2023 Honda Pilot

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2023 Honda Pilot First Drive Review: The Rugged Family Hauler

There have been several strong new entrants in the three-row SUV space, so the 2023 Honda Pilot needs to be the best one yet to remain competitive. This all-new fourth-generation Pilot arrives with more power, more space inside, and the most off-road capability in the model's history. The 2023 Pilot comes in five easy-to-digest trim levels: Sport, EX-L, Touring, Elite, and the off-road TrailSport. Honda flew CarBuzz out to Sedona, Arizona, to sample the Pilot in its fully-loaded Elite and rugged TrailSport trim levels.

In our brief time behind the wheel, we wanted to find out of Honda's latest updates have made the Pilot a worthy rival to our favorite SUVs in the mid-size segment, the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade. Here's how the 2023 Pilot stacks up against the competition.

2023 Honda Pilot Models

See trim levels and configurations:

Trim Engine Transmission Drivetrain Price (MSRP)
Sport
3.5L V6 Gas
10-Speed Automatic
Front-Wheel Drive
All-Wheel Drive
$39,150
EX-L
3.5L V6 Gas
10-Speed Automatic
Front-Wheel Drive
All-Wheel Drive
$41,950
Touring
3.5L V6 Gas
10-Speed Automatic
Front-Wheel Drive
All-Wheel Drive
$46,450
TrailSport
3.5L V6 Gas
10-Speed Automatic
All-Wheel Drive
$48,350
Elite
3.5L V6 Gas
10-Speed Automatic
All-Wheel Drive
$52,030

See all Trims and Specs

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Exterior: Back To Boxy

The first- and second-gen Pilot had a boxy shape that looked rugged and capable, but then Honda went curvy for the third generation. That softer styling gave the Pilot a minivan-like demeanor that potentially isolated buyers who wanted a more truck-like SUV. For the fourth generation, Honda has brought back the upright, more squared-off proportions that made the first two Pilot generations popular.

Highlights of the new design include an expanded greenhouse, standard LED headlights, and a stronger dash-to-axle ratio. This new model is 3.4 inches longer (with a 2.8-inch longer wheelbase) and marginally taller than the outgoing one - the TrailSport has a height of 72 inches. 20-inch wheels come standard on the Sport, Touring, and Elite trims, while the EX-L and TrailSport get smaller 18-inch wheels, with the latter's Shark Gray alloys wrapped in all-terrain tires for the first time on a Pilot. Other features that set the TrailSport apart include a gloss black front grille, orange badging, a one-inch suspension lift, front/rear recovery points, an integrated Class III trailer hitch, and steel underbody skid plates.

Available to all models is an HPD (Honda Performance Development) Package, which can be added for black or bronze wheels. Radiant Red joins the Pilot's color palette, as does a TrailSport-exclusive Diffused Sky Blue Pearl that looks fantastic.

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Performance: A New V6

Honda says the Pilot's 3.5-liter V6 is "all-new," not just an updated version of the previous V6. With 285 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, it's the most powerful V6 Honda has ever offered in the US market. That power comes courtesy of a new dual overhead camshaft design and direct injection system. It also ditches Honda's legendary VTEC system, meaning it loses the characteristic crossover sound. Other changes to the engine have helped lower emissions, but fuel economy is a bit lower than the outgoing Pilot due to an increase in weight and wheel size. Honda says the Pilot achieves 19/27/22 mpg city/highway/combined with FWD, 19/25/21 mpg with AWD, and 18/23/20 mpg in TrailSport guise.

The new V6 comes mated to Honda's 10-speed automatic transmission, which is a huge improvement over the outgoing ZF automatic. It can downshift up to four gears at once, making acceleration more readily available. Towing is rated at 5,000 pounds with AWD and 3,500 lbs with 2WD

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Driving Impressions: Quieter Ride

Honda says the latest Pilot boats a quieter cabin thanks to more acoustic spray foam in the pillars, sound-deadening melt sheets in the floors, thicker carpeting, and acoustic glass. There is also active noise cancelation that reduces unwanted noise and pumps engine sound back into the cabin under acceleration. Acceleration from the new V6 doesn't feel rapid, though we were driving the Pilot at altitude where a naturally aspirated engine typically struggles. From our limited time driving the Pilot on the highway, Honda's efforts have been successful in creating a more serene driving experience. Ride comfort is equally pleasant.

The steering feels light with a slightly quicker ratio, giving the driver succinct control over the vehicle. We were particularly impressed by the latest standard Honda Sensing driver safety suite, which now features improved cameras and radar. The adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist work incredibly well, with a display in the gauge cluster than can show the curvature of the road ahead.

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Off-Roading: Ready For The Advanced Trails

Half of our time in the Pilot was spent off-roading on Arizona's stunning mountain trails. What we expected to be a pretty casual cruise over some dirt turned into a pretty intense climb up steep obstacles. The off-road-focused Pilot TrailSport proved that it can handle everything the average family can throw at it and beyond. That one-inch lift pays dividends when traversing obstacles. If you misjudge how steep the terrain is, the steel skid plates protect most of the important hardware under the car.

All-terrain tires drastically improve traction, even when wet, and Honda's second-gen i-VTM4 all-wheel-drive system makes off-roading dead simple even for a novice. It includes a stronger rear differential that can manage up to 40% more torque, provides faster response, and provides more grip when needed. Honda says up to 70% of the engine torque can be sent to the rear, and up to 100% of that can be moved left or right. We took full advantage of the new Trail Mode, which calibrates the throttle and AWD system for off-roading and turns on the 360-degree TrailWatch camera system.

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Interior: Large And Flexible

The new Pilot's larger proportions result in a more spacious cabin. Rear legroom is improved by 2.4 inches while the third row gets 0.6 inches more. We love the flexibility in the second row, which offers sliding seats and up to 10 degrees of incline. Like the Acura MDX, you can remove the middle seat on the eight-passenger model, and store it under the floor in the trunk (the TrailSport gets second-row captain's chairs for a seven-seat layout, as standard). Honda even included small pockets in the front seatbacks for phones and other devices. The third row feels a bit tight for three people, but is easily spacious enough for two children.

Honda paid special attention to the cupholders, which total 14, eight of which can accommodate a 32-ounce water bottle. The company also brought back the useful storage shelf in front of the passenger. Overall, the materials feel premium, though we only spent time in the top Elite trim and the TrailSport. The Elite trim comes with heated/ventilated front seats and heated rear seats, but it lacks the ventilated rear seats and heated third row found in the Palisade.

The base Sport trims comes with a seven-inch touchscreen, while EX-L and up get a larger nine-inch unit. This is fairly small for the segment, but the system is easy to use and features wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. All models get a seven-inch driver information interface, but the top-end Elite has a 10.2-inch digital instrument cluster as standard.

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Pricing: On-Par With Other Three-Rows

Pricing for the 2023 Pilot Sport starts at $39,150 (not including a $1,345 destination and handling fee). That's a few thousand more than a base Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, or Toyota Highlander. Adding AWD to any of the trims adds $2,000. The EX-L trim retails for $41,950 as a standard eight-seater, but for $300 you can opt for second-row captain's chairs. The Touring adds more luxury for $46,450.

The TrailSport includes less equipment than the Touring, but adds standard AWD and more off-road capability for $48,350. At the top of the range, the Elite trim also comes with AWD for $52,030. That is pretty comparable to other mid-size three-row SUVs in this segment.

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Verdict: The New Rugged Option

Owners who love their first- or second-generation Honda Pilot but thought the third-gen model looked too soft will love the latest fourth-gen model. The styling is vastly improved as is the capability from the rugged TrailSport trim. No, it won't keep up with the 4Runner or Wrangler, but it will climb higher than a Ford Explorer Timberline, Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek, or Volkswagen Atlas Basecamp. Families who want to take their kids camping or do other outdoor activities will love the TrailSport, while buyers who plan to stay on the beaten path will enjoy Honda's on-road improvements.

We still believe the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride are the most well-rounded options in this segment, but the Honda Pilot offers improvements in off-road capability and interior volume with more cargo space than either of the Korean options. If either of those is a priority, we recommend the new Pilot.

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