to operate on three cylinders when it can to save fuel. It will offer a Honda brand first stop-start technology to shut the engine off at stops and seamlessly turn it back on when a driver lifts off the brake.

Honda is not yet releasing horsepower or torque figures for the new engine.

"This will be the most powerful, capable and refined Pilot we've ever made," Ernst said.

The Pilot has two transmission choices, a new six-speed automatic, and for upper trims, a new nine-speed automatic — the first offering for the Honda brand. It also has a new all-wheel drive system; Honda says about 68 percent of Pilot buyers choose all-wheel drive.

The first Pilot was introduced in 2002 and a second-generation launched in 2008. The automaker said it has sold more than 1.4 million in the U.S. since. The SUV and engine are manufactured at Honda's Lincoln, Ala., plant.

Honda pushed the current Pilot seven years, past the normal replacement cycle an extra year or two, with delays from natural disasters including the earthquake and tsunami and as the company had other priorities, Mendel said.

"We rode the existing model a little bit longer than perhaps we would have normally," Mendel said.

Pilot Product Planner Richard Pham said 95 percent of Pilot buyers are families, and the average age is about 47. Honda added many creature and technology comforts that families want such as Bluetooth and the available ceiling mounted back entertainment system gets increased screen resolution and Blu-ray.

The SUV also has a nicer looking interior and higher trim Pilots will be available with a seven-passenger seating arrangement featuring two captains chairs in the second row. The three-person bench seat is standard and allows up to eight passengers.

Honda also improved the ease of getting in and out of the third-row, with a one-touch button system available to slide and tilt the seat. Push button start is standard and the Pilot has a new remote engine start. It also has an available heated steering wheel and heated seats for the first two rows. The SUV now has an available panoramic roof, rear cross traffic monitoring and road departure mitigation. It also has up to five USB ports, four with 2.5 amp charging, "meaning you can charge an iPad or four of them simultaneously," Ernst said.

The SUV also gets a larger eight-inch touchscreen as part of a new Honda display audio system and vehicles with a new embedded navigation system have will see 3-D display of buildings, terrain and road signs, Ernst said.

Ernst said the upgrades to the Pilot aren't meant to target Honda's Acura brand and MDX luxury SUV buyers.

"We're targeting midsize regular family customers," he said. "They have a different target with MDX. We don't see that much cross checking between customers."

Honda said pricing and fuel economy for Pilot will be released later, but Ernst said he doesn't foresee a big jump in the sticker price.

The 2015 Pilot starts at $29,870, plus $880 destination, for a two-wheel drive LX model. The current lineup tops out with a four-wheel drive Touring edition priced at $41,620, plus destination. The current Pilot gets 18 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway.

Honda said it also will give a glimpse of styling cues for the new Honda Ridgeline truck during the Chicago Auto Show. The Ridgeline, with a more truck-like appearance, is expected to go into production next year.

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