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First Drive: 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport

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The trail has turned into a slop of iron-rich mud, the last of the night’s snow slowly melting off in the shadows. It’s the perfect sort of weather to take the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport out for a first drive.

2023 Honda TrailSport side
The new 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport is easily the brand’s most capable off-road SUV.

Introduced in late 2002, the Honda Pilot has been a reasonably popular offering for the Japanese automaker. The outgoing model is more of a minivan for people who don’t want to be seen in a van, than a true SUV. Not so, the fourth-generation model just now beginning to roll into showrooms.

While still based on a car-like crossover platform, it adopts a more rugged appearance backed up by more serious chops — especially if you opt for the off-road-oriented TrailSport package. To get a sense of what it could handle, TheDetroitBureau.com headed out to Sedona, Arizona for a mix of on- and off-road driving in both the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport and Elite models.

Overview

A midsize, three-row crossover, the Honda Pilot made its first appearance in 2002 for the 2003 model year. The outgoing utility vehicle has been around since 2016, so a makeover was clearly due, especially if the automaker hopes to stand out in an increasingly crowded segment.

2023 Honda TrailSport rear 3-4 vista
Honda’s worked diligently to move the new Pilot TrailSport from a so-so offering to a top competitor in its class.

Despite being a reasonably solid seller, Honda officials readily admit the third-generation Pilot fell short in some areas. It looked more like a minivan than a rugged SUV, and didn’t really deliver the sort of performance and capabilities many potential buyers were looking for.

The 2023 makeover addresses those shortfalls in a number of ways, starting with a more rugged design, with its larger, upright grille and flared fenders, a shorter front overhang, and both wider tracks and larger tires.

Honda has upgraded the new model with a variety of tech and creature features, especially in the top-line Elite package. But nothing shows off Honda’s aspirations for the gen-four Pilot more than the new TrailSport trim.

Like a number of competitors, Honda has recognized the growing market for trail-ready vehicles. We’ve seen the debut of dedicated sub-brands from mainstream marques like Ford, with its Timberline trim, as well as Subaru’s Wilderness line. Honda got into the game last year with models like the Passport TrailSport, and it ups the ante with the Pilot TrailSport package.

2023 Honda TrailSport nose crawling
The 2023 Honda Pilot is no longer a gussied-up minivan.

Among other things, it gets an extra inch of ground clearance, along with new all-terrain tires. And several added drive modes, along with a specially tuned version of Honda’s i-VTM4 all-wheel-drive system, yield markedly better off-road capabilities.

Exterior

Automakers try to follow a rigid timetable when rolling out new products — all the more so with updates of important model lines like Pilot. So it was a significant decision for the automaker to halt work on what was to become the fourth-generation SUV and send the development team back to their drawing boards. An initial look suggests that was a good move.

The 2023 Honda Pilot is no longer a gussied-up minivan. Whichever version you’re looking at, the new model adopts a boxier and decidedly more rugged design, with a large, upright grille and flared fenders, a longer hood and shorter front overhangs, as well as wider tracks and larger tires.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport cockpit REL
The interior of the Pilot TrailSport features plenty of technology.

Depending upon which of five trim packages you’re examining, the new Pilot grows to anywhere from 199.9 to 200.2 inches in length, about 3 inches longer than the outgoing SUV. It’s about a half-inch wider, as well. With the exception of the higher-riding TrailSport, the new ute boasts roughly the same height while the TrailSport package gains an inch in ride height.

Interior

The 2023 Pilot’s added length — and, in particular, the longer wheelbase — translates into a roomier interior, especially for rear passengers. It also boosts cargo space by as much as 5.1 cubic feet. There’s 22.4 cf with all three rows up, growing to as much as 114.3 cf with the second and third rows folded over.

Honda has a thing about flexible seating and that’s especially obvious with the new Pilot. In its eight-passenger configuration the second row’s middle seat can be removed — and then stored in the cargo bay in case you might need it later while away from home.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport seats REL
The new Pilot also adds new “Body Stabilizing Seats” up front with “TrailSport” stitching on the headrests for that model.

The 2023 Pilot also adds new “Body Stabilizing Seats” up front which, the automaker claims, “help(s) reduce fatigue on long drives.”

There are a number of useful features, including a total of 14 cupholders — eight large enough to hold 32-ounce beverage containers. And Honda brought back a feature found on the gen-2 Pilot, a storage shelf built into the instrument panel.

A 7-inch digital gauge cluster is standard, except on the Elite model where it grows to 10.2 inches. The base infotainment display measure 7 inches, as well, though that jumps to 9 inches on upper trims. Kudos to Honda for bringing back volume knobs — and there’s also a tuning knob on the smaller touchscreen.

Powertrain

2023 Honda TrailSport rear downhill
The new TrailSport offers substantially improved off-road capabilities for the 2023 model.

Honda updated Pilot’s 3.5-liter V-6 for the 2023 model and it’s now the most powerful engine offered in any of the automaker’s SUVs, at 285 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. That’s 5 hp more than with the outgoing Pilot, and gives the SUV enough power to tow 5,000 pounds in all-wheel-drive trim, 3,500 lbs with the front-wheel-drive package.

There’s also a new 10-speed automatic that replaces the 2022 Pilot’s 9-speed gearbox. And paddle shifters come standard. If you opt for the i-VTM4 AWD you’ll find it able to deliver about 40% more torque at launch. And the updated system now can shift up to 70% of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels. Power also can be directed left or right to use torque vectoring to help steer through tight corners.

Pilot offers a number of different drive modes to help adjust vehicle functions, such as steering, shifts and throttle response for specific road conditions and driver behavior. In TrailSport it adds several new modes, including Tow and Trail, seven in all.

2023 Honda TrailSport wheel up
The TrailSport features several new drive modes, plus Hill Descent to make the new model very capable.

Safety and Technology

All versions of the 2023 Pilot switch to a 7-inch digital gauge cluster, except the Elite package which enjoys a 10.2-inch screen. The SUV’s infotainment screen features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which go wireless in the Elite trim. It’s 7 inches on base packages, 9 inches on upper trims, including the Elite.

The Pilot will come standard with the Honda Sensing suite of advanced driver assistance systems. It also gets Hill Descent Control as a standard feature. It is, effectively, a low-speed cruise control system particularly useful when descending steep hills on back trails.

The new Pilot TrailSport also uses four cameras to give you a birds-eye view while negotiating trails — or pulling into a tight parking spot. It comes on automatically when you’re in Trail mode, or can be activated by tapping a button on the right steering wheel stalk.

2023 Honda TrailSport beauty shot
The new model adopts a boxier and decidedly more rugged design, with a large, upright grille and flared fenders, a longer hood and shorter front overhangs.

The 2023 model also becomes the first version of Pilot with a branded, high-end Bose audio system.

Driving Impressions

I split my day between a series of on-road loops around scenic Sedona in the 2023 Honda Pilot Elite and a mix of on- and off-road driving in the Pilot TrailSport.

The Elite is a well-equipped package that handled the winding mountain roads around Sedona with aplomb. The steering can be a little light until you’re in Sport mode. But it’s easy to hold your line and there’s surprisingly little body roll, despite the SUV’s heft, thanks to a stiffer body and revised suspension geometry.

The TrailSport proved an even more pleasant surprise. I’d expected to suffer through a much rougher ride and more cumbersome handling with the package’s 265/60R18 Continental all-terrain tires and higher ride height, but it maintained reasonable poise on some of the same paved roads I’d traveled with the Elite model.

2023 Honda TrailSport climbing trail
Honda has recognized the growing market for trail-ready vehicles.

It was when I turned off onto Broken Arrow Trail that TrailSport really showed off its stuff, however. Development Leader Stephen Frey took pains to stress that Pilot is designed to handle “moderate” trails. I’ve heard that before, and it usually means nothing rougher than gravel and some mud and ruts. But Broken Arrow is tougher than that, showcasing Pilot’s capabilities. Only once did the tires briefly lose grip, as I assaulted a steep, rocky hill. Backing up a couple feet, I picked a new line and quickly made it to the top.

Later on, as I headed back down from the awe-inspiring scenery at Chicken Point, I switched on the new Pilot TrailSport’s Hill Descent Control system. Think of it as a low-speed cruise control system particularly suited for off-roading. It allowed me to adjust my speed anywhere from 2 to 12 mph without constantly having to jump from throttle to brake.

If I have any gripes, I’d like to see Honda deliver even more power out of that 3.5-liter V-6. Even with the upgraded transmission, it just doesn’t have quite enough grunt off the line. And the drivetrain gets a bit raucous when you have your foot nailed to the floor.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport Specifications

Dimension L: 200.2 inches/W: 78.5 inches/H: 72 inches/Wheelbase: 113.8 inches
Weight 4,685 pounds
Powertrain  3.5-liter V-6 engine, 10-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive
Fuel Economy 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined
Performance Specs 285 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque
Price Base price: $39,150; As tested: $48,350 before $1,345 destination charge.
On-Sale Date Available now

Wrap Up

2023 Honda TrailSport side with mountains
The new Pilot TrailSport also uses four cameras to give you a birds-eye view while negotiating trails — or pulling into a tight parking spot.

While you might describe the 2022 Honda Pilot as “adequate,” it was, at best, somewhere in the middle of my list among mainstream three-row SUVs. The 2023 model, however, clearly moves up among the top offerings in the class, despite my complaints about the V-6. The rest of the drivetrain is impressive and most buyers won’t push things nearly as hard as I do.

The 2023 Honda Pilot meanwhile offers a comfortable and secure ride. And the TrailSport, easily my favorite package, sacrifices little to gain its solid off-road capabilities. No, you likely won’t take the new Pilot to Moab or out on the Rubicon Trail. But it can readily handle the sort of off-road experience that will thrill the typical driver. And with its various driving modes, Pilot makes it easy to set up for a variety of different conditions.

If you haven’t been in the new car market in a while, especially if you bought a Pilot in the past, you may be surprised by the crossover’s starting price of $39,150 — before adding in $1,345 in delivery fees. The Elite line starts pushing into luxury territory, at an MSRP of $52,030. And you’ll start out at $48,350 for the TrailSport.

Then again, those are relatively reasonable numbers in today’s cost-inflated market. And all the more so considering all the features and capabilities of the 2023 Honda Pilot. The automaker has delivered a package that finally stands out from the crowd.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport ­— Frequently Asked Questions

Is the 2023 Honda Pilot being redesigned?

The fourth-generation Honda Pilot gets a major makeover. It’s longer and wider, with a more rugged exterior design and a larger, more lavishly appointed interior that also introduces new “fatigue-reducing” seats.

When can you buy the 2023 Honda Pilot?

The first of the new, fourth-generation Honda Pilots are just now rolling into dealer showrooms across the U.S. 

Does the Honda Pilot hold its resale value?

Used car values, in general, have gone up the last couple years, but Honda products, including the Pilot, have done especially well when it comes to resale value due to their features and their reliability.

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