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Honda shows off sleeker Pilot at Chicago Auto Show

Jerry Hirsch
Los Angeles Times

The Honda Pilot and Spider-Man don't ordinarily have something in common, but the sport utility vehicle and cinematic superhero both got the same treatment this week — plans for complete reboots.

Sony plans to relaunch its valuable Spider-Man franchise after the most recent movie failed to wow audiences. Honda announced at the Chicago Auto Show last week that it plans to replace its boxy, aging SUV with a new model that looks more like a crossover and better matches consumer trends.

Pilot sales fell 14 percent last year, to about 109,000 units. It lags far behind the Ford Explorer, the market leader, and its rival from a fellow Japanese brand, the Toyota Highlander.

The new Pilot, which is set to go on sale this summer, will be larger, lighter, more powerful and more fuel-efficient than the vehicle it replaces. It will have a new curvaceous body and pick up the 3.5-liter, direct-injected V-6 engine available 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. Honda is about the last automaker to make 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 also be more personal and distinctive once Mom or Dad drops the kids off at school and drives on to work.

This is the first complete redesign of the Pilot since 2009 and 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.