I just went to the Honda press event for the next-gen 2009 Honda Pilot. Of course, because of embargo etiquette, I can't say much about the vehicle itself for another six weeks (April 15), unless somebody decides to break the embargo -- in which case, you'll probably be seeing all the information we have and our driving impressions up on our site soon after that.
Anyway, it occurred to me, while waiting for the technical briefing to start at the posh Palm Springs' resort that hosted the event, that this segment is really doing some interesting things. It wasn't long ago when Honda took its big risk by coming out with what essentially amounts to a crossover (although no one was calling anything a crossover back in June 2002). In fact, the Pilot was platformed off a version of the earlier Acura MDX, which was the winner of Motor Trend's 2001 Sport/Utility of the Year. The Acura and Honda used a modified unibody chassis that drew much of its design and strategy from the highly successful Odyssey minivan platform. At that point, it was clear to everyone that Honda didn't want to be in the deep end of the pool and it was happy making something its buyers could use for more suburban low-impact demands, rather than serious weekend adventures. Of course, that didn't mean Honda wouldn't try everything it could to make the association in TV commercials that its new midsize SUV-ish vehicle could do a nice job of towing several Honda motorcycles and ATVs out to the desert for some family fun in the dust.
Still, the Pilot didn't have a low-range four-wheel-drive system; it used an independent coil-spring/trailing-arm rear suspension (like the minivan) -- the platform is basically for a car -- and it had the sideways-mounted V-6 engine. Basically, this was a modified crossover that wanted to look like some of the other vehicles in the SUV category, but ride on a wave of unibody benefits, such as smoother ride and handling, better fuel economy, and convenient passenger-carrying ability—essentially a minivan that looks like it doesn't want to be a minivan. We call these crossovers today. From what we saw at the desert debut (again, none of which I can tell you right now), there really isn't much difference from what we saw at the Detroit auto show with the Honda Pilot Prototype. For that, I applaud Honda.
It's always nice to see something called a "concept" be real enough to make it into production. Seeing things entries the Explorer America, Super Chief, or Airstream are interesting but always leave us feeling a bit empty. It seems much more impressive to see the "unreal" become "real" than just seeing an exercise in toys that would and could never pass the "real world" test.
For what it's worth, from was at Detroit, we liked what we saw. From the exterior design, it still looks like it has a sideways-mounted V-6 (although a diesel would be nice), it might be a little longer and wider, can't imagine Honda engineers would ditch the four-wheel independent strategy that their buyers seem to love, and after crawling underneath the show vehicle on the stage, I didn't see anything new in the form of the all-wheel-drive system.
It'll be fun to see where the Honda engineers felt they could do better and (maybe more important) where they felt they didn't need to do better. One thing is apparent: Somebody put his job on the line to make sure the next-gen Pilot would continue to look like a traditional SUV, rather than like every other crossover or long-wagon nowadays, which seems to be where the segment is growing. Wish we could've been a fly on the wall of that meeting (or, if we know Honda, series of meetings). When everyone is trying to make something like the Mazda CX-9 (by all accounts a flattened minivan), it's interesting to see one of the early adopters actually take a different tack with its latest entry. Our only guess is that the research said its buyers didn't want their Pilot to look more like the minivan they already own. These are probably young families that want the pretending factor of the something that looks like something more in line with a (more) rugged SUV. Probably a smart strategy that'll get Honda 120,000 sales next year.
And we're also guessing this design will have some sort of impact on the next-gen Ridgeline we'll likely start hearing about later this year as well. In the meantime, look for more on the new Honda Pilot by mid-April and in an upcoming issue of Truck Trend Magazine.