WICKENBURG, Ariz. -- We're grasping for grab handles and straining the safety belt, trying to keep our torso planted firmly in the driver's bucket as the new rendition of Pilot, Honda's mid-size crossover utility vehicle, bumps and grinds, scampers and scoots through deep tracks of sand on cactus-litter dunes in the Sonoran Desert south of Wickenburg, Ariz.
The tall stance of Pilot -- with a ground clearance of eight inches -- allows this wagon to trudge over a lot of lumpy ground far from the comfort of a paved road.
In addition, it carries an optional all-wheel-drive system labeled VTM-4, meaning Variable Torque Management Four for four-wheel-drive. It's permanently engaged and directs the engine's muscle to all four wheels when needed in order to maintain traction on the tires and keep the vehicle moving forward.
And Pilot packs plenty of muscle, thanks to the high-tech aluminum 3.5-liter V6 powerplant with programmed fuel injection and Honda's i-VTEC (intelligent variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain system.
The V6 scores tall power numbers -- 250 hp at 5700 rpm plus 253 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
Further, it employs the next generation of Honda's variable cylinder management (VCM) device to conserve on fuel by modifying the number of engine cylinders at work.
Honda's previous VCM system simply cut by half the number of cylinders -- down from six to three -- when boosted power was not needed. By contrast, the VCM on Pilot can switch from six to four or down to three cylinders, depending on the power demand at any particular moment. And the operation is totally automatic and virtually transparent to a driver, with a dashboard light (the Eco lamp) glowing when the VCM is at work.
Federal EPA fuel consumption figures for Pilot's new engine look good -- up to 22 miles per gallon for highway travel with the optional AWD traction or 23 mpg with a standard FWD (front-wheel-drive) system.
Engine power channels through an intelligent five-speed automatic transaxle that has electronic controls and supports diverse demands, from high-speed highway runs to slow-speed off-road work, four-wheel traction and towing.
An intelligent shift point controller automatically selects third and fourth gear settings after measuring variables like throttle position, road speed and rates of acceleration and deceleration.
Bearing a 2009 model-year designation and rolling out of Honda's Alabama assembly plant in Lincoln, Pilot appears in a new generational design with the package size growing in length, width and height, and the eight-passenger cabin increasing the content of standard equipment and safety systems.
The new design for Pilot looks rugged with clean lines on sheetmetal panels which emphasize the classic two-box conformation of a sport utility vehicle.
Although the external package of Pilot looks like a conventional SUV, this wagon differs from a SUV in structure because it doesn't use the chassis of a truck as a foundation and the engine doesn't drive the rear wheels.
Instead, Pilot springs from a unitized structure that's innately stiff and strong, and the front-mounted engine directs its muscle to the front wheels which also steer.
The monocoque structure melds chassis and body into a cohesive entity that's extremely rigid when put in motion.
Factor in the wheelbase length of 109.2 inches and an exceptionally broad wheel track (67.7 inches up front and 67.5 inches in back) to forge a stable stance. Then isolate the independent suspension elements on subframes, dial in geometry that's similar to a car and allow generous wheel travel for off-pavement maneuvers.
Add variable-power rack and pinion steering and disc brakes for all corners tied to electronic controls like Honda's vehicle stability assist (VSA) equipment operating in conjunction with an anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic brake distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA) plus a traction control system (TCS).
The 2009 Pilot also gains a new electronic control called HSA (hill start assist), which prevents the wagon from rolling backward when pausing on a steep grade.
The result of all of this electronic hardware for Pilot is uncommon agility for driving on pavement as well as dirt and sand.
Our pavement tests for Pilot include a wiggly trace on Arizona 89 through the Weaver Mountains to Prescott and reveal that Honda has managed to inject traits of agile handling in the high-rising hulk of boxy wagon.
In the spacious cabin of Pilot, all aspects seem comfortable and convenient in the Honda tradition.
Capacity extends to eight passengers in an arrangement with twin bucket seats on the first row, a bench for three riders on the second row and a third bench designed to hold up to three teeners.
Benches on rows two and three split 60/40 to vary the cabin conformation, and seatbacks fold down flat.
With all seats folded, the broad and long and tall compartment in Pilot provides up to 87 cubic feet of cargo stow space.
Honda builds the new Pilot in four grades -- LX, EX, EX-L and Touring, and each can be rigged with FWD or AWD traction.
Pilot LX rolls on 17-inch steel wheels and lines the cabin with cloth upholstery and power controls for windows and door locks, a dual (front and rear) climate system, automatic headlamps, cruise control, a tilting/telescoping steering column, six reading lamps and an audio system with seven speakers and a six-disc CD changer with MP3 jack.
Pilot EX adds more gear like alloy wheels, foglamps and chrome exhaust tips, rails on the roof and more cabin amenities like a three-zone climate system, a security system and eight-way power adjustments for the driver's seat.
Pilot EX-L upgrades to leather upholstery on seats and steering wheel but also puts a heat element in each front seat, a moonroof in the ceiling and a cabin mirror with rearview camera display, among other deluxe trappings.
Pilot Touring the top tier gets everything -- including a power tailgate, parking sensors front and rear, a voice-recognition navigation system with rear camera plus a 512-watt AM/FM/6X-CD premium audio system.
Price points for the 2009 Pilot begin at $27,595 for the FWD LX and extend to $39,955 for the AWD Touring with navigation and video entertainment equipment aboard.