ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- After nearly a decade of watching its rivals make hay in the hottest segment in the industry, Honda finally has a homegrown compact sport-utility.
Since 1994, Honda has had to make do with a limited-volume, badge-engineered Isuzu Rodeo that neither pleased nor pacified Honda loyalists accustomed to silky engines and refined interiors.
"The Passport was long in the tooth, and it was not what the Honda buyer wanted," Frank Paluch, project leader for the Pilot, said at the media introduction here.
"We had 9 percent of Honda owners leaving the franchise every year for competitors' SUVs. That's 90,000 customers a year. That's why you see all those Accords on Ford lots, from people trading in for Explorers."
Sales of the Passport peaked at 28,184 units in 1996. Honda has set higher sights for the Pilot, predicting 80,000 sales a year.
But in introducing the Pilot, Honda is walking into another badge-engineering minefield: The vehicle shares many components with another American Honda Motor Co. Inc. vehicle, the upscale Acura MDX. And both have many parts in common with the Honda Odyssey minivan.
Honda executives argue that the Pilot is more than a rebadged MDX, but the powertrain, chassis and hard-points of the two vehicles are nearly identical. They also are built on the same assembly line in Alliston, Ontario.