Faux-off-road SUVs are thick on the ground these days. They usually have copious body cladding and tough-sounding names, but they rarely have the hardware necessary to back up their rugged vibe. Honda is no stranger to this crossover cosplay, with the current TrailSport-badged Passport and Pilot being prime offenders. However, the automaker looks to legitimize the TrailSport moniker with the new fourth-generation Pilot, which will be revealed later this year. To preview its trail-rated prowess, we drove a prototype 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport on a moderately difficult trail in Colorado.
Let's be clear, the new Pilot TrailSport isn't intended to climb rock walls, ford deep water, or compete in the Baja 1000. Instead, it's built to tackle trail systems with a difficulty rating no higher than moderate—terrain Honda says comprises more than half the trails on U.S. public land. To enable this newfound capability, the Pilot TrailSport has a 1.0-inch lift for added ground clearance, all-terrain tires, steel skid plates, and a specially calibrated all-wheel-drive system. Its suspension also includes retuned dampers with different valving, unique spring rates, and thinner front and rear anti-roll bars for improved flexibility. Since the SUV we drove was a pre-production test mule, Honda asked us not to divulge any details about its interior. The camouflaged bodywork also hid its new appearance, but teaser photos of the next-gen Pilot have already exposed its blockier front and rear ends that include a bigger, squarer grille as well as handsome headlights and taillights.
Without any details except those pertaining to the TrailSport's unique capabilities and exclusive equipment, we set off on the Middle Fork Swan River trail just outside of Breckenridge, Colorado. Apart from a brief stint on gravel roads where our speed only rose to about 45 mph, most of our off-road excursion had us traveling 5 to 15 mph. Obviously, that didn't give us an opportunity to effectively evaluate the Pilot's powertrain or handling. We did have the chance to cycle between its various drive modes, relying mostly on Sport and Trail. The former setting delivers higher steering effort and sharper throttle response, whereas the latter lightens the steering and dulls the throttle, making it easier to control the three-row SUV over and around obstacles. We're also told that Trail mode alters the traction-control system by elevating the wheelspin threshold, and the transmission's shift logic changes too.
We must admit, the initial portion of the trail had us wondering whether Honda was merely parading us through the woods on a glorified goat path. Then we got to the first obstacle with good-size rocks protruding from a rutted and twisty surface. Rain from the night before made things extra slippery, adding another layer of difficulty. It's hard to say what would've happened to the Pilot if its engine, transmission, and fuel tank weren’t protected by steel skid plates. What we can say is that all the underbody armor was banged and scratched in ways that made us clench our teeth but that never phased the Pilot.
A set of Continental TerrainContact A/T tires helps the TrailSport claw its way over obstacles. They're sized 265/60R-18 (which equates to 30.5 inches tall) and mounted on a set of trim-specific rims with a unique wheel flange and inset spoke design to help protect against damage. Should a tire get punctured, there's a full-size spare mounted underneath. When the off-road-oriented Pilot's Trail mode is activated, the new Trail Torque Logic system delivers up to 70 percent of available torque to the rear wheels. Depending on the situation, 75 percent of that torque is sent to the wheel with traction while the other wheel maintains 25 percent of the torque.
The TrailSport marks the debut of hill-descent control on the Pilot. It's adjustable between speeds of 2 and 12 mph and helped us tiptoe down rutted parts of the trail with ease. Another useful feature is the TrailWatch camera system that gives the driver a view of whatever underbody-scraping challenges lie ahead—or anywhere else in the immediate vicinity. In Trail mode, the video feed automatically shows up on the center touchscreen at speeds below 15 mph, and we appreciate the ability to toggle between front, side, and 360-degree views using a button on the tip of the windshield-wiper stalk. The multiple camera views are like having a virtual spotter, although sometimes it still helps to get out and take a look.
Had we gotten stuck, the TrailSport is fitted with recovery points rated for twice the vehicle's Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. While the rear hookup is integrated into the standard trailer hitch, the other is attached to the front skid plate underneath the Pilot's chin. This makes it harder to access than exposed tow hooks on the front bumper, such as those on the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. When asked about this decision, a Honda spokesperson said it's to preserve the Pilot's safety ratings.
If we learned anything about the upcoming Pilot TrailSport, it's that it transcends the faux-off-road fad. Sure, it can't follow a Ford Bronco or a Jeep Wrangler through treacherous terrain, but the Honda has the upgrades to adventure farther off the beaten path than most of its peers.
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