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2003 Honda Pilot

2003 Honda Pilot

In the middle of Hondas SUV lineup, the midsize 2003 Honda Pilot offers a great selection of standards, good performance and handling... Read More
In the middle of Hondas SUV lineup, the midsize 2003 Honda Pilot offers a great selection of standards, good performance and handling capability, quality components and in general, excellent value. With lots of room for 8 adult passengers, and lots of cargo, the 2003 Honda Pilot has all the characteristics and utility that has made the SUV class so popular with families and business people looking for more function than they can find in the average sedan. Minimize
Author's Rating: Rating: 5/5 stars
76 Reviews from

By:   caviller
Jun 7, 2002
2003 Honda Pilot

Want an SUV but concerned about their Safety?

Author's Rating: Rating: 5/5 stars

Pros: Based on Honda Odyssey and Acura MDX, it should set the standard for SUV safety.

Cons: More expensive and hard to find than some competition. Won't fit 8 adults in comfort.

The Bottom Line: 
Even as a first year model, Pilot should be on the short list for any safety-conscious family that needs an SUV instead of a minivan, wagon or sedan.

Author's Review
Many people have concerns about the safety of Sport Utility Vehicles. It seems like there is a news report, consumer advisory or investigation almost daily about SUV safety. In particular, rollovers are a serious risk and among the most deadly types of crashes. Many SUVs are based on trucks. As such, they tend to have inferior handling and braking. The largest SUVs tend to be hard to maneuver while parking or driving in the city. Many SUVs have not been rated by the IIHS or NHTSA in their crash tests, and many also lack the advanced safety features found on cars and minivans. Finally, SUVs based on trucks have rigid frames that tend not to crush. That can lead to injuries in a crash, especially in a collision with a wall, pole or another rigid SUV or truck. Despite their safety shortcomings, many people buy SUVs over other options. Some succumb to marketing or image, while others have a genuine need to frequently seat 8-9 passengers, tow heavy loads or do serious off-roading. The Honda Pilot may be the answer for many buyers who want an SUV, but also want to be as safe as possible on the roads.

The Honda Pilot is based on a unibody (unit body) frame. Pilot is designed on the same chassis as the Acura MDX and Honda Odyssey, and it is built in the same plant. As it is not based on a true ladder-frame like most trucks and larger SUVs, it doesn't have many of their shortcomings for typical drivers. According to Honda PR:

"The Pilot is based on Honda's Global Light Truck Platform. Featuring a highly robust and rigid unit body design with isolated front and rear subframes, this innovative light truck platform provides the foundation for many of the Pilot's most compelling attributes, including its outstanding handling agility, exceptional ride comfort, world-class safety performance and packaging efficiency. To help maintain the vehicle's structural integrity in a collision, the Pilot body employs a four-ring safety shell that connects the floor, body side and roof for enhanced occupant protection. Reinforced steel stiffeners located inside the doors at the vehicle's beltline make a continuous horizontal connection between the first three pillars.

High tensile strength steel tubular beams inside the door structure at wheel height provide additional intrusion resistance. A single-piece, side-panel design is used to assure tight and consistent fit and finish in the critical closure areas (doors and windows), and the doors are made using laser-welded tailored blanks. This innovative door design uses higher-gauge steel in high-stress areas and lighter gauge steel in other areas to save weight while maintaining structural integrity for durability and safety. Longitudinal rails, floor cross-members and pillar reinforcements that carry heavy loads are made of the stronger, heavier gauge steel. A roof-mounted reinforcement is provided to secure the center passenger's upper-shoulder belt.

The use of high-strength, closed-section steel bumper beams enhances occupant safety and decreases damage sustained during rear end collisions. Internal testing designed to emulate the Institute for Insurance Highway Safety's (IIHS) 5-mph bumper damage test shows the lowest overall repair costs in low-speed bumper collisions of any vehicle in its class."

The Honda Pilot has many class-leading features, especially in regard to safety. While there is no guarantee, Honda expects Pilot to get the same excellent NHTSA and IIHS crash ratings as have the Odyssey and MDX. They also claim to have exceeded standards for rear impacts, which are a growing concern for occupants in 3rd row seats. The Pilot uses advanced frontal airbags which adjust their force based on the severity of the crash, and the advanced side airbags in the front row will not inflate if a child passenger is detected in the passenger seat. Honda claims Pilot is best in class for acceleration, passing and driver visibility, all key for crash avoidance. Unlike most truck-based SUVs, Pilot has fully independent front and rear suspensions for superior ride and handling. Four wheel disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brake Distribution are standard.

Many large SUVs claim seating for 8 or 9 passengers, but most lack shoulder belts and head restraints in the center seating positions. That makes them unsafe for adults or children in boosters. Pilot offers lap+shoulder belts and head restraints for ALL 8 seating positions. It also offers LATCH in the second row, and a nice array of top-tether anchors for both rows. Along with seatbelts that can switch to a locking mode, that should make installing carseats relatively easy. Pilot also has advanced front seatbelts, with pretensioners and load limiters. Finally, Pilot has an exceptionally wide 66.3" track, like the Odyssey and MDX. The MDX has the best rollover rating of any SUV, and the Odyssey is the best of any minivan or SUV. Because of this, Pilot should also be very stable with a good rollover rating.

Pilot offers reasonable towing, offroading and seating flexibility. It can tow a 4500 pound boat or a 3500 pound trailer. A class III receiver hitch is a dealer option. Honda claims it is up to "medium-duty" off roading, and Pilot has an 8" ground clearance. Its advanced AWD system is fully automatic. Unlike some systems that can take time to respond to wheel slip, the Pilot will automatically transfer some power to the rear wheels as the car accelerates before the wheels can slip. Up to 50% of the power can be sent to the rear in low gear, when slippage is detected. With a push of a button, it will even lock transfer to the rear for superior traction in poor weather or off-road driving. Power and torque should be no problem. Pilot has a 240 HP engine that provides 242 ft-lb of torque through a 5-speed automatic transmission, not bad even for a 4400 pound vehicle. It does all this even while being rated at 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway on regular gasoline. It even qualifies as a ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) in California. That should be good news to those who dislike larger SUVs for their poor fuel economy or high emissions.

Pilot also offers great seating and cargo capability. Honda claims a class-leading 90.3 cubic feet behind the front seats, and 48.7 behind the second row. Both rows of rear seating fold flat into the floor for cargo, no need to remove heavy benches or chairs. Both rows have a split 60/40 folding option for more flexibility. With the wide track, a 4-foot wide sheet can fit in the rear. Numerous cargo anchors, grocery hooks, cup holders, pockets and storage consoles make it convenient to store just about anything. A 188-inch length and 38 ft. turning radius should make for reasonably easy parking.

The test drive wasn't spectacular, but I believe the Pilot's best asset is safety. Even though the Pilot did not make a superb impression on the test drive, it was still very good for its class. It was superior to other midsize SUV's I've driven, but calling it "car-like" would be a stretch. Emergency handling and braking were competent and above average for the class. The power was more than adequate for a city test drive, and passing power was plentiful. I found it to be reasonably quiet on suburban streets, in fact a bit quieter than our Odyssey especially on concrete. The ride was not quite as smooth as our Odyssey, though, and I'd be hard pressed to give up the sliding rear doors for rear seat access or the easy "walk-back" capability found in minivans like Odyssey. Visibility was good, especially for lane checks compared to some other wagons and SUV's I've driven. I did not have a chance to offroad or drive it in poor weather conditions, so I cannot comment on its AWD capability. Even so, with its "proactive" system that automatically sends power to the rear upon acceleration, I expect it will be at least as good as our 2000 Subaru Outback (with Automatic transmission), which does extremely well in poor weather with a similar system.

The interior is nicely done, and as convenient as the features would indicate. The third row is a bit cramped; great for kids but acceptable for adults only on shorter trips. The second row will not fit three large adults comfortably side-by-side, though 3 kids may fit. Fitting 3 carseats or boosters may be a problem in either the 2nd or 3rd row due to the narrow seatbelt spacing and narrow seat width. On the plus side, two adults can ride very comfortably in the second row. Overall seat comfort for the driver, passenger and 2nd row was very good. The styling is rather bland, even for an SUV, but as such it shouldn't offend anyone either. The dealer implied MSRP, though also highly recommended their 'protection package.' I fear price gouging on the Pilot may be very similar to what many dealers do on the Odyssey minivan.

Reliability should be good, but any model can have issues in its first year. Even Honda seems to have had some minor reliability dips for first year models. The 1999 Odyssey and 2001 Civic didn't quite live up to "Honda Reliability", according to Consumer Reports. On the other hand, Honda's smaller car-based CR-V has been one of the best of all SUVs for reliability, and the similar Acura MDX did very well in its first year, according to Consumer Reports. Maintenance should be hassle-free, as the first tune-up is not scheduled until 105,000 miles, with routine oil changes at 7500 miles for normal service.

SUVs are improving for safety. The new Toyota Sequoia has many safety features not found in other larger SUVs. The new 2003 Ford Expedition also has some class-leading safety features, including an independent rear suspension and an innovative rollover protection system. Though a bit smaller, the Acura MDX is very similar to the Pilot and has already proven to be safe and reliable. The Pilot goes one step further than these, in my opinion, especially for the midsize SUV category. Other companies should follow Honda's lead, particularly for typical families who need a vehicle mostly for city and suburban driving; hauling cargo, hauling kids; getting groceries and occasional medium-duty towing and off-roading. For more information on family vehicles and safety features, please also visit:

For more details on the Pilot-

Pricing and general:

Brochure (PDF Format):

Technical Details:

Please wear your seatbelts, and drive safely :-)

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