Driver's Seat: Like the Pilot we love, but better now

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The Honda Pilot Elite answers critics of its previous styling with a sleek new profile.

2016 Honda Pilot Elite AWD: All new for 2016.

Price: $47,300 as tested. No options. A base rear-wheel drive can be had for $29,995.

Marketer's pitch: "Redesigned for the modern family." I kept looking for Sofia Vergara.

Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com liked the "flexible and roomy rear seats; comfortable ride; fuel-efficient for the class; sophisticated all-wheel-drive system; high-tech safety features available on most trims" but not the "narrow third-row access; touchscreen can be slow to respond."

Reality: High-flying commander.

Softening the edges: Forget the old, square, Hummer-like Honda Pilot, which had shown up on some ugliest-cars list of late. I did like that SUV for its comfort and driveability, but after taking a harder look, I realized the haters were probably right. Ewww.

The new one is as pretty as an Infiniti, with a low, sleek profile I found attractive.

Friends and stuff: The Pilot's three rows offered space for seven passengers in the configuration tested. Eight is possible with a bench middle-row seat, but not in Elite trim tested. If you're Elite, you're Elite, and someone just won't make the cut.

The third row is mainly for kids, but the Pilot continues to offer more room than most competitors. The way, way back seats are short-bottomed and low, but knees are not as cramped as in some third rows. But the lack of width seals its deal as the kids' room. Entry-exit to the third row can also be indiscreet, but not embarrassing.

The middle-row captains' chairs are as comfy and spacious as the front.

With the second- and third-row seats folded, a total of 83.9 cubic feet is available for storage. Not too shabby for the category, but only slightly more than half an Odyssey or Sienna.

Up to speed: The Pilot's 3.5-liter, V-6 engine creates 280 horsepower. It motivates the vehicle sufficiently but without a lot of oomph, as is common for family-size SUVs. Running the Pilot in economy mode really saps the power and makes the accelerator pressure required to pull from a standing start tremendous.

Economy mode also left the Pilot feeling a little lurchy now and again, mainly when changing speeds on highways.

Shifty: The nine-speed automatic transmission worked with great smoothness and calm. Honda has evolved past gearshifts and now offers a row of buttons for PRND. Shifting is available via paddles on the steering wheel.

I'm getting more comfortable with the leverless shifting, but it answers a question that I don't believe has been asked. Especially when stuck in traffic at 1 a.m., I almost managed to absentmindedly slip it into reverse rather than park. Oops.

In the snow: Because snow is sooooo 2014, I never got to try the Pilot in slippery conditions. But Honda is touting its new "class-defining all-new intelligent variable torque management (i-VTM4™) AWD system with Intelligent Traction Management and torque vectoring capability," according to Honda.

On the road: The Pilot's handling seems the same as it ever was. It lumbers a bit on the hard curves and feels remarkably like the Sturgis Family Sienna.

Sport mode makes the handling a little more taut, but ride quality is sacrificed.

Let the sunshine in: Honda has infused its latest models with a spiffy new infotainment upgrade. The touchscreen is a high-gloss surface that at first looks super shiny.

Unfortunately, it's angled such that daylight causes a glare in many instances. And one time, I opened the sunroof to allow the afternoon sun to brighten my drive and I ended up nearly blinding myself.

Play some tunes: Stereo operation can be a little tricky. The power and volume controls are built into that ebony surface as touchpad buttons, and they are tiny and difficult to operate. On the bright side, the Honda standard source button makes getting from iPod to AM much easier - a scroll menu pops up on the touchscreen and the gauge pod, and left and right arrows get listeners quickly across the many choices.

But the main question - how does it sound? - is answered in the extremely positive. I heard pieces of old, familiar songs I'd never noticed before.

Night shift: The interior lighting is beautifully Acura-worthy, and the headlamps shine plenty brightly for the road.

Fuel economy: I averaged 23 m.p.g. in a mix of highway and suburban driving, which is quite impressive for this category of vehicle.

Where it's built: Lincoln, Ala.

How it's built: Though the new-for-2016 has no Consumer Reports prediction, previous Pilot model years ranked about average for reliability.

In the end: I found plenty to like in previous generations of the Pilot, and the new one has improved upon that. With great fuel economy, fairly good roominess, and great looks inside and out, what's not to love?

ssturgis@phillynews.com

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