EAGLE ROCK, Mo. -- Route 86 is a backwoods blacktop path through the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, and during our drive over this road a steady rain soaks the asphalt and turns potholes into tire-skipping puddles.
Yet we plow through the puddles without fear of tire slippage because the vehicle for our foray -- a new rendition of Pilot, Honda's mid-size crossover utility vehicle -- applies the torque from a forceful V6 engine to front and rear wheels through an optional all-wheel-drive system labeled VTM-4, meaning Variable Torque Management Four for 4-wheel-drive.
Honda's VTM-4 mechanism automatically diverts up to 70 percent of the engine torque to the rear tires if the front rollers lose their grip.
It's constantly engaged so you don't have to fiddle with it by tugging at some cumbersome lever or decide when to push the right dashboard button in order to engage or cancel the 4-wheel traction.
That leaves the driver free to focus on more important issues -- like steering and braking and motoring safely. And Pilot makes the driver's job easy because all mechanical aspects are direct and simple and efficient.
Bearing a 2013 model-year designation and rolling out of Honda's Alabama assembly plant, Pilot looks rugged with clean lines on sheetmetal panels which emphasize the classic two-box conformation of a sport utility vehicle.
Yet Pilot differs from a SUV in structure because it doesn't ride on a truck's chassis with the engine turning the rear wheels. Instead, Pilot gets a unitized structure that's innately strong, and the engine directs its power to the front wheels which also steer.
Factor in the wheelbase length of 109.2 inches and a broad wheel track to create a stable stance. Then isolate the independent suspension elements on subframes, dial in geometry that's similar to a car and allow generous vertical wheel travel for off-pavement maneuvers.
For safety 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) and hill start assist (HSA), which prevents the wagon from rolling backward when pausing on a steep grade.
Pilot delivers plenty of muscle, thanks to the 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 strong numbers -- 250 hp at 5700 rpm plus 253 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
Further, it employs Honda's variable cylinder management (VCM) device to conserve on fuel by modifying the number of engine cylinders at work. The VCM can switch from six to four or down to three cylinders, depending on the power demand at any particular moment. And the operation is automatic and transparent to a driver, with a dashboard light (the Eco lamp) glowing when the VCM is working.
Federal EPA fuel consumption figures for Pilot look good -- up to 24 miles per gallon for highway travel with the optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction or 25 mpg with standard front-wheel-drive (FWD) system.
Engine power channels through an intelligent 5-speed automatic transaxle that has electronic controls and supports diverse demands, from high-speed highway runs to slow-speed off-road work, 4-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.
In the vast cabin of Pilot, accommodations seem comfortable and convenient in the Honda tradition. Capacity extends to eight passengers in an arrangement with twin bucket seats on the front 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 space for cargo.
Honda builds the 2013 editions of Pilot in four trim grades -- LX, EX, EX-L (L denotes Leather) and Touring, and each can be rigged with FWD or AWD traction.
New standard features on Pilot's 2013 issues range from 3-zone automatic climate controls and a rearview camera to Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio connectivity, USB integration and a high-resolution 8-inch intelligent Multi-Information Display (i-MID).
Base grade Pilot LX rolls on 17-inch steel wheels, stocks a Class III tow-hitch receiver and lines the cabin with cloth upholstery plus power controls for windows and door locks, cruise control, tilting/telescoping steering column and a 7-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system.
Pilot EX trim gains gear like 18-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, chrome exhaust tips, body-colored side mirrors and door handles, a security system and 10-way power adjustments for the driver's seat. And Pilot EX-L goes further with leather upholstery, heated front seats, 4-way power for front passenger seat, a power moonroof and power tailgate.
Top trim Pilot Touring gets it all -- roof rails, corner and backup sensors, side-mirror integrated turn indicators, 2-position memory seats, a satellite-linked navigation system with rearview camera, 10-speaker premium audio kit and DVD backseat entertainment system.
Honda's MSRP figures for the 2013 Pilot begin at $29,520 for LX/FWD and extend to $41,270 for Touring/AWD with navigation and video entertainment equipment aboard.