2023 Honda Pilot First Drive | Broad strokes and broader shoulders

2023 Honda Pilot First Drive | Broad strokes and broader shoulders

SEDONA, Ariz. — Honda’s fourth-generation Pilot is here in all of its squared-off, butched-up glory. Packing an updated powertrain with new drive modes and an upgraded TrailSport model for the outdoorsy types, the overhauled three-row wades into a segment where every new entry seems to push the boundaries of jack-of-all-trades utility and light-duty adventuring.

For a more comprehensive overview of the new features in the 2023 Honda Pilot, check out our First Look from November.

Honda picked Sedona because it was one of many places across the country where its engineers spent time testing the capabilities of its new TrailSport models, Pilot included. Home turf, if you will. What the company didn’t count on was a freak January snowstorm that paralyzed the small town’s main arteries for several hours on the morning of our test drive. Neither the Elite nor the TrailSport models Honda brought along for evaluation were equipped with snow tires, so we were cautioned about following distances and slick hills before being released into the snow-covered desert.

We started our drive in a TrailSport. The unique conditions provided an opportunity to test one of the fourth-gen Pilot’s new additions: selectable drive modes. Sure enough, “Snow” is one of them, and paired with the Continental all-terrains, it handled the slop with aplomb. A full-ABS braking test found reasonable grip from the knobby A/Ts even on icy hills, giving us confidence that we’d be able to get by on some of the area’s steeper inclines.

A set of knobby tires might prompt concerns among those of you who know Honda’s history of delivering models that suffer a bit more than average from wind and road noise intrusion, but the Contis were admirably quiet even on rough desert asphalt. After trading in the TrailSport for an Elite, we actually found the latter’s all-seasons to be a bit more talkative on messy pavement, but the weather conditions and rather generous application of what appeared to be cinder treatment on the roads made for a challenging testing environment.


Both models are powered by the Pilot’s new standard 3.5-liter V6. Yes, that may sound like a carryover, but is in fact a new, DOHC design. Power was bumped ever so slightly to 285 horsepower and 262 pound-feet (up from 280 hp and 262 lb-ft) and the 10-speed automatic (with paddle shifters!) returns.  Standard on the TrailSport and Elite, and optional on the other trims, is the second-generation of Honda’s i-VTM4 torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system. It features a stronger rear diff that can handle 40% more torque while responding 30% quicker. As much as 70% of the engine’s power can be sent to the rear axle, with 100% of that transferred to one wheel.

Sedona sits more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Those altitudes are borderline hostile to naturally aspirated engines, to the tune of a roughly 40-horsepower deficit. That made Honda’s choice of testing venues a bold one. A turbocharged unit would lose a lot less of its wind out here, but the V6 held its own despite the Pilot’s heft. The standard 2WD model checks in at a reasonable 4,030 pounds. The AWD models we sampled are a good bit heavier — 4,685 for the TrailSport and 4,660 for the loaded-up Elite. Heavy though these figures may sound, they’re in line with the Highlander Platinum (4,453 pounds) and Pathfinder Rock Creek (4,605 pounds). And for context, all of them weigh less than even a two-row Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland (4,721 pounds).

Speaking of the competition, Honda is looking to one-up the Nissan’s sliding second-row and handy removable console. The Pilot can now be optioned with a removable center seat in the second row, allowing you to convert your 8-passenger model to 7-passenger duty with far better access to the third row. Even better, the seat can be stowed in the under-floor cargo area behind the third row in case you need to bring it with you (or have cause to remove it in the middle of an outing). It weighs about 45 pounds and it’s a bit unwieldy, but it comes out in seconds and removal requires no tools. Honda supplies a sturdy tie-down strap to secure it in the rear cubby while you drive. Unfortunately, this knocks it out of contention as a TrailSport option, as the full-sized spare intrudes too far into the rear cargo area.

That’s not the only interior upgrade. Honda chucked the Pilot’s old cabin out the window entirely in favor of a new, much sleeker and more upscale look. Honda says the Pilot’s front seats were redesigned for better support and reduced fatigue. The updates appear to have paid dividends, as we had zero complaints about their shape or adjustability. Materials, fit and finish all show improvements over the previous generation. There’s no under-console storage, but there is ample space inside along with room for doodads in the recessed portion of the dash.

Whether you opt for the standard 7-inch infotainment system or the 9-inch upgrade, the physical-button-to-touchscreen-control ratio is favorable. USB-A and USB-C plugs are available on the center console for smartphones, as is a standard 12-volt DC outlet. USB-A charging is also standard in the second row; third-row ports become standard at EX-L and above. A wireless charger sits below them (on models so equipped) for easy access.

The Bose system on the Elite is the first branded audio offered in Pilot’s history; our testing environment wasn’t the best for audio evaluation; that’ll have to wait for a future road test. Wired Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard (wireless is standard on EX-L or better). We were able to pair and use Android Auto with virtually zero effort. Honda’s new infotainment isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly much better than what we were used to seeing from them just a couple of model years ago.

That said, the 10.2-inch digital cluster exclusive to the Elite is cool to look at, but doesn’t bring much functionality to the table. We also have to dock Honda a few points for sticking to those corny digital temperature readouts on the HVAC controls. That’s not the brand of nostalgia we’re itching for. And the single 3.0-amp USB-C port up front is a good start, but we’d like to see more of those in the rear cabin area.

With Pilot, Honda is entering the second phase of its TrailSport rollout. While the 2022 Pilot and Passport TrailSport conveyed the general direction Honda intends for the sub-brand, the 2023 Pilot is the first ground-up execution of the concept, building on the slight suspension lift and wheel/tire package that was offered for 2022. For 2023, that lift grows to an inch, for a respectable but not 4x4-rivaling 8.3 total inches of ground clearance. You also get steel skid plates for the oil pan, transmission and gas tank; a full-size spare tire; smaller stabilizer bars for improved off-road articulation and a trim-exclusive “Trail” mode for Honda’s new drive mode system.