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Shopping for a First Generation Pilot

This is the final version of a checklist that was collaboratively developed to help prospective buyers evaluate first-gen Pilots (2003 - 2008). Many of the most experienced forum participants as of late 2020 contributed ideas, reviewed the content and debated the fine points. The original thread is here.

Pilots are popular and Honda generally has a good reputation, so used prices can be relatively high. Paying significantly more than the Kelly Blue Book price for a really good one might be fair, but as of late 2020, really good ones are rare: they're 13 - 18 years old, and even the few well maintained, low mileage creampuffs have parts that are wearing out or aging out.

This list focuses on Pilot-specific issues. It should supplement whatever normal pre-purchase evaluation you think appropriate, like the one from Popular Mechanics (attached below). This is intended to help to help prospective owners or their mechanics identify a reasonably well-maintained vehicle that can be driven economically for another 50k - 100k miles.

Points to check are organized and color coded to follow the Popular Mechanics system:

Green - just something to be aware of or an issue easily fixed.
Yellow - Cause for concern, you're the one that will spend time and money to fix these.
Red - Serious issue, one or two might work out if you get it cheap, more is buying someone else's problem.
Deal Breaker - For most people, a bad idea.

If the vehicle checks out, paying an experienced mechanic to do another inspection before you buy is still well worth the cost.

Self Check

First-gen pilots are not great vehicles for everyone. They're not "drive 'em and forget 'em" - unless you're buying it as a “disposable”, Pilots require regular attention to maintenance . This will be expensive if you pay someone else to do it for you.

If you can’t say “Yes” to most of the following, consider a newer model.
  • You plan to do most of the work on your Pilot yourself. If not, the cost of maintaining a first gen may more than you expect. A newer model with lower mileage may be more cost-effective in the long run.
  • If you lack experience in this type of work, you want to learn. Hondas are great cars to learn on and instructional resources are widely available. Time, room to work, and your own interest are bigger factors.
  • You know and trust a local independent mechanic (not a Honda dealer) to do any work you don’t.
  • Your budget (time and money) will tolerate catching up on deferred maintenance. Plan on spending at least another $500 - $1000 above the purchase price to get things sorted out.
  • You expect to invest over time in non-critical repairs and upgrades.
  • You expect “stone age” (1990’s vintage) tech and media, and limited upgrade options.
  • You’re comfortable with the low but non-zero risk of major repair like transmission replacement.
Which Year?

There are no absolutes on which year is "best". A well-maintained '05 is a far better bet than a mediocre vehicle from whatever the "best" year might be. However, there are factors that might influence personal preference:

Green: 2003 was the first year Pilots were manufactured.
Green: Anecdotally, transmission failures are possibly more likely at around 150k miles on 2003 - 2005 models.
Green: 2005 models had a higher rate of radiator failure.
Green: 2006 - 2008 models added side-curtain air bags.

Yellow: The 2WD variants for 2006-2008 models include VCM (Variable Cylinder Management), intended to improve fuel economy. VCM also spawned a cottage industry dedicated to disabling it to avoid it’s unintended consequences. It’s been blamed for excessive oil consumption, spark plug fouling, misfires and misfire codes, worn engine mounts, and excessive vibration.

On the other hand, others like the updated features, don’t want 4WD, and don’t have complaints about VCM. There’s ample reading material on the forum to research this further and form your own opinion.

The Basics

Yellow: Pilots are susceptible to fatal hidden rust. If you're looking at a rust-belt car, pay special attention to the chassis / underbody section of this guide. If you're really looking for a creampuff, shop for a sun-belt or west coast car with paint that indicates it has been garaged.

Red: Missed recall services. There have been multiple recalls, most notably for air-bag inflators. If these were skipped, what else was? Run the VIN to see if the vehicle is current, especially for the airbags. See Recall Information for Safety & Defects | Honda Owners Site.

Deal Breaker: 250k+ miles. Pilots won’t last forever. There are plenty out there with more life left.

Interior

Green: The lights that illuminate the center console climate control buttons are often burned out. New bulbs are cheap.
Green: Any of the 5 door locks doesn’t operate remotely. Actuator replacement is $100. each for the part.
Green: DVD player for rear entertainment system doesn’t work. Not playing BluRay discs is normal. OEM replacement units are becoming difficult to find.
Green: Steering wheel audio controls don’t work with an aftermarket audio head unit. Probably impossible to fix.
Green: Rear console climate control fan speed doesn’t vary automatically. A thermistor replacement is cheap but requires careful soldering, the OEM part that's plug-and-play is $120.

Yellow: Ignition switch sticking or binding. It's possible that only the wafers nearest the key slot have worn out. It is possible to remove and replace only the worn wafers. Otherwise, it's a $700+ dealer repair.
Yellow: Rear console climate control only blows warm (A/C service)
Yellow: Second row seats don't operate normally. They should fold almost flat on both sides and fold half way and slide forward on both sides to allow third-row access. Repairs are potentially expensive and difficult; some parts are not available separately.

Exterior

Green: Minor checking or crazing in the paint. Paint on these cars is tough. A thorough detailing will solve a lot of cosmetic problems.

Red: Cheap or heavily worn tires. Good tires for a Pilot aren’t cheap; replacing what you get will add significantly to your "all in" cost. This can also indicate other deferred maintenance.

Chassis / Underbody

Green: Compact spare tire. If original, it’s aged out and dangerous. $150 to replace with new full-size wheel & tire, or about $75 for a new compact tire if the rim is OK.

Yellow: No record of VTM-4 (rear differential) fluid replacement in last 30k miles. Link is for Honda Ridgeline, but procedure for a Pilot is identical. This is likely; expect to do this job immediately.
Yellow: Worn front lower control arms indicated by cracks or tears in the rubber parts. Parts will be $200-400. It's possible to go old-school and press out the old bushings and ball joints, but it is not economical. Buy new, complete control arms.
Yellow: Tears or cracks in CV boots. Parts will be $200 - 400.
Yellow: Original struts and shocks, regardless of condition. A full set of KYB's will be $350. for parts.

Deal Breaker: The attachment points of the rear subframe to the unibody are a weak spot in these vehicles. Repair is more complicated than taking it to your trusted mechanic. Look for:
— rear subframe mount rust perforation
— widespread or locally severe unibody rust.
— history of significant rear-end or rear-side impact.

If you are willing to undertake this repair, you might find a very low-cost Pilot.

Engine

Green: The EGR system is prone to clogging over time. Opening the top cover on the intake manifold will reveal either carbon and varnish or not. Replacing the PCV valve is easy if you need to clean the rest of the system.
Green: Original radiator, primarily 2005. Failure blends coolant with ATF and quickly destroys the transmission. $250 for a new Denso.
Green: Original transmission filter on 2003 - 2005 models. Honda doesn't define a service interval. Plan to replace it when you get home.

Yellow: Valve-clearance check past due (100k) or no receipts showing when it was done. Parts are less than $50, but a pro will charge $500 for the time involved.
Yellow: Front and passenger-side motor mounts showing significant cracks or tears. OEM parts are recommended, and will cost $350.

Red: Timing belt past due for replacement (105k / 7 years). Without a sticker on the firewall or receipts showing it was done, assume it's original. Failure of the belt or its tensioner will probably total the engine. This job is a fairly involved DIY. Parts will cost $350. A pro will charge $1,000.
Red: No record of transmission fluid replacement in last 30k miles.

Deal Breaker: Any serious transmission warnings. They are not bulletproof. Replacement by a pro is $4,000.
— Shifting is harsh or loud
— ATF is very dark or smells burned
— Metal flakes in the transmission. This is most easily checked by a pro, but may be worth it if you're considering paying a premium price for an apparent cream puff.

On the Road

Green: A soft, floaty ride indicates worn struts and shocks.

Yellow: Vague steering indicates worn ball joints or steering links. Parts will be around $400 for links and complete lower control arms.
Yellow: Grinding on sharp low-speed turns can indicate worn CV joints. Replacement axles vary widely in price.

After You Bring It Home

1. Jobs that need to happen immediately:

If the timing belt is more than 10k overdue or unknown, replace it and its tensioner.

While you're in there, replace the water pump, serpentine belt, serpentine belt tensioner, and power steering pump belt ('03 & '04). Check the passenger side and front motor mounts, too. Doing everything will cost $1,200 - $1,500 for a pro, or $600 or so in parts. The Aisin kit is recommended for the timing belt and water pump. The Continental or Gates kit is recommended for the serpentine belt. Honda OEM is recommended for motor mounts.

Depending on your personality, replacing the radiator may be the right call. If yours made it this long, it's either a survivor or has already been replaced. On the other hand, replacement is a cheap job that can prevent an expensive one. Denso is OEM-equivalent. With Honda OEM hoses and a new Honda OEM thermostat, it will cost $600 or so in a shop, or around $275 for parts.

Unless you have records showing recent fluid replacement, change the oil and filter, the VTM-4 fluid (Honda OEM only), the transmission fluid (Honda recommends OEM only, but some report excellent results at a much lower price for Valvoline MaxLife), coolant (Honda OEM recommended) and brake fluid.

2. Jobs that you'll be glad you did sooner rather than later:

The EGR System probably needs to be cleaned out. If you do this, checking your valve clearance is not much more involved.

If the front suspension is original or soft (regardless of age), replace the struts (KYB StrutPlus), sway bar links (Honda OEM), sway bar bushings (Honda OEM) and outer steering links (Honda OEM). Check the inner steering links. Do the rear shocks (KYB again) at the same time. This will cost $1,200 or so in a shop, or $600 for parts plus an alignment. Lower control arm replacement is recommended and easy while you're in there, and will add between $150 and $300 to the parts cost.

If the front axles are on their way out, replacing them as part of this job will save time and another alignment. Price of parts depends on how much you want to spend. Cheap replacement axles are under $100 each and work fine, although durability is questionable.

Checking valve clearance also provides an opportunity to inspect and clean up the PCV / EGR system. Replace the spark plugs (NGK PZFR5F11 only, beware of counterfeits on Amazon) at the same time. Fel-Pro gasket sets are convenient and reasonably priced. $600 or so for a pro to check the valves, $100 for parts only for the whole job.

A failing ignition switch will warn you of its condition, then work until it doesn't, stranding someone at the most inconvenient possible time. Since this may not be a simple fix, define your strategy and plan ahead.

3. Projects for when you get around to it

Essentially everything else on this list is non-critical. Use the search function on the forum to find out how to fix almost anything on a Pilot.

Upgrades are personal, but most have been tried before. Search the forum for what you're interested in.
 

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Wow!!!! Now that is a First Class Report!! Thank and Bless You for doing This!! It will help so many of us Piloteers 😊👍👍
 

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It's been granted Stickyhood. Our supplications have been answered.

146277
146278
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146279
 

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Gonna tack on this fluid list so it too is easier to find :)

You can toe the company line on every fluid with the attached PDF if you're the never-color-outside-the-lines type, or go with what many here prefer...

  • Rear differential: VTM-4
  • Front transfer case (post 2005): SAE 90 or SAE 80W-90 viscosity hypoid gear oil, API service classified GL4 or GL5
  • Power steering fluid: a trip to the dealer
    139241
  • Brake fluid. DOT 3 or DOT 4 (usually)
    139240
  • Antifreeze/coolant: blue (or green) concentrate (or pre-mixed)
    139236



  • Motor oil: Mobil 1
    139237
    or Shell Rotella or Kirkland Full Synthetic (or Motomaster Full Synthetic in
    147337
    )
  • Windshield washer fluid: -45°
    139243
  • Transmission: full synthetic Maxlife ATF
    139244


139238
 

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