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Turbulence alert: 2020 Honda Pilot buffeted by newer Highlander, Palisade, Telluride

2020 Honda Pilot Black Edition

by Chuck Giametta

What changes make the 2020 Honda Pilot different?

A new flagship model draped in trendy black aimed at boosting interest in this aging-but-game midsize crossover SUV. The 2020 Black Edition joins an otherwise-unchanged lineup that’ll see Pilot through to its next full redesign, slated for model-year 2022.

A gas-electric hybrid model — perhaps a plug-in — could be part of that all-new fourth-generation roster. Until then, Honda’s largest utility vehicle continues with one V-6 engine, a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, and seating for up to eight. It benefits from a model-year-2019 refresh that addressed a host of shortcomings. Most notably, important safety features were made standard on every Pilot trim level. The styling was updated, the nine-speed automatic transmission revised, and Pilot finally got a hands-free power liftgate. Less critically, Honda restored a volume knob to the audio system.

Those changes — the first since the current-generation Pilot debuted for 2016 — will carry over for model-year 2021. Neither they nor voguish trim editions, however, are apt to restore Pilot’s class-leading credentials. It’s been surpassed for amenities and engineering by newer rivals like the 2020 Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade and, to a lesser degree, by the redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer. There’s fresh competition within its own showroom, too, from the Honda Passport, a shortened Pilot with seats for five. All those headwinds were felt in a rare sales downturn, with Pilot demand off 15 percent in 2019 after years of steady growth.

Should I buy a 2020 Honda Pilot or wait for the 2021?

2020 Pilot Elite

Little reason to wait for the 2021 Pilot unless you’re a hybrid fan and envision Honda adding one to the lineup before the full redesign. Spy photographs show what appears to be a plug-in Pilot undergoing testing. The automaker could fit the ’21 Pilot with conventional- or plug-in-hybrid technology borrowed, respectively, from its Clarity or Accord cars. Note also that Honda’s upscale Acura division offers a 321-horsepower hybrid version of its MDX crossover, which shares much of the Pilot’s underskin engineering. 

It’s far more likely the 2020 and ’21 Pilots will be virtual duplicates, though the ’21 will almost inevitably cost more. Either will be a crossover standout for passenger and cargo room, if not for cutting-edge design or technology.

They’re apt to share an unaltered eight-model lineup, too, starting with base LX trim and ascending through better-equipped EX, EX-L (leather upholstery), and the awkwardly named EX-L w/Navigation and Rear Entertainment System model. Touring, Elite, and Black Edition trims top out the line. All-wheel drive (AWD) is standard on the Elite and Black Edition and an extra-cost feature on other Pilots in place of standard front-wheel drive.

Is 2020 Honda Pilot styling different?

2020 Pilot Black Edition

Only by virtue of the Black Edition. Based on the Elite grade, it comes exclusively in Crystal Black Pearl paint with a blackout treatment applied to the wheels, grille, badges, and exterior trim. Inside, it gets red accent lighting, red stitching for its contrasting-color perforated leather upholstery, and embossed Black Edition logos.

Otherwise, all 2020 Pilots will carry on with the barely noticeable tweaks that marked the model-year-’19 refresh. These included a grille modestly revised with Honda’s latest “flying wing” insert, a front fascia reshaped to incorporate lower side coves, and revised taillamps with amber turn signals.Wheel styles were new, but sizes were unchanged, at 20-inch alloys for Touring, Elite, and Black Edition and 18s for the other models.

All ’20 Pilots have LED daytime running lights and LED lowbeam headlamps; Touring, Elite, and Black Edition have LED highbeams. All but the bare-bones LX have heated mirrors with integrated LED turn signals. On Elite and Black Edition, the mirrors are auto-dimming and power-folding. 

2020 Pilot with eight-passenger seating

The ’20 Pilot is among 14 midsize crossovers with three rows of seats, but one of only six with eight-passenger capacity (the others are the Highlander, Palisade, Telluride, Chevrolet Traverse, and Subaru Ascent). Pilot’s use of space is extremely efficient. Accommodations in the first two rows are roomy and comfortable and the third row is one of the few that suits adults with little compromise. Big windows ensure every passenger enjoys plenty of light and outward visibility, an underrated virtue.

The LX, EX, EX-L, and Touring models come with a three-passenger second-row bench seat. Optional on Touring standard on Elite and Black Edition are two second-row captain’s chairs that reduce capacity to seven. The second-row bench is split 70/30, adjusts fore and aft, and on all but the LX have Honda’s One-Touch Walk-In pushbutton releases that make it easy for even small kids to slide sections forward for third-row access. The eight-seaters have anchors for four child seats.

All but the LX and EX come with leather upholstery and all but the LX have heated front seats and a power driver’s seat with power lumbar. Elite and Black Edition get ventilated front seats. Heated second-row captain’s chairs are standard on these models and optional on the Touring.

2020 Pilot Touring

Every ’20 Pilot has digital instrumentation that does its job but hardly pleases the eye. Dashboard controls are orderly and easily identified. The LX has a 5-inch-diameter infotainment screen, the others an 8-incher and a more elaborate audio system that gained a discrete volume knob for 2019 in place of a finicky touch-sensitive virtual slider (steering-wheel buttons and voice commands also adjust volume). CarPlay and Android Auto are included. Standard on all but the LX, EX, and EX-L is imbedded navigation that doesn’t depend on a cell signal for real-time GPS service.

Pilot’s infotainment interface is a clue to its aging design. Newer rivals tend to have larger displays with crisper graphics and faster software. Few interior panels ring hollow and most are padded where you’d expect. But top trim levels of younger competitors such as the Palisade, Telluride, and Mazda CX-9 have elevated their cabin décor to premium-class standards. Similarly, Pilot’s switchgear performs well but shows little design flair.   

46.8 cu ft of cargo volume behind second seating row

No midsize crossover shames today’s third-generation Pilot for all-around cargo versatility, though. Small-items storage is plentifully, thanks to numerous bins, pockets, and beverage holders throughout the cabin. Cargo volume is near top of class, at 16.5 cubic feet behind the rear seat (supplemented by a handy underfloor well), 46.8 with the third row folded, and 83.9 with both rear rows stowed. A power liftgate is standard starting with the EX-L; on Touring, Elite, and Black Edition it has hands-free opening.

Any mechanical changes to the 2020 Honda Pilot?

2020 Pilot Elite

No. All ’20 Pilots share a 3.5-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. LX and EX models and the EX-L trims continue with a six-speed automatic transmission. Touring, Elite, and Black Edition get a more efficient nine-speed automatic. Responding to customer complaints about the nine-speed’s rough shifts on 2016-2018 Pilots, Honda recalibrated the transmission for 2019 and our tests revealed a marked reduction in slurred, abrupt, or delayed gear changes.

Even with the six-speed, Pilot has enough muscle to drain the drama from freeway merges and open-road overtaking. While the six-speed uses a conventional shift lever, though, the nine-speed’s gears are selected with a row of center-console pushbuttons. Used in a range of Hondas and Acuras, the pushbuttons require acclimation and don’t really save much space. The nine-speed also comes with steering-column paddle shifters for a semblance of manual gear control.

Front-wheel-drive Pilots feature a driver-selectable snow mode, but all-wheel drive provides better control in a range of dry and slippery conditions. It provides snow, sand, and mud settings and optimizes traction by automatically shuffling power fore and aft as well as side-to-side at the rear axle. This is a family crossover with a class-average 7.3 inches of ground clearance, however. It’s not designed for serious off-roading. Towing limits are 3,500 pounds with front-drive, 5,000 with AWD.

Pilot’s structure is plenty robust, but newer rivals, such as the Volkswagen Atlas, Telluride, and Palisade have a Germanic solidity the lighter-feeling Honda doesn’t match. The ’20 Pilot nonetheless is a fine long-distance cruiser and quite adept around-town, too. The steering is over-assisted but accurate, and you need to respect this crossover’s bulk and tall center of gravity by moderating speed in sharp turns and on curvy roads. Do that and it’ll respond with composure suited to its mission.

On broken pavement, the 20-inch tires are a little noisier and marginally less absorbent than the 18s, but ride quality is good overall, and Pilot is no more suspectable to wallowing or floating motions than rivals its size.

Does 2020 Honda Pilot fuel economy improve?

2020 Pilot

With no mechanical alterations, 2020 Pilots repeat their 2019 EPA ratings. That’s no bad thing: they remain among the most fuel-efficient three-row crossovers on the road. LX, EX, and EX-L models rate 19/27/22 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 18/26/21 with AWD. The front-drive Touring rates 20/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined and the AWD Touring, Elite, and Black Edition rate 19/26/22. All ’20 Pilots use regular-grade 87-octane fuel.

Every model employs a mileage-enhancing system that automatically deactivates two or three cylinders in low-demand driving. Touring, Elite, and Black Edition also have gas-saving technology that automatically shuts off the engine when the Pilot is stopped and restarts it when the driver releases the brake pedal. The stop/start system works fairly unobtrusively and can be disabled with the push of a console button.

Does the 2020 Honda Pilot have new features?

2020 Pilot 8-inch screen with imbedded navigation

No. It carries over updates that came with the 2019 refresh. The most important advance: adding the Honda Sensing suite of safety features as standard equipment on every trim level. Honda Sensing consists of adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead; lane-maintaining automatic steering correction; and, vitally, forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking that can automatically stop the Pilot to avoid a frontal collision.

Honda Sensing was previously unavailable on the LX grade and was a $1,000 extra on the EX and EX-L models. Including it across the board is laudable, but blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection remain unavailable on the LX model; they’re standard on the other Pilot trims. To be fair, blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection are not typically standard on entry-level models in this segment.

In addition to features already discussed, every 2020 Pilot comes with keyless entry, pushbutton ignition, heated mirrors, and a multi-view backup camera. Standard starting with the EX grade are remote engine start and three-zone automatic climate control. Standard beginning with the EX-L are a memory driver’s seat, and rear side-window shades. 

2020 Pilot dual moonroofs

Included with all but the LX is Honda’s CabinControl smartphone app that allows Pilot passengers to control various audio, video, navigation, and rear climate functions. Touring, Elite, and Black Edition models have 4G LTE WiFi hotspot capability that can support seven devices and stream to their rear entertainment systems, which use a 10.2-inch Blu-ray fold-down ceiling screen.

Standard starting with the EX-L w/Navi and Rear Entertainment model is Honda’s CabinTalk in-car PA system. Activated via the dashboard touchscreen and using the microphone in the headliner, it projects the voice of the driver or front passenger through the vehicle’s speakers or wireless headphones. The Elite and Black Edition have all the above plus rain-sensing windshield wipers, a heated steering wheel, and wireless phone charging. They also have dual moonroofs; a single, smaller moonroof is standard on the EX, EX-L, and Touring trims.

Are 2020 Honda Pilot prices different?

2020 Pilot Black Edition

They increased modestly, leaving the 2020 Pilot price-competitive with top rivals. Note that Honda tends to be stingier than most with customer incentives. It also eschews stand-alone factory options or packages, instead equipping each trim level with a specific set of features and pricing it as an individual model.

All this means 2020 Pilot base prices typically are comparable to those of direct rivals optioned with similar equipment. It also leaves the final price open to your powers of persuasion. Given Pilot’s sales decline and the onslaught of newer competition, dealers ought to be very willing to negotiate.

Base prices here include Honda’s $1,120 destination fee. And we’ll list them with AWD, because most buyers choose it. AWD adds $1,900 to the price of all ’20 Pilots except the Elite and Black Edition, where it’s standard.

With AWD, the 2020 Pilot LX is priced at $34,770, the EX at $37,650, and the EX-L at $41,080. The AWD EX-L w/Navi and Rear Entertainment System stickers for $43,080.

The ’20 Pilot Touring with AWD is $45,840 with seating for eight and $46,140 with the second-row captain’s chairs. The 2020 Pilot Elite is priced at $49,340, the Black Edition at $50,840. 

When did the 2020 Honda Pilot come out?

2020 Pilot Elite

Release date for the 2020 Honda Pilot was July 19, 2019.

Best competitors for the 2020 Honda Pilot

Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, Volkswagen Atlas

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]