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2021 Honda Pilot: is the last of a generation still worth a look?

by Chuck Giametta

2020 Honda Pilot Black Edition

What changes will make the 2021 Honda Pilot different? 

Perhaps a farewell trim package for the final model year of the 2016-2021 Pilot generation. An all-new version of Honda’s largest crossover SUV is due for model-year 2022, so the ’21 Pilot should be a virtual rerun of the 2020 model.

While a special edition with exclusive appearance details and perhaps upgraded upholstery would be the main change, a more important move would be to extend blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection to the least expensive Pilot trim level. Those useful safety features were standard for model-year ’20 on all other grades of this eight-passenger midsize crossover.

Nothing Honda can do to the ’21 Pilot will negate the fact that it’ll be among the oldest vehicles in its competitive set. Newer rivals like the 2020 Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade and the redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer all offer amenities and engineering features the Honda lacks. There’s even fresh competition within its own showroom, from the Honda Passport, a shortened Pilot with seating for five. All this was reflected in a 15-percent decline in Pilot sales in 2019, after years of steady growth.

2020 Pilot Black Edition

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

Little reason to wait, given the remote chance of substantive upgrades. The materially unaltered 2021 Pilot will almost certainly cost more than the 2020 model – although discounts on the ’21 are likely to become increasingly attractive as dealers clear inventories ahead of the all-new ’22 replacement.

Buying a ‘20 will allow you more time with your Pilot before its styling and features are superseded by the redesign. But purchasing either a ’20 or ’21 Pilot will still get you a crossover that shows its age in some respects but remains a segment leader for passenger and cargo packaging and one still quite rewarding to drive.

A commemorative edition would slot into a ’21 Pilot lineup returning the base LX trim as well as better-equipped EX and EX-L (leather upholstery) models, and the awkwardly named EX-L w/Navigation and Rear Entertainment System grade. Also back will be the higher-end Touring, Elite, and Black Edition trims. All-wheel drive (AWD) would be standard on the Elite and Black Edition (and possibly any special edition) and would be an extra-cost feature on other Pilots in place of standard front-wheel drive.

Will 2021 Honda Pilot styling be different?

2020 Pilot Black Edition

Only if there’s a farewell trim level. Otherwise, the ’21 will reflect the barely noticeable appearance updates Pilot got for model-year 2019. Aside from the Black Edition’s eponymous color scheme, wheel size and design will remain the main trim-level differentiator, with Touring, Elite, and Black Edition sporting 20-inch alloys, the other models 18-inch alloys.

2020 Pilot second-row bench seat

The ’21 Pilot will remain among 14 midsize crossovers with three rows of seats, and one of six with eight-passenger capacity (along with the Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, and Subaru Ascent). Pilot is impressively space-efficient, with comfy accommodations in the first two rows and one of the rare, adult-worthy third rows.

2020 Pilot third-row seat

A three-passenger second-row bench will remain standard on LX, EX, EX-L, and Touring models. On all but the LX, it has illuminated pushbutton releases that make it easy for even small kids to slide its 70/30 sections forward for third-row access. The eight-seaters have four sets of child-seat anchors. Reducing capacity to seven, two second-row buckets should remain standard on Elite and Black Edition and optional on Touring.

2020 Pilot second-row captain’s chairs

Expect all but the LX and EX to again come with leather upholstery and for all but the LX to include heated front seats and a power driver’s seat with power lumbar. Elite and Black Edition will retain ventilated front seats; heated second-row captain’s chairs should again be standard on these models and optional for the Touring.

2020 Pilot Black Edition

Every ’21 Pilot will return well-organized controls, with a 5-inch dashboard infotainment screen on the LX and an 8-incher on the others. CarPlay and Android Auto will be standard, with imbedded navigation included on all but the LX, EX, and EX-L. Against newer rivals, Pilot’s infotainment screen seems a little small, its graphics fuzzier, and its software slower. Cabin materials are solid but don’t reach the near-premium-class level achieved by top trims of the Palisade, Telluride, and Mazda CX-9.

2020 Pilot

The ’21 Pilot won’t be overshadowed for all-around versatility, though. Small-items storage is plentiful and cargo volume will remain near best-in-segment. A power liftgate should again be standard starting with the EX-L; Touring, Elite, and Black Edition getting hands-free opening.

Any 2021 Honda Pilot mechanical changes?

2020 Pilot Elite

Not until the 2022 redesign, which some sources say could add a plug-in-hybrid powertrain option. All ’21 Pilots will again have a 3.5-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. LX, EX, and EX-L will continue with a six-speed automatic transmission with a conventional console-mounted shift lever. Touring, Elite, and Black Edition will reprise a more efficient nine-speed automatic shifted via a somewhat ill-conceived row of console buttons and supplemented with steering-wheel paddles.

2020 Pilot nine-speed automatic-transmission shift control

With either transmission, the ’21 Pilot will again be a satisfying performer, with power to alertly pull away from a stop and to merge and pass without drama. Front-wheel-drive Pilots come with a snow mode, but all-wheel drive is the better all-weather bet. It has snow, sand, and mud settings, but as a family crossover with a class-average 7.3 inches of ground clearance, Pilot isn’t a serious off-roader. Towing ceilings are 3,500 pounds with front-drive, 5,000 AWD.

Pilot’s plenty solid but doesn’t seem as stout as rivals such as the Atlas and, in particular, the Telluride and Palisade. It’s at home on any highway, though, and despite steering that would benefit from meatier feel, it’s keen to change direction and willing to grip in turns. Overeager cornering speeds induce nose plow and body lean typical of crossovers this size. On damaged pavement, the 20-inch tires are a noisier and marginally less absorbent than the 18s, but ride quality is good overall.

Will 2021 Honda Pilot fuel economy improve?

2020 Pilot Elite

Don’t expect a change from model-year-2020 EPA ratings, which means you’d need hybrid versions of the Explorer and Highlander to beat the ’21 Pilot for overall three-row-crossover fuel efficiency. Expect the LX, EX, and EX-L models to again rate 19/27/22 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 18/26/21 with AWD. The front-drive Touring should again rate 20/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined and the AWD Touring, Elite, and Black Edition 19/26/22.

Every ’21 Pilot will again have a gas-saving system that automatically deactivates two or three cylinders in low-demand driving. Touring, Elite, and Black Edition also automatically shut off the engine when stopped and restart it when the brake pedal is released. The stop/start system works smoothly and can be disabled with a console button.

Will the 2021 Honda Pilot have new features?

2020 Pilot Black Edition

Very unlikely, considering the coming redesign. Every ’21 Pilot will again come with

Honda Sensing, a suite of safety features consisting 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.

2020 Pilot imbedded navigation system

Blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection have been standard on all grades except the LX, where it’s been unavailable. Entry-level models in this class don’t typically come with these helpful driver assists, but Honda would do well to mark the end of this Pilot generation by including it on the least expensive 2021 trim level.

In addition to features already mentioned, every 2021 Pilot will return with keyless entry, pushbutton ignition, and heated mirrors. Standard beginning at the EX grade will be remote engine start and three-zone automatic climate control. EX-L and above will again have a memory driver’s seat and rear side-window shades. Touring, Elite, and Black Edition models should again have a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot that can stream to their standard rear-entertainment systems, which use a 10.2-inch Blu-ray fold-down ceiling screen.

2020 Pilot rear-entertainment system

Expect the ’21 Elite and Black Edition to again include rain-sensing windshield wipers, a panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel, and wireless phone charging. Standard starting with the EX-L w/Navi and Rear Entertainment model will be Honda’s CabinTalk that projects the driver or front passenger’s voice through the Pilot’s speakers or wireless headphones

How will 2021 Honda Pilot prices be different?

2020 Pilot Black Edition

They’ll increase but expect the 2021 Pilot to remain price-competitive with top rivals. Honda tends to be stingier than most with customer incentives but expect it and its dealers to become more generous as the curtain falls on this third-gen Pilot. Note also that because there are no stand-alone options, Pilot base prices typically are comparable to those of direct rivals optioned with similar equipment.

For reference, here are 2021 Pilot prices, including Honda’s $1,120 destination fee. And because most buyers choose it, we list them with AWD, which should again add $1,900 to the models on which it isn’t standard.

With AWD, the 2020 Pilot LX was 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 was priced at $43,080. The ’20 Pilot Touring with AWD was $45,840 with seating for eight and $46,140 with the second-row captain’s chairs. With AWD standard, the 2020 Pilot Elite was priced at $49,340, the Black Edition at $50,840. 

When will the 2021 Honda Pilot come out?

2020 Pilot Black Edition

Release date for the 2021 Honda Pilot should be in the second quarter of 2020.

What are the best competitors to the 2021 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]