The current class of midsize SUVs is pretty impressive. It’s a booming segment filled with diverse offerings to satisfy all drivers. Wrangler is optimized for off-road trailblazing; models like the Blazer are similarly fun-oriented with distinctive appearances and character. Other models like the Model X and RX Hybrid appeal to environmentally conscious buyers. Even ultra-luxury brands like Bentley and Lamborghini are getting in on the game, for those with a limitless budget. “Normal” models from mainstream brands offer an excellent blend of performance, efficiency, comfort, cost, and a handful even offer expansive seating for up to 8 passengers. Today we’re going to take a closer look at the 2021 Honda Pilot, which falls into this subset of midsize SUVs, and see what’s so special about it.
Specifically, we’ll focus on the new-for-2021 Special Edition (SE) trim, because who doesn’t love special editions? In the Pilot’s case, the SE model is a mid-level trim, offering sporty looks and certain premium features handed down from top trim with an entry-level price range. It’s only a small price increase from the EX-L to SE at $38,960, and since a full redesign of the Pilot is anticipated for 2022, this will probably be the only model year for the SE trim. There’s something about that exclusivity that we like, so let’s take a look at what it offers.
Stress-Free Performance Across The Board
Every 2021 Pilot is built with a 3.5L V6 engine that makes 280 hp, 262 lb-ft of torque, and tows 5,000 lbs when equipped with AWD. It’s no street racer, but it’s quick enough to hang with the pack, and for a vehicle that doesn’t look all that tough, it’s towing capability is respectable at worst. A 9-speed automatic transmission and paddle shifters are now standard on all 2021 Pilots, as is “Idle Stop” which helps the AWD powertrain achieve a combined 22 mpg. FWD models get to 23 mpg and are about $2,000 cheaper, but sacrifice a lot in the towing department and can’t compete with AWD in poor weather or off-road handling. Both drivetrains are highly competitive with other midsize SUVs for power and efficiency, so the better choice really comes down to lifestyle.
The Pilot’s drivetrain may be average, but it really distinguishes itself by its handling. The AWD drivetrain comes with intelligent torque vectoring to minimize tire slippage; this and a soft, capable suspension give the 2021 Honda Pilot a “smooth and compliant ride in most conditions,” according to Edmunds.com. Multiple reviews note that the steering is remarkably light and easy at all speeds, providing maneuverability that exceeds that of many similar-sized vehicles. A mark against it is that this results in the sense of detachment from the road itself – it doesn’t really appeal to driving enthusiasts, who are likely to prefer the Mazda CX-9 in this segment. It also lacks the ground clearance for serious off-roading, but with intelligent traction management settings for snow, mud, and sand, it can hold its own on most surfaces.
The features discussed so far are identical for all 2021 Pilots. Additionally, Honda doesn’t compromise when it comes to safety features – Honda Sensing is a standard safety package on all trims. Out of 24 safety features noted on Honda’s website, only blind-spot monitoring is not standard on the base LX trim. Every model boasts the same spacious interior, loaded with hidden compartments for storing small items. Although competitors like Traverse offer more raw volume, the 2021 Pilot’s ample cargo area is laid out to take advantage of every last cubic foot. All models can have accessories that make cargo hauling easier, such as seat-back protectors, seat covers, cargo mats, and cargo dividers.
With performance, safety, and utility largely standardized across the line, the differences between the Pilot’s seven trim levels are constrained more to appearance and luxury features. With that, let’s dig into what’s so special about the 2021 Honda Pilot Special Edition.
The SE is based on the EX-L, so most of their features are the same. This includes an 8” touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. HondaLink and Cabin Control provide additional controls to passengers and owners alike. With the Cabin Control app, passengers can change music, adjust the climate control, and more, while HondaLink subscription services allow drivers to operate the locks and check fuel/range remotely through their smartphone. You get 3 USB ports, 3 12V outlets, and 7 speakers, including a subwoofer to stay plugged in and amped up.
There are some options that the SE doesn’t get, like the Blu-ray rear entertainment system that’s standard on Touring. Also absent are navigation, a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot, a 115V outlet and the CabinTalk in-cabin PA system for easy communication to the back row. However, the SE does get a wireless charger, which is rare for a mid-level trim – that’s not even an option on Touring.
SE comes with tri-zone climate control, operated with intuitive soft-touch buttons and dials, along with 2nd-row controls for the rear zone. It’s got heated leather-trimmed front seats with power adjustment (4-way passenger, 10-way driver with 2-position memory), and the One-Touch 2nd-row seats allow easy entry to the 3rd row. An auto-dimming rear-view mirror and a standard conversation mirror allow the driver to look back with ease; we like the conversation mirror in models that target families, allowing the driver to look at their passengers without having to turn around. Another useful mirror feature is heated, powered side mirrors, with position memory and reverse gear tilt-down for better visibility of the wheel areas when backing up at any time of year.
The SE has excellent outward visibility and a bright interior thanks to large windows and narrow pillars. For those super-sun-shiny days, integrated sunshades in the 2nd-row help passengers block out some of that light; for other days, a power moonroof lets a little more in. Despite all that window area, the interior is also kept quiet thanks to an acoustic windshield and active noise canceling technology.
On the outside, the EX-L and SE models are decked out with long-lasting LED headlights, taillights, and fog lights, and both feature Walk Away Auto-Lock. This peace-of-mind feature answers the question, “Did I lock my car?” – the answer is yes because this feature did it for you when you walked away with the keys.
The SE differentiates itself from the EX-L with several visual distinctions, the most emphatic of which is the 20” black alloy wheels. It’s an aggressive way to stand out, which is nice because the Pilot is not, strictly speaking, an aggressive-looking vehicle. The SE follows the lead of the Black Edition by dressing itself in that most versatile of colors to earn itself some actual cool-factor. The classic chrome-dominated Honda grille is replaced with a blacked-out version, and the skid plate garnishes and roof rails are blacked out as well. This completes the makeover without overcommitting to the increasingly-popular “does it come it black?” trend we’ve been observing in the industry. We think it looks especially striking when paired with the Steel Sapphire Metallic paint, but the other 4 more neutral colors may be more palatable to some.
Fancy mascara isn’t the only way the Pilot SE differentiates itself from the EX-L. We mentioned that it features wireless charging, which was previously limited to Elite and Black Edition trim. It also upgrades the EX-L’s power tailgate with a hands-free foot-based operation for the most convenient loading/unloading experience on the market. The blacked-out roof rails, which allow crossbar and equipment rack installations, are new as well, speaking to the outdoors adventurers on the market by laying the groundwork for bike, kayak, and roof basket mounting.
A Special Edition Indeed
The Honda Pilot has nearly 20 years of history, and a new chapter is expected to begin soon. Until then, the 2021 Honda Pilot offers a refreshed take on an aging generation. The bright spot in the lineup is the Special Edition trim, new for 2021, and likely to only be available for this one year. It offers the same efficient performance, light handling, spacious interior, and comprehensive safety suite as every other Pilot, plus a long list of standard comfort, convenience and connectivity features also seen in the EX-L trim. In addition to this, for only $600 more than an equivalent EX-L model, the SE includes wireless charging, a hands-free tailgate, and roof rails, providing added convenience to tech-savvy adventurers who don’t want to spring another $4,000 for Touring trim. It also boasts larger 20” black wheels and black exterior highlights to significantly increase the cool-factor of the exterior, all while staying under the $40,000 mark (with FWD). It’s the most well-rounded Pilot, and the Pilot is often regarded as the most well-rounded 3-row SUV, which to us means the 2021 Honda Pilot Special Edition is really quite special indeed.