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2023 Honda Pilot First Drive Review: All New, Mostly The Same

In 2018, when Honda first started developing the concept that would become its Trailsport line, the question of whether an SUV was a “real” off-roader was mostly a binary one. Lifted suspensions, locking differentials, rugged tires, and drive modes for mud, sand, and (especially) rocks singled out the real deal. Everything else was just a pretender.

The world of 2023 is a good bit different. For every Jeep Wrangler, Toyota 4Runner, Land Rover Discovery, or Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, there’s a Ford Explorer Timberline or Toyota RAV4 Adventure that splits the difference between off-road brutes and their on-road kin. The 2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport joins these ranks with more capability than most, and it does so with no sacrifice to on-road comfort or that simple, convenient Honda-ness that’s made the brand’s products so likable. But while the Trailsport trim is a big improvement over what came before, the broader Pilot family makes only small gains on the third-generation model.

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Look The Part

If you’re sitting there thinking, “Pilot Trailsport? You dummy, that’s not new,” you’re right (about the Trailsport, not me being a dummy). But while Honda rolled out the Trailsport badge on the Pilot in 2022, there was no getting around the fact that it looked and felt more like an appearance package than a cohesive set of functional upgrades. The 2023 Pilot Trailsport, though, is a real course correction.

Instead of the same all-season rubber found elsewhere in the range, the new Trailsport wears Continental TerrainContact ATs from the factory while steel skid plates protect the underside – both represent factory firsts from Honda. A 1.0-inch suspension lift means 8.3 inches of ground clearance, four-tenths of an inch more than the old Trailsport. And the added height isn’t the result of mere coil spacers, either. The Trailsport’s springs and dampers have a trim-specific tune, and the stabilizer bars are exclusive too, to improve articulation.

Parked at the foot of the Broken Arrow trail in Sedona, Arizona, my Diffused Sky Blue Pilot Trailsport looks like it belongs. The stouter tires and lifted ride height give it the right stance for this sort of environment, but broader, model-wide changes help too. The hood is longer, accentuating the two-box design and ending in a squared-off nose that’s a dramatic departure from the softer styling of the third-gen SUV. Flared fenders, a swept-back windshield, and a prominent rear spoiler help the Pilot’s profile – from the side, and especially in Trailsport guise, this product looks far more purposeful than what came before.

It delivers on the trail, too. Broken Arrow isn’t the Rubicon, but it’s technical and challenging enough that the Trailsport’s enhancements came in handy (and it just happens to be one of the dozen-plus tracks across the country Honda used for development). The bash plates soak up abuse from rocky outcroppings and the revised suspension does its darndest to keep all four wheels in touch with the ground. Should it fail, though, the Pilot has another ace up its sleeve.

While every Pilot is available with all-wheel drive (including a new, more responsive rear differential), the Trailsport benefits from a Trail drive mode that better manages the torque fore, aft, and laterally. It also retunes the accelerator to be super predictable and easy to modulate.

In Trail mode, the front axle relies on brake-based torque vectoring to maximize traction, while at the back, the computers can detect the moment a tire loses contact with the ground and shift up to 75 percent of the engine’s torque to the opposite side of the car. The remaining 25 percent of potential torque goes to the low-traction wheel to improve responsiveness once it’s back on terra firma.

On Broken Arrow, the system was faultless, channeling power as needed and keeping the Pilot moving forward over smooth rock and scrabbly, loose ascents. The lateral transfer of power meant that even on hard stretches of articulation, the Pilot was still able to move forward with little interruption.

The Ole 9 To 5 Slog

While Trailsport owners might revel in that all-too-brief period from 5:00 PM on Friday to 9:00 AM on Monday, every Pilot will do most of its work during the week. But the off-road trim gives up little in the everyday drive relative to the top-dog Elite (the only other trim available for testing in Sedona).

Yes, there are Continental TerrainContact tires, but aside from a touch of extra vibration through the steering, the all-terrain rubber has little impact on the in-cabin experience. Ride quality is excellent regardless of trim, although the Elite does feel a touch more agile owing to its all-season tires, lower ride height, and a spring/damper setup that’s a bit more composed on-road. And the cabin benefits from all the same changes that Honda introduced on this fourth-generation model.

That starts up front with new chairs that mark a dramatic upgrade over the previous model’s seats. Both the frame and the cushioning are new, providing greater support from the thigh through the upper back – the seats are so good I noticed the improvement the minute I sat down.

A wider, higher center console closes off the cabin relative to the previous Pilot, but it also feels more modern and SUV-like. A quick drive in the last-gen model reminded me of a minivan with its lower console design. Honda added a useful shelf to the dash and a wider under-stack cubby where an available wireless charge pad lives. Material quality is competitive, with soft-touch materials and splashes of orange contrast stitching in the Trailsport trim, while all the switchgear has that solid Honda action that’s graced the brand’s products for years.

Life ain’t bad for folks in the second and third row, either, with both adding more legroom (2.4 inches in the second and six-tenths in the third) compared to last year. The second row adds a novel feature, too, with a reconfigurable setup that allows the Pilot to swing from a seven-passenger crossover to a proper eight-seater with little effort.

The center of the second-row bench can fold down in a 40/20/40 split and serve as a center console, or owners can remove it entirely and stow the seating in a dedicated under-floor cubby in the cargo area. It’s a small dose of minivan convenience that has an outsized impact on the Pilot’s overall versatility. According to Honda, the portion of the bench weighs about 34 pounds, so most adults should have no problem moving it from the second row to the trunk. Unfortunately, the Trailsport’s full-size spares mean it misses out on the nifty on-board storage area.

The Not-So-New New

The new Trailsport is great, and the Pilot’s cabin is better for both driver and passengers, but in many ways, this fourth-gen model doesn’t feel all that new or modern. Consider the powertrain. Honda moves from a single-overhead cam 3.5-liter V6 to a dual-overhead cam design that it claims reduces NOx and particulate matter emissions by 40 and 50 percent, respectively. That’s commendable, but frankly, it means jack to consumers who will likely look at the modest increase in output (285 horsepower, up from 280), unchanged 262 pound-feet of torque, and worse efficiency with displeasure.

Every Pilot is less efficient for 2023, even with the model’s first 10-speed automatic. Just take a look at the fuel economy compared to last year:

I could forgive the slightly lower efficiency if there were an outsized impact on performance, but frankly and like every other three-row SUV save oddities like the Ford Explorer ST, the Pilot’s performance is adequate at best. Around town, the V6’s low-end torque is enough to help the three-rower spring off the line, although performance fades as speeds climb. Ask the Pilot to scoot from 50 to 70 and it takes a second to build a head of steam. And don’t count on the run being quiet, either. This new V6 has that smooth, silky Honda soundtrack, but the volume is about 25 percent too high at the upper part of the tachometer.

The new 10-speed automatic is a marked improvement, though. Quick to engage off the line, the new gearbox’s upshifts are nearly invisible and downshifts happen with little hesitation. Some of my colleagues noted a tendency to hunt at around-town speeds, but I had no problems – the transmission is unobtrusive in every situation.

I could forgive the lower efficiency if there were an outsized impact on performance, but frankly and like every other three-row SUV save oddities like the Ford Explorer ST, the Pilot’s performance is adequate at best.

To be blunt, the tech solutions in the new Pilot don’t feel like those that come to a new, high-volume product. The 9.0-inch touchscreen (standard on all but the LX and Sport trims) is decidedly on the small end, and while my colleagues will argue with me on this, I don’t really care for Honda’s infotainment all that much. It’s better than the system it replaced – quicker, prettier, and easier to navigate – but only in the way that McDonald’s coffee is better than the brown swill at your local gas station. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard with the larger screen, at least.

There’s a new 10.2-inch digital instrument cluster that’s only available on the range-topping Elite – Honda calls it “intuitive tech,” but I couldn’t figure out how to reconfigure the gauge layout from vertical bars to traditional dials. There was no obvious setting for a full-screen map (arguably the single best reason for a digital cluster) nor did it seem to add any functionality over the standard and quite nice 7.0-inch display on the Pilot’s other five trims.

Outside of the displays, though, the tech story is more positive. There are up to six USB ports, with a maximum of two per row, although only those up front have access to a USB-C outlet. Better news is the Honda Sensing suite, which improves for 2023 by adding Traffic Jam Assist and traffic-sign recognition to every trim.

The Cost Of Living In 2023

Despite everything costing more nowadays, Honda has resisted the urge to substantially increase prices on the 2023 Pilot. Prices jump by about $2,100 on average, not counting the slightly higher $1,345 destination charge. All-wheel drive, an option on all but the Trailsport and Elite, increases from $2,000 to $2,100, while the Touring and Trailsport see substantial increases of around $3,000 and $3,600, respectively. The rest of the Pilot trims increase by $1,200 to $1,700.

Despite these price increases and the small drop in fuel economy, the satisfying improvements stand in contrast to what feels like an overly conservative approach to technology. But the arguable segment leaders, the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade, are fresh off of facelifts, and the dramatically improved Nissan Pathfinder is hitting its stride. The Toyota Highlander now boasts a punchy turbocharged engine, and the Ford Explorer is due for a refresh. Whether the Pilot’s versatile new cabin and capable Trailsport trim will be enough to overcome those competitors is something I look forward to watching play out.

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