If you recoil at the prospect of driving a minivan, the roomiest seven- and eight-passenger crossovers are pretty good substitutes. And if your escape from sliding doors brought you to either the Honda Pilot or the Toyota Highlander, you’re on the right path.
But which fits your family better? Read on carefully, as it comes down to a few subtle yet important points. Both of these models are among the best three-row crossover SUVs—affordable yet comfortable, safe, and well-equipped—but the Pilot is new for 2016, and it’s a considerably improved vehicle, and to our eyes, the far more appealing one to the eye, with softer styling that suits its roadgoing mission.
MORE: Read our reviews of the 2016 Honda Pilot and the 2016 Toyota Highlander
The Highlander scores well for its variety of powertrains. A base 4-cylinder earns very good fuel economy (up to 22 mpg combined); it’s topped by a fairly expensive Hybrid model that’s rated at up to 28 mpg combined by the EPA. The strong V-6 version is best for towing or carrying a full load of passengers often.
The Pilot comes with a stronger 280-hp V-6 in base versions; the engine is coupled to either a 6- or a 9-speed automatic, with a smart all-wheel-drive system that can shift power front to back, and between the rear wheels. With either, you probably only need AWD if you live in a place where rough weather lasts for more than a month a year. Honda’s best fuel-economy number is 23 mpg combined for a pricey front-drive Touring model.
Over a couple of generations, both the Pilot and the Highlander have proven themselves worthy for family-utility duty—they’re modern station wagons with cavernous interiors. Yet if there’s one distinct thing that separates the Pilot from the Highlander, it’s the Honda’s driving feel. The revamped 2016 model has a fairly firm, well-damped ride and light but responsive steering.
You’ll enjoy driving the Pilot, and though the Highlander has improved remarkably in this regard, it still suffers from more numb steering and a harsher ride in heavier versions. The Honda, across the lineup, has better ride control; it’s supple and absorbent.
In safety, the Pilot has earned a Top Safety Pick+ from the IIHS. The Highlander, with its combination of “Good” safety ratings in all categories, is a Top Safety Pick+ selection as well. Visibility has vastly improved in the Pilot, with its slimmer roof pillars and its standard wide-angle rearview camera.
Both of these models are tall and spacious, as well as easy to load and get into and out of (despite the lack of sliding doors). The Pilot’s caught up to the Highlander in terms of second-row seating, with a new option for captain’s chairs, a one-touch sliding mechanism and a lower step-in height. The Pilot’s third-row seat isn’t so easy for adults to access, but once in, they fit—something that’s less true with the Toyota.
Both interiors brim with useful cubbies and bins, and convenience and luxury features abound. Both can be fitted with a power tailgate, DVD entertainment systems, Bluetooth, navigation, and other luxury features. If you’re on a budget, Toyota’s edge has disappeared, now that both carry similar base prices and equipment, including a USB port, Bluetooth audio streaming, and Bluetooth hands-free calling connectivity.
When we tally up our numeric ratings, it’s the Pilot that now comes out on top. It’s an energetic performer, and a good-looking one, with slightly better interior space and comfort. If you’re looking for the ultimate in fuel economy, the Highlander gets the nod as a Hybrid, and for now at least, its safety scores are superior.