The plugged-in Pilot

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I’m a latecomer to the whole idea of the DVD. Until very recently, I waltzed right past the little packages in the rental store or library, stubbornly holding on to VHS cassettes that I knew were seriously outdated 10 years ago. When you think of it, analog videotape is an anachronism in our digital age. The word "rewind" is hardly in the modern lexicon.

But now I have a DVD player and I’m beginning to understand what all the fuss was about, although I’m still a long way away from casually recording my own movies. The mini-documentaries and "special features" encoded into the longer-form DVD would seem to be a cynical marketing ploy to persuade people (who often already own the cassette version of the movie) to buy one more consumer item. Reselling the same catalog is the dream of corporate entertainment.

Now the DVD has gone mobile. My 2003 Honda Pilot has a drop-down DVD screen in the back seat, complete with separate audio controls (with video game jacks!) and wireless headphones so the kids can watch Jimmy Neutron without driving their parents crazy.

If that isn’t high-tech enough for you, the Pilot also offers a DVD-driven navigation system, which can be ordered with the option of a rear-facing camera that picks up the action behind the vehicle when the automatic transmission is slotted into reverse. It certainly works well, but if you start piling on the extras to the already-well-equipped EX (which comes with automatic climate control, power seats and remote entry), you’ll end up with a $32,000 SUV. I’m perfectly happy with reliable rearview mirrors, myself.

I think rear-seat DVD players, especially when used with headphones, are an excellent way of keeping the kids quiet on long trips. I get incensed when I encounter, usually on auto-show concept cars, DVDs for front-seat passengers — are you supposed to pay attention to the road while also watching a movie, checking your e-mail on your laptop and talking on the cell phone? It’s bad enough that car stereos have gotten hopelessly complicated and visually demanding (including the one on the Pilot).

Beyond the entertainment center, what’s the story with Honda’s new Pilot? Unlike the poorly regarded Isuzu-derived Passport, which it replaces, the Pilot is all-new and all-Honda for 2003, though there’s some debt to both the Acura MDX and the Odyssey minivan. And since Honda is one of the smartest car companies in the world, it’s a credible entry. The five-speed automatic is coupled to just one engine, an MDX-derived 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower V-6 that is more powerful than comparable V-6-equipped Highlanders, Rendezvous and Explorers.

With leather seats and other luxury features, the Pilot feels quite up-market, for families who buy from the J. Crew catalog, perhaps. It has excellent safety features, including a protective shell for passengers, side airbags, traction control and antilock brakes. There is very good storage, including a deep bin between the front seats (featuring a cell phone cradle!) and removable cupholders. The third seat is appreciated, but because legroom and access are lacking, it’s best reserved for the children.

And there will be kids. Why would anyone buy one of these unless they had a few rugrats? The Pilot is very competent, but it’s also an SUV, with inherent drawbacks when weighed against comparable and smoother-riding station wagons or minivans. One of these is 17/22 city/highway fuel economy, and another is 4,400 pounds of bulk. Although it includes many clever design features, it’s also a big, lumbering off-road four-wheel-drive vehicle that’s not ideally suited for modern suburban living.