By Tim Spell, Motor Matters

Shopping in the competitive midsize-SUV segment offers strong choices, so Honda ups its game to stand out among the pack. Boasting appearance enhancements from a mid-cycle design freshening last year, Honda's eight-passenger 2013 Pilot is now packed with more standard features.

The 2013 Honda Pilot starts at $29,520 and is available in LX, EX, EX-L and Touring trim levels, and with 2WD or 4WD drive configurations. Our top-line Touring 4WD test-drive vehicle looks and feels substantial, and has a luxury character expected from a large, premium SUV. It has a base price of $39,670.

Stretched on a 109.2-inch wheelbase, the Pilot (all but base LX) rolls on 18-inch machine-finished, aluminum-alloy, six-spoke wheels. These are wrapped with low-rolling-resistant P235/60R-18 tires that contribute to fuel efficiency.

Power to the wheels is via an improved all-aluminum 3.5-liter V-6, featuring "intelligent" Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control technology with Variable Cylinder Management. VCM allows the engine to operate in six-cylinder mode when power is needed, and in four- or three-cylinder modes for optimal fuel efficiency. Mated with a five-speed automatic transmission, the engine produces 250 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 253 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm.

Importantly, the powerplant delivers excellent fuel economy. Featuring Variable Torque Management, our 4WD tester has an EPA-estimated fuel economy of 17 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. The 2WD Pilot boasts 18/25/21 mpg.

Honda engineers also upped the ante with a variable-displacement power steering pump, and low-drag front ventilated and solid rear disc brakes. Ride quality with the Pilot's rigid body and fully independent suspension system is excellent, allowing the vehicle to efficiently soaking up pavement irregularities.

Those on board benefit from a spacious cabin with three-row seating. Up front is a 10-way-power driver seat with memory and four-way-power passenger seat. The seats are firm, well bolstered and provide occupants a tall seating position with a commanding view of road. Leather upholstery is standard with the Touring model, and the steering wheel and shifter knob also are leather-wrapped. A power moonroof and integrated second-row sunshades are other Touring pluses.

Legroom and headroom in 60/40-split, three-passenger second-row seat also are superb. Seatbacks recline and fold flat, and seats slide forward for access to the 60/40-split third-row seat. There's a sacrifice in headroom and legroom in the third-row, but room is adequate for most adults. The third row will accommodate three passengers, but is most comfortable when limited to two adults.

With all seats folded, long cargo can be loaded on a 4-foot-wide floor. Total cargo volume is an impressive 87 cubic feet, and assisting in loading convenience on EX-L and above models is a power liftgate with lift-up glass hatch.

The instrument panel features a gloss-black audio-control panel; gauges that glow icy white; a mildly U-shaped, simply designed center stack; large center-storage compartment; and user-friendly climate-control layout.

Touring models come standard with high-end technology: Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System with Voice Recognition; 650-watt Premium Audio System with 10 speakers, Bluetooth HandsFreeLink with Bluetooth Streaming Audio; Honda DVD Rear Entertainment System with 9-inch display and wireless headphones; Multi-Angle Rearview Camera with Guidelines; and side-mirror-integrated turn indicators.

Honda made styling enhancements inside and out last year. Most of the design freshening was focused on the front end. Moving away from the beefy and utilitarian grille, the 2013 Pilot wears a more-elegant and -refined three-bar chrome grille. In sync with the grille redesign, the multi-reflector halogen headlamps were given a crisper, more-modern look. With the reconfigured lamps, turn signals were moved to an inboard position.

The lower fascia/air dam was re-sculpted, and transformed from a chiseled to more-aerodynamic shape with reduced surface area. Blacked-out, rectangular, straked air deflectors combine with foglamps in front of the wheels to help reduce air turbulence and contribute to fuel economy. Honda's 2013 Pilot is comfortable, spacious and fuel efficient -- keys to luring consumers shopping the midsize-SUV segment.

SPECIFICATIONS

2013 HONDA PILOT TOURING

VEHICLE TYPE_________________ 8-passenger midsize 4WD SUV

BASE PRICE____________________$39,670 (as tested: $41,270)

MOTOR TYPE__________________ 24-valve SOHC V-6 w/MPFI

DISPLACEMENT________________3.5-liter

HORSEPOWER (net)_____________250 at 5700 rpm

TORQUE (lb.-ft.)________________253 at 4800 rpm

TRANSMISSION________________ 5-speed automatic

OVERALL LENGTH______________191.4 in.

TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb)__37.9 ft.

CURB WEIGHT__________________4,608 lbs.

FUEL CAPACITY_________________21.0 gal.

EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway