Comparison: Honda Pilot vs. Toyota Highlander
For most families shopping in this segment, the Pilot's superior urban maneuverability and larger cargo space will better suit their needs.
If you’re in the market for a full-size SUV with three rows of seats, there’s good reason to consider both the Honda Pilot and the Toyota Highlander. How do the two compare?
Honda’s top-of-the-line trim for the Pilot is the Touring model. At lower trims the Pilot clearly pulls ahead of the Highlander in terms of value for its long list of standard features; at this higher level, it’s a full-on battle royale. The Pilot is all-new for the 2016 model year.
RELATED: 2016 Honda Pilot Touring AWD Review
While lesser trims get a six-speed automatic, the Pilot’s Touring trim has an exclusive nine-speed auto box to pair with the 3.5-litre V6 that comes with steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters. That, plus engine auto stop-start technology, combine to make a noticeable dent in the Pilot’s fuel efficiency numbers in city driving. Of these two SUVs, this one feels more car-like to drive: it’s lighter in handling and has a slightly tighter turning radius, but it lags behind in off-road credentials.
The Pilot has a well-designed cabin storage area — just not quite as well-designed as the Highlander’s. But it does have a no-slip tray for a smartphone, plus the multi-tiered door storage is nice and the push-button gear selector keeps the centre console space feeling airy. The Honda is the clear winner for cargo capacity, delivering up to 717 litres more space than in the Toyota when all of the rear seats are folded.
The differences between the two vehicles are subtle on this point. Both have a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row bucket seats, and three-zone climate control. I found the Pilot’s front seats less comfortable than the Highlander’s, but I also found that the Pilot’s third row was significantly more usable, especially for adults.
Neither of these cars is a standout here. Honda’s current generation of infotainment system consistently scores low on usability since every control is integrated into the touchscreen, including volume and tuning. The automaker is redeeming itself somewhat by integrating Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into some products, but those apps haven’t made it to the Pilot as of yet. Those with kids may wish to note, however, that the Pilot’s top two trims have an integrated rear-facing DVD player, while the Highlander does not.
Honda’s automatic emergency response system uses a connected phone to instantly dial 911 if the car detects a crash. This offering comes standard on every Pilot model and doesn’t require a subscription service. The Pilot also has adaptive cruise control and forward collision mitigation at almost every trim level, which contribute to its IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating.
The Toyota Highlander’s range-topping trim is the Limited version. It was most recently overhauled for the 2015 model year. Unlike the Pilot, the Highlander is available as a hybrid, but we’re looking at the gas model.
The Highlander’s 3.5-litre V6 and six-speed transmission combination is arguably old-fashioned, but they give this top-tier model a heftier and more truck-like drive feel than the Pilot’s equivalent despite having lower power numbers on paper. The combination isn’t the most fuel-efficient — but if that’s what you’re looking for, there’s the Highlander Hybrid. Unlike the Pilot, the Highlander comes with more serious off-road chops via a hill descent control system and more ground clearance.
Here’s where the Highlander wins over the hockey mom crowd: the centre console has a storage bin large enough to hold a full-size handbag, a surprisingly rare feature in any vehicle class. There’s a nice place to put a smartphone, too, on a dash-integrated shelf with a feed to keep cords from dangling. In the rear cargo area, the Highlander finishes a distant second to the Pilot in outright capacity.
The differences between the two vehicles are subtle on this point. Both have a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row bucket seats, and three-zone climate control. I enjoyed the feel of the front seats in the Highlander more than in the Pilot, but the Toyota’s third-row seats are more like lightly-upholstered plywood. They’re fine for kids in booster seats, but don’t expect actual human bottoms to want to stay in them for very long.
Of these two vehicles, Toyota’s system recognized my voice commands and found the destinations I was looking for more easily. More functions are on knobs here, though some are a long reach away from the driver and basic tasks like scanning through radio stations aren’t as simple to perform as they could be. Toyota’s EasySpeak function projects the driver’s voice into the back of the cabin at the push of a button.
The Highlander, like the Pilot, is rated a Top Safety Pick+ by the IIHS, but it scores a few notches lower in front crash prevention. It’s also missing an automatic emergency contact system, one of the Pilot’s key safety selling points. The Highlander Limited does keep pace with the Pilot Touring in other systems, though, such as blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
Although I personally prefer the Toyota Highlander for its heftier drive feel and more diverse capability, in this faceoff I’ll hand the crown to the Honda Pilot. For most families shopping in this segment, the Pilot’s superior urban manoeuvrability and larger cargo space will better suit their needs.
2016 Honda Pilot
ENGINE: 3.5-litre V6
FUEL CONSUMPTION (L/100 km): AWD 9AT Touring: 12.4 city, 9.3 hwy.
WHAT’S HOT: Roomy three-row SUV with car-like drive feel
WHAT’S NOT: Infotainment system is awkward to use and doesn’t yet have Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functionality
2016 Toyota Highlander
ENGINE: 3.5-litre V6
FUEL CONSUMPTION (L/100 km): AWD: 13.0 city, 9.8 hwy.
WHAT’S HOT: Sturdy and truck-like drive feel, well-considered interior storage space
WHAT’S NOT: Third row is fine for kids in booster seats but not much else
IN REAL LIFE
On a recent Saturday afternoon, these two vehicles underwent one of the best real-world tests they could possibly endure: we packed them to the brim with squealing, sugar-spiked girls and drove them across town to a birthday party.
Our team of back seat reviewers ranged from 5 to 8 years of age. Between ear-splitting renditions of “Roar” by Katy Perry — I have a renewed sympathy for what school bus drivers go through — I asked for their impressions of these two cars that we affectionately referred to as “mommy buses.”
The inbound trip took place in the Toyota Highlander. These downtown-dwelling kids all come from families who own small hatchbacks and wagons, so the first stage of insight required getting them over the truck’s sheer size.
“It’s so fat!” cried Katherine, 8.
“Isn’t it cool to be up so high?” asked 6-year-old birthday girl Ivy as she shuffled around the enormous skirt on her princess dress to get her seatbelt done up.
Four of the five girls were able to buckle themselves in on their own, even around their booster seats. Only poor 7-year-old Aaden, who got stuck with the centre seat in the back row, needed help with looping the more complex roof-mounted middle seatbelt into place.
“Look, two sunroofs!” screamed my daughter M, 5, to a chorus of amazement. “And roof racks!” She’s the youngest of this group, but by virtue of my career she has years of back seat reviewing experience.
We played around with Toyota’s EasySpeak feature — “She’s on the radio!” — but the novelty wore off quickly, and my own voice projects enough that I stopped bothering to search around for the button before long.
Two hours later, the same five girls piled into the Honda Pilot, hopped up on chocolate cake and sprinkles. This time, they were ready to be more objective.
“This is much bigger,” Ivy declared.
“No, it’s not,” M countered. “It doesn’t have roof racks.” It does, but they’re not as prominent.
“Roof racks don’t count,” was Ivy’s retort. Point to the birthday girl.
“It’s too squishy back here,” cried Aaden, who had again been stuck with the middle rear seat and was less pleased about her plight in the Pilot.
My bookworm daughter pointed out that the Pilot “has a bigger book place,” referring to the console between the two bucket seats in the middle row.
The three girls in the third row also noticed that the panoramic sunroof starts further back and is smaller in the Pilot, which didn’t give them as much of a view.
A few minutes into the ride, all five girls realized at once what that pushed-back sunroof made room for.
“It’s … a TV!”
“M, have you ever used that before?”
M replied “No” while pulling down the screen. She started pressing buttons.
The video feed soon began playing Frozen.
Yes, that’s my kid who managed to get the DVD I’d quietly pre-loaded to start playing for her friends, on her own and with no prompting or experience.
Instantly, the cacophony gave way to silence — apart from the dulcet tones of Anna asking if I want to build a snowman, of course.
I didn’t bother to ask them which vehicle they preferred in the end.