2021 Honda Pilot Review: Not Yet Ready for Retirement

A redesigned Pilot is on the horizon, but the old one is still worthy of consideration.

2021 Honda PilotChristian Wardlaw

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When you want an SUV but need a minivan, consider the 2021 Honda Pilot as an ideal compromise. It offers:

  • Three rows of seats for up to eight passengers
  • An available all-wheel-drive (AWD) system
  • 7.3 inches of ground clearance
  • An interior mimicking a minivan’s strengths

Combined with Honda's reputation for durability and the Pilot’s duality as an SUV having minivan qualities, these traits make it one of the segment’s most popular models. However, the 2021 Pilot faces unprecedented competition from several mainstream brands like Buick, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Volkswagen, and Kia Motors selling similar models in their lineup. The third generation entry dates back to 2016 and is one of the oldest Hondas on sale, next to the CR-V.

But that may be about to change. Honda typically offers a Special Edition trim level before it debuts a redesigned model version, and that trim level joins the Pilot lineup for 2021.

The 2021 Honda Pilot Special Edition slots into the lineup above the LX, EX, and EX-L but below the Touring, Elite, and Black Edition. It pairs a trendy blacked-out look with a value-packed collection of features. The new Special Edition costs about $40,000, while the entire Pilot lineup ranges from around $33,500 to more than $51,000.

Honda didn't loan us a Pilot Special Edition for this review. Instead, the company sent a top-of-the-line Black Edition, newly available with white exterior paint (previously, it came only with black paint). The Pilot Black Edition is equipped with every feature, has uniquely red-accented black interior leather and instrumentation, and displays a blacked-out exterior appearance. We examined the Pilot in Southern California.

2021 Honda PilotChristian Wardlaw


Honda freshened the Pilot's styling a couple of years ago by adding bolder forms and details while emphasizing the extent of the SUV's off-roading capabilities. The Pilot's interior remained smartly unchanged.

With the Pilot’s front captain chairs, fold-down armrests, and low, roomy center console dividing the comfortably supportive front seats, you’ll swear you’re sliding into a minivan. The windshield appears tall and distant from a commanding vantage point, giving drivers a clear and expansive view of what’s ahead.

There’s no need to allow this minivan sensation to deter you from choosing a 2021 Honda Pilot. The outward visibility is fantastic, storage space is downright impressive, and this cabin works exceptionally well for daily family living. Sure, adding a tuning knob for the stereo would be nice and the Pilot’s push-button transmission controls feel unintuitive—but overall, the interior layout is sensible and straightforward.

Thanks to its tall roof, the Pilot supplies plenty of headroom. You can feel like you're sitting too low, though, even with the 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat raised to maximum height. Most Pilots have heated front seats, while ventilated front seats are only available on upper trim levels.

In most versions, the second-row passengers enjoy a roomy three-person bench seat. Upper trim levels have heated captain's chairs with a wide pass-through to the third-row seat. All Pilots have a sliding second row to make more room for people using the third-row seat. Most have triple-zone automatic climate control, and many Pilots feature second-row side-window sunshades perfect for keeping the light out on brighter days.

Third-row seat comfort is good for little ones and acceptable for many adults, albeit for shorter distances. If you’re planning to frequently fit adults back there, you may want to consider other, more spacious options such as the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, and the Volkswagen Atlas.

2021 Honda PilotChristian Wardlaw

If you include the roomy underfloor storage bin, the Pilot's cargo area supplies 18.5 cu.-ft. of space behind the third-row seat. Fold the seat down and the SUV accommodates 46.8 cu.-ft. of cargo. The maximum figure with the second-row seats folded is 83.9 cu.-ft.

2021 Honda PilotChristian Wardlaw


You can skip the Pilot LX trim level if you want modern infotainment and safety systems. Starting with EX trim, the SUV supplies:

  • An 8-inch touchscreen
  • Wired smartphone mirroring
  • Satellite radio
  • A quick-charge USB port

Wireless phone charging comes only in the Pilot Special Edition, Elite, and Black Edition.

Touring trim adds the next rung of infotainment functions to the ‘21 Honda Pilot. It includes a navigation system with:

  • Traffic data
  • HondaLink subscription services, including Wi-Fi access
  • A 10-speaker premium sound system with driver-configurable listening zone settings
  • A rear-seat entertainment system.

Cabin Talk is also part of this upgrade, broadcasting the driver's voice through the rear stereo speakers or the entertainment system's wireless headphones.

By current standards, the Pilot's infotainment system meets minimum expectations. However, it’s losing the screen-size war, misses a standard radio tuning knob, and wireless smartphone mirroring is unavailable. Many competitors offer broader access to a more in-depth menu of connected services.

In a time where many kids use portable devices connected to the internet, the Pilot’s single overhead rear entertainment screen playing DVDs and Blu-Ray discs also seems antiquated. The voice recognition system does not respond to naturally spoken commands. Instead, you must use specific prompts.

2021 Honda PilotChristian Wardlaw

Switching gears to safety, every 2021 Pilot has standard Honda Sensing. It includes forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, lane-centering assistance, and adaptive cruise control. The automaker uses unique names for these technologies, but this is the generic summary.

Every Pilot also has a useful multi-angle reversing camera. If you want a blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning system, you'll need to upgrade to EX trim or above. Honda restricts automatic collision notification, emergency calling, and safe teen driver settings to the Touring, Elite, and Black Edition trim levels.

Like the Pilot's infotainment system, the driving assistance technology covers the bases and works to minimum standards. Though this version of Honda Sensing lacks the smoothness and refinement experienced by equivalent systems in competing vehicles.

Despite its age, the Honda Pilot is a safe SUV. In crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), there is minor concern about protection for front-seat passengers. In NHTSA tests, the Pilot gets a 4-star rather than a 5-star rating for people riding in this location. The IIHS deems protection for the front passenger Acceptable instead of Good.

2021 Honda PilotChristian Wardlaw


Unexpectedly fun to drive, the 2021 Honda Pilot shines brightest when cruising on pavement. However, the Pilot’s multi-terrain abilities are remarkably strong, unless the terrain is deep mud or large, rocky boulders. In part, this talent is thanks to Intelligent Traction Management modes. It includes Normal, Snow, Mud, and Sand, in addition to a hill descent control system.

A 280 hp 3.5L V6 engine delivers on power, smoothly and eagerly revving as you accelerate onto freeways or pass slower vehicles. The engine includes Variable Cylinder Management (VCM). It allows operation on fewer cylinders under low-load conditions, such as when cruising on the freeway or coasting down a hill. An Idle Stop function shuts the engine off while you're waiting for traffic lights to turn green.

Both Idle Stop and VCM were built to improve fuel economy. The 2021 Honda Pilot is rated to get 23 mpg in combined driving with front-wheel drive and 22 mpg with all-wheel drive (AWD). We averaged 21.5 mpg in our AWD test vehicle.

The SUV’s 9-speed automatic transmission is now much easier to handle than in the past. The Pilot’s torque-vectoring AWD system and 20-inch wheels with 245/50 all-season tires work together to offer impressive handling, plus a firmly compliant ride.

The steering feels a little heavy at low speed, and the brakes can heat up and start to grumble if you ride them during mountain descents with a packed passenger cabin. Otherwise, the Pilot is one of the better-driving midsize three-row SUVs you can buy.

2021 Honda PilotChristian Wardlaw


Age has been kind to the Honda Pilot, but the time has come for the automaker to redesign the family-sized crossover SUV. Honda's competitiveness is fading on numerous fronts, especially in terms of infotainment and safety technologies.

Honda's latest addition—the value-rich ‘21 Pilot Special Edition—signals that the end is near for the third-generation model. Acura is Honda's luxury brand, and its redesigned 2022 MDX on an all-new light-truck platform suggests that the next-generation Pilot could adopt the same foundation. It’s a good bet that many of the drivetrain and technological upgrades available in the more expensive Acura will soon find their way into an all-new Pilot.

If you’re considering whether this is the time to go all-in on the Pilot, it depends. If you cherish value over potentially upgraded technology, then you might want to take advantage of deals on this outgoing version. If you’d rather hedge your bets on a potentially Acura-influenced future state, then you might want to tap the breaks. Whichever choice matches your family’s needs, you can rest assured the Pilot is designed with enough roomy comfort to carry you down nearly any road ahead.

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Christian Wardlaw
My first word was “car.” That’s what I’m told, anyway. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with them. The design. The engineering. The performance. And the purpose. I’m a car enthusiast who loves to drive, but I’m also most interested in the cars, trucks, and SUVs that people actually buy. Anybody can tell you that a sports car is fast. What you need to know is whether or not you should buy that new SUV, and why. My life purpose is to help you make that decision.