Honda is back in black.
Black-out packages are common in the auto industry these days, and it's pretty easy to understand why. Consumers think that murdered-out badges and dark, glossy mirror caps and wheels look neat. Automakers, meanwhile, can use these low-cost touches to add $500 to $1,000 to each vehicle's transaction price, less money than an owner would spend on such aftermarket modifications. Everyone wins.
The 2021 Honda Pilot Black Edition takes that approach but comes in at a slightly different angle. Yes, the wheels are black, as are the grille, mirror caps, and badges. It ticks the usual boxes. But it's also the range-topping version of Honda's three-row CUV. The company's decision to base the Pilot Black Edition on the $48,720 Elite trim only is a peculiar one, although that business decision doesn't change the fact that this big crossover remains an easy choice for families on the go.
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If you're blissfully unaware that this is the priciest Pilot on the market, the Black Edition touches are fine. But as we know it's the ritziest version, Honda's formulaic approach to tweaking the exterior is disappointing. Everyone is doing blacked-out wheels and chrome-free grilles. What about a two-tone design, Honda? What about painting the wheel arches black? Instead of such flair, we get awkward “Black Edition” badging at both ends of the car and broadly unchanged styling overall.
The Pilot could desperately use some panache. The exterior, last updated in 2019, is attractive enough, but it's not exactly interesting – clean body lines conspire with a smooth front end and a squared-off tail so that the Pilot definitely looks like some kind of crossover. But when Hyundai, Kia, and now Nissan are adding soul to their three-row flagships, this Honda appears staid and conservative. There may be some good news on the horizon, at least.
That's true of the unfussy cabin too. Finished with a reliance on (you guessed it) black materials, this range-topping model adds red stitching and piping and flashier seat inserts. Still, the dash is an uninspiring sight if you've spent any time in the newer competition. That said, the interior quality is high overall, giving the Pilot a sturdy and refined cabin that owners should appreciate.
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While folks buy a Pilot for the second and third row, it's worth mentioning that the front seats do a fine enough job. They're wide and flat, lacking support for the lower legs especially, although there's enough padding overall that we'd be content on a longer journey. The seating position itself is upright and feels proper for a large crossover, with good sightlines providing a commanding view.
The second row, though, is the better place to be, with the Black Edition offering twin captain's chairs as standard. These seats provide better support than the front seats and more space, too. The third-row bench is merely okay – your 6-foot-2 author made it back there with knees planted firmly in the chest. It should go without saying that road-tripping in the fetal position is no fun, so reserve the last row for the kiddies.
If ultimate space is your priority, the Pilot is difficult to recommend, though. Break out the tape measure and you'll find just 38.4 inches of second-row legroom, or less than the Ford Explorer (39.0), Toyota Highlander (41.0), Kia Telluride (42.4), and Hyundai Palisade (42.4).
The third-row has a stronger showing somehow, with its 31.9 inches besting everything but the Explorer (32.2) and Chevrolet Traverse (33.5), while the Honda also claws back points with small advantages over most of those vehicles in terms of second/third-row head, shoulder, and hip room. These figures are a stark reminder of why it's important to sit in all the seats when buying a car. We were plenty comfy in the second row, despite having less legroom than all the competition. At the same time, the relatively spacious third row felt cramped and unpleasant for an adult.
The Pilot enjoys competitive cargo volume with all three rows in place, offering owners 18.5 cubes in total. Flip the rearmost seats down and that figure swells to 46.8 cubic feet. That's better than the Hyundai/Kia siblings, while the Explorer (47.9) and Highlander (48.4) eke out more space. The Chevrolet Traverse (57.8) blows the Pilot clean out of the water. In terms of max cargo volume, the Pilot's 83.9 cubic feet are the worst in the class, only slightly behind the Highlander (84.3).
The Pilot makes up for these shortcomings with excellent ride quality and impressive sound control. While the Pilot Black Edition rides on 20-inch wheels like the Touring and Elite trims, the 245/50 all-season rubber boasts a hearty sidewall, while Honda tuned the McPherson strut/multi-link rear suspension for comfort and control. The good news is that you'll find the same suspension tuning on all trims, which means a base Pilot LX should be as cushy as this range-topping model. The bigger rubber is quiet, too, while the well-built cabin isolates occupants from outside sounds. Its control of wind noise is particularly impressive.
Like most Honda products, the Pilot has no optional extras. Just pick your trim and a color. Every Pilot but the LX comes standard with an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system which is perfectly serviceable. It's better – quicker, easier to navigate, prettier – than previous Honda systems, but doesn't feel as fresh as what you'll find at Hyundai and Kia. Nor does it make the same kind of first impression as the big portrait-oriented screen available in the Ford Explorer.
This display works alongside a 590-watt, 10-speaker audio system on the range-topping Pilot. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all but the base model, but you'll need a hard connection rather than a wireless one.
Honda adopts a hybrid instrument cluster – physical fuel and temperature gauges flank the primary display. Honda doesn't list this unit's size, but we'd wager it's around 5.0 inches diagonally. A digital tachometer sits at the top with a graphical speedometer below, while the driver can cycle through pages in the main part of the display. Again, this is all perfectly fine. We're partial to the all-digital cluster in the Hyundai Palisade, which is much more versatile in how it displays info, but the Pilot's setup does the job. Trip data, all-wheel-drive info, and navigation directions appear clearly.
In terms of family friendly tech, the Black Edition benefits from a standard rear-seat entertainment system. There's a roof-mounted 10.2-inch display, a Blu-Ray DVD player, and wireless headphones to keep the kiddies occupied on long journeys. There are four 2.5-amp USB ports (two in the front and two in the middle), while the second-row seats have an HDMI input for more elaborate road trip setups. A wireless hotspot is standard on the top three Pilot trims, as is a 115-volt power outlet. And finally, parents can settle disputes in the rear seat using the in-car PA system.
Most of this gear is optional on the competition, if they offer it at all. Kia wants $1,500 for a rear-seat entertainment system on its range-topping Telluride while Ford demands $1,995 on the top-trim Explorer. There's no sign of the tech on the configurators for Chevrolet or Hyundai.
A 3.5-liter V6 engine, producing 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, and a nine-speed automatic transmission are standard on every Pilot, while the Elite and Black Edition include standard all-wheel drive. The gas engine is a free-revving thing, with a refined, pleasant sound. That said, it will annoy drivers moving over from turbocharged offerings with its higher torque peak and consequently less urgent performance. The nine-speed automatic is fine once underway, but it's slow to engage off the line, compounding the Pilot's dull low-end behavior.
As mentioned, Honda tuned the Pilot's suspension for ride comfort, so its relaxed handling character is neither a surprise nor a particular disappointment. It handles predictably, with controlled-but-abundant body motions and a typical lack of feedback. The steering is light and direct, at least, so asking this 4,300-pound CUV to change directions is a manageable task. Braking power is good, although Honda could reduce the pedal travel to improve responsiveness.
While we didn't tow anything with the Pilot (this time), Honda rates it at a respectable 5,000 pounds. That pales in comparison to truck-based three-row SUVs, but amongst similarly sized six/seven-passenger crossovers, it's competitive. A four-cylinder Explorer can manage 5,300 and its twin-turbocharged six-cylinder variant will do 5,600. Toyota, Hyundai, Chevrolet, and Kia's offerings tie the Pilot.
Honda Sensing is one of the best, most comprehensive active safety systems on the market, full stop – and it's standard on every Pilot. Regardless of trim, you'll find automatic emergency braking with forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and automatic high beams for the standard LED headlights. All trims but the base include blind-spot monitoring.
So why doesn't the Pilot earn a perfect score? While newer Honda products like the Accord Hybrid are starting to offer it, this three-rower lacks full-speed active safety. Adaptive cruise control only works above 25 miles per hour, while the automatic emergency braking functions above 15 mph.
While Honda Sensing falls a bit short on the features list, its implementation remains excellent, showcasing predictable braking on the highway and appropriate corrective behavior when straying from a lane. This is despite older technology – Honda launched improvements aimed at more natural integration of the technology on the Accord. We expect them to appear on the Pilot as part of its next redesign.
The EPA rates the all-wheel-drive Pilot at 19 city, 26 highway, and 22 combined. Those numbers are very competitive for the field, with only the Toyota Highlander and the four-cylinder Ford Explorer coming in higher (the pair tie at 20 city, 27 highway, and 23 combined). The Chevrolet Traverse is languishing away at 17 city, 25 highway, and 20 combined, while the Palisade and Telluride each earn 19 city, 24 highway, and 21 combined. Unsurprisingly, every vehicle in this class runs on 87-octane fuel.
The base 2021 Pilot starts at $33,725 (including a destination charge of $1,175), a figure that fits neatly between the $33,415 Telluride and the $36,086 Highlander. Moving up to the Black Edition elevates the price tag to $51,395, or $1,500 more than the Elite trim. The lone option is the $395 Platinum White paint. At this point, our $51,790 Pilot remains in the middle of the segment.
On the high end, you'll find the range-topping Ford Explorer Platinum ($56,370 to start) and Chevrolet Traverse High Country ($54,595). Undercutting the Honda, though, is the loaded Kia Telluride SX Nightfall Edition for $50,005 and the similarly packed Palisade Calligraphy at $49,085. A maxed-out Highlander Platinum AWD is available at $50,190, too.
But while this particular spec enjoys a pricing position in the heart of the segment, it doesn't feel like an especially good value. The Black Edition touches fail to clear the low bar for darkened trims, while the Pilot itself is beginning to show its age. You'll find more space and more technology in the Korean competition, while the Explorer makes up for its high price with a 365-horsepower engine. The Pilot is a fine three-row SUV, but the market is moving on.
Pilot Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Honda Pilot: Review
2021 Honda Pilot Black Edition