Tuesday, July 19, 2005

New Engine Powers Honda Pilot SUV

It has always fascinated me that some cars have such distinctive personalities that I am convinced I could recognize them even blindfolded. This especially true of Honda products and that applies as much to the Pilot as anything else from the Japanese manufacturer.

The Pilot combines trademark conservative exterior styling wrapped around a unique size that is larger than a mid-size SUV like the Toyota Highlander but not quite as ponderous as a Chevrolet Tahoe.

Under the Pilot’s hood is an immensely flexible, powerful but comparatively economical V-6 mated with a five-speed automatic transmission to produce excellent acceleration and over-the-road cruising, plus relatively nimble handling and solid cargo capacity.

Best of all, the Pilot displays all of the trademark Honda traits that give the marque such an enduring reputation for superb quality, reliability and engineering. Body panels fit snugly, interior trim pieces match, switches and buttons function crisply and the doors close with a reassuring thunk.

The new engine for 2005 is a 3.5-liter unit that produces 255 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and, more importantly for folks who use their SUVs to tow things like boats and trailers, there is 250 lb-ft of torque available at 4,500 rpm.

Coupled with the five-speed automatic and a curb weight of just under 4,500 pounds, the 3.5-liter V-6, which is shared with the Odyssey minivan, moves the Pilot from 0-60 mph in 8.67 seconds. Mid-range acceleration in suburban and city driving is quite good.

Slide behind the Pilot’s steering wheel and you see an instrument panel that features large main gauges, a center console with mostly easy-to-use controls and a thick steering wheel with a variety of supplementary controls.

I still don’t care much for Honda’s single big knob to control a bunch of environmental functions, though, and I must admit to being a tiny bit surprised by the sliding cover for the center console looks a little chintzy. Rather un-Honda-like that.

But virtually everything else about the Pilot’s interior should look, feel and sound instantly familiar to anybody who has spent much time in any Honda of the past decade or two. Oh yes, you can also fold the rear two rows of seating flat and the Pilot can swallow oodles of stuff.

The Pilot shares its basic platform and drivetrain with the Odyssey and Acura’s wonderful MDX luxury SUV. The three vehicles display their own unique functional traits, but look closely and you can see the kinship. That’s why all three have attracted legions of loyal customers, just like so many other Honda products.

Redesigned Dodge Dakota Polishes Mid-Size Truck Leader Credentials

Dodge invented the mid-size pickup segment of the market back in the 1980s and until very recently was the lone manufacturer offering a truck slotted between the big boys like Dodge Ram 1500 and Ford F-150 and the smaller compacts like Toyota’s Tacoma.

But such monopolies rarely last long in the car business, so it was inevitable that things would heat up for Dodge once Chevrolet, GMC and Toyota took the wraps off their re-sized Colorado, Canyon and Tacoma mid-sizers. A larger Nissan Frontier is coming soon, and one wonders how much longer Ford will keep its Ranger in its present configuration.

So it is no surprise to find in the redesigned 2005 edition of the Dakota a comprehensive illustration of how to make a mid-size pickup a solid workhorse and a genuinely enjoyable vehicle to drive. It’s still the best, though the competition, especially the Tacoma, is catching up.

What makes the new Dakota so appealing? There is the exterior look, which combines themes from the Durango SUV and Ram 1500, creating a muscular but crisp and angular appearance. It looks even better in person than in photos.

Then there is the presence of a couple of 4.7 liter V-8s under the hood, one being a standard workday 230 horsepower version and the other a hotter 250 horsepower edition of the same power plant. Both can be had with either a five-speed automatic or a new six-speed stick shift.

The standard V-8’s 290 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm should make it an excellent tool for towing motorcycles, ATVs, watercraft and fishing boats. A 210 horsepower 3.7 liter V-6 is the base model’s engine, as it has been for more than a decade.

Inside the Dakota’s passenger cabin, occupants find excellent room for five adults in the four-door Quad Cab Laramie model like my silver/gray 4X4 tester. The instrument panel features familiar Dodge faces and markings, and the center console has a new look that includes large, round dials for the major functions.

Ride comfort is outstanding, with a quiet cabin, a trim feeling coming through the steering and other controls and more than sufficient power on tap to handle clogged city streets, suburban chores and long interstate cruises.

Considering the expansive interior space and the Dakota’s overall pleasant driving personality, I wouldn’t hesitate to point it towards the horizon for a long, long drive just to see what’s over there.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Jag Super 8 is super luxo-sedan

Long-time readers know yours truly is a sucker for three things: big, fast sedans that handle like sports cars, small, fast sedans that handle like sports cars and Jaguar’s exquisite styling. The SV8 gets two of the three.

Essentially a stretched (by five inches in the wheelbase and an inch in the greenhouse) version of the XJ sedan, the SV8 is plenty big enough for five very rich adults to exult in a typically lavish Jaguar passenger compartment, with more than sufficient room front and back to stretch out and serenely enjoy the scenery.

Unless of course you happen to be the driver, in which case you are very likely to be looking way down the road because it is coming at you so quickly you must remember the cardinal rule of safe, fast driving – keep your eyes up.

The SV8 is extremely fast for two reasons: there is a 390 horsepower (according to the Monroney. The Jag web site says its 400 horsepower) supercharged edition of Jaguar’s familiar 4.2 liter V-8 under the hood and Jaguar used lots of aluminum (pronounced Al-you-minee-mum-mate on the Jag factory floor) to drop the curb weight significantly. So much so in fact that the stretched XJ weighs barely 53 pounds more than the standard XJ.

The exterior look of the SV8 is pure Jag, which means the front end combines four round light bezels with those gorgeously sleek curves and a split grille, with wire mesh. The fender arches aren’t as pronounced here as they are on the more visually exciting S-Type, but you don’t hear me complaining, do you?

There are some unique design features, including sculpted power vents in the front wings and 20-inch wheels that fill the fender arches. The overall effect is a lower, leaner and distinctly more aggressive looking sedan, compared to the regular XJ.

The blown V-8 is hooked to a six-speed ZF tranny that moves up and down the gears with a wonderful smoothness that belies the fact that those 390/400 horses are being channeled through the rear wheels at a tremendous rate.

It doesn’t take much gas pedal pressure at all to move the SV8 from rest to 60 mph in just over five seconds. Ease the pedal further at 100 mph and you will see 130 mph on the speedometer as swiftly as the radar cop can throw his Crown Vic into gear and give chase.

In the curves, the SV8 handles like a big, fast, powerful sedan. You know you are behind the wheel of a large vehicle, but those huge tires, huge brakes and comfortably aggressive suspension tuning keep things under control. Ride quality on city and suburban streets is superb.

This is a wonderful vehicle. I just wish I could afford the $89,995 tab at the bottom of that Monroney. Ah well, maybe someday I’ll write that Great American Novel and use some of the proceeds to buy the Ford-owned British marque’s most appealing big sedan.