It's no Wrangler, but it's not strictly urban, either.
In 2023, having an adventure trim on crossovers and SUVs is a must-have for automakers to maximize sales. However, adventure trims vary in quality and attention to detail, in our experience, with some foregoing important features or switching out options in an illogical way. Not including a full-sized spare wheel on a vehicle meant to go into the wilderness and back again, for example, isn't wise, in our opinion. So we're critical when spending time with dedicated off-road trims - and that was no different when we tested Honda's off-road Pilot.
The Honda Pilot TrailSport ticks a lot of boxes right off the bat. It takes the three-row family hauler in all-wheel-drive form, with its workhorse 285-horsepower V6, and adds just the right equipment and tuning to excel as a soft-roader. To be clear, though, we mean that it's made to tackle rough dirt roads and basic trails to get you where you want out in the wild - not to tackle official trail-rated off-road obstacles that 4x4 enthusiasts do for fun.
Of the upgrades over the regular Honda Pilot, the most instantly noticeable change is the two-inch suspension lift, giving it a total of 8.3 inches of ground clearance, which is one inch more than regular models. Naturally, it also has the best approach, breakover, and departure angles in the lineup. Next are the all-terrain tires wrapped around 18-inch model-specific rims. The tires balance an aggressive tire pattern with road grip and noise, doing what the term 'all-terrain' implies. Underneath the TrailSport, there are two skid plates: one up front, as expected, and a second to protect the fuel tank. Also important to an off-roader is a recovery point, and this one is strong enough to carry twice the Pilot's weight.
The Honda Pilot TrailSport is big and family-friendly. This translates to a roomy interior, and with the third-row seating folded down, there's a ton of cargo space. Like most three-row crossovers, we consider the third row to be useful when needed on school runs for neighbor's kids but not roomy enough for our own kids to grow into. Legroom up front and in the center row work for adults, and headroom is just as plentiful.
The TrailSport specifically comes with black leather upholstery embroidered with the TrailSport logo in orange stitching and second-row fold-flat captain's chairs. This makes it a seven-seater maximum but a four-seater for everyday use and adventuring. Rubber floor mats are also standard on the TrailSport, and along with the usual array of helpful small storage solutions, there are rubberized edges so things like phones don't go flying when hitting a bump.
Honda's approach to the Pilot is to keep features to what people will use, not just throw everything at the vehicle in a search for the premium market; this is evident in the TrailSport. The 9.0-inch touchscreen is large enough to be comfortable to view and use, and it runs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smoothly. There's nothing flashy anywhere, but there are USB ports in the back for keeping phones and tablets topped up while being used.
The cabin layout is simple and ergonomic, and there are clever features that make living with the vehicle easy, including the Pilot's feature for projecting the driver and front passenger's voices into the back of the car.
Honda's 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V6 is a workhorse, and it makes 285 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque. It powers every Pilot model, including the TrailSport. It's a well-balanced engine, although a little thirsty for 2023 (18/23/20 mpg city/highway/combined), even with Honda's smooth 10-speed automatic transmission taking care of gearing.
Specific to the TrailSport trim is Honda's Trail Torque Logic system, which shifts power around the wheels as they gain and lose traction. The TrailSport comes with several off-road modes, including Trail, Sand, and Snow, and the Trail Torque Logic feature is activated when Trail mode is engaged. It works by directing additional torque to the rear differential if it detects a rear wheel has lost contact with the road surface; if it picks up that a front wheel has left the road surface, brake vectoring channels more torque to the front wheel with grip.
In general, the Honda Pilot is one of the most agreeable large crossovers to drive in a segment full of agreeable crossovers. The increase in ride height and the addition of all-terrain tires make the steering a little lighter, but it's a negligible difference for daily driving. The ride quality isn't compromised, but there is, understandably, a little more lean in the chassis when pushing the Pilot TrailSport around mountain roads, but this isn't a vehicle designed to be pushed in the first place. During our week with the TrailSport, the only negative impact of the off-road upgrades that drew comment was road noise from the all-terrain tires. However, that's what you get with all-terrain tires in most applications, so it's hard to complain about. All the compromises make themselves known in the margins, which is exactly where they should be.
For your regular dirt or fire road, the average crossover, front-wheel-drive or otherwise shouldn't have any problems. You can go further with a normal vehicle than the off-road fanatics would have you believe. However, when things get slippery, and bigger bumps and ruts are introduced, that's when all-wheel-drive becomes worth its extra weight in gold. On that note, the TrailSport is the heaviest derivative in the lineup at 4,685 pounds.
We took delivery of the Pilot TrailSport in the middle of California's heavy rain, which became floods in our area, so we did the logical thing and took the Pilot TrailSport around our favorite dirt tracks.
The most challenging task in the wet in our area is a 12-mile run that climbs up to reveal a spectacular valley view, then goes back down again past a ranch that John Wayne used to own. After several days of rain, the dirt had become slippery mud, and the grading had broken down badly in some places to the point that your average crossover would be grounding out its front bumper to traverse deep ruts crossing the track. It was a perfect testing ground for the TrailSport.
We started off in Normal mode and quickly learned that it was a fun way to find yourself sliding precariously close to solid lumps of rock or steep edges. However, forward traction was fine. Later on, we switched back and found that wasn't the case when things got steeper.
The switch into Trail mode made a huge difference, and the Trail Torque Logic system showed itself to be enthusiastic about catching the car starting to lose traction and shift torque around accordingly. On cambered turns, the Pilot still started to slide in, and that's where we found Snow mode appeared to suit the conditions better for keeping things predictable and controllable. At that point, getting towards the summit, the slick mud may as well have been snow.
Trail mode was king, though, when it came to getting across those ruts where the track was splitting. At times, it required placing the tires precisely to not leave a tire with little weight on it in a puddle or risk grinding the front on the ground. That's where the Pilot's visibility for the driver started to pay off as well as the system shifting the torque around to make crossing those areas a cinch.
After pausing to take in the view, coming back down saw the anti-lock braking system (ABS) kicking in enthusiastically, which is either a plus or minus depending on your off-road experience and the techniques you rely on. We turned off our off-road brain and found the ABS mixing with the Trail Torque Logic system, and along with the not-too-aggressive all-terrain tires, it kept us out of trouble - even when we started looking to find its limits. However, finding its limits would have got us in trouble with steep drops or big dirt walls, so we stuck to the script and found the TrailSport had got us up and back down a reasonably steep gradient, which was quite a challenge in the wet.
When things dried out, we found a different trail to run in the dry where we could push the speed. As you might expect for a suspension system tuned for road and trail, the TrailSport became a smoother ride over a dirt track the faster it traveled - up to a point, of course. We also found the tires to be grippier on dry dirt than we expected, although it wasn't dusty at that point.
At the beginning of the rains, we tried to cut through the dirt track with a view in a different, smaller crossover with all-wheel-drive, on-road tires, and a standard ride height. We maybe got a mile before deciding it was a terrible idea, and explaining why we were returning the loaner with a big dent in the side wasn't something we wanted to do. The positive side of that near-misadventure was that it contrasted heavily with the off-road spec Pilot TrailSport. An adept all-wheel-drive system and a set of half-decent all-terrain tires can get you a long way on an adventure without sacrificing much in road manners.
The Pilot TrailSport also brings a large interior with buckets of cargo space for weekends or even weeks out camping, or to get those bikes up to the more fun trails to explore. It also comes with roof bars to carry even more gear if needed. Most importantly, though, it also adds two things that show the TrailSport isn't just some boxes ticked for marketing - a full-sized spare wheel and skid plate protection for the fuel tank. These are two things that can make the difference between a fun trip and a complete disaster.
The Honda Pilot TrailSport starts at $48,350, which is a chunk of change and only $3,680 less than the top Elite model. However, it strikes us as great value for money considering its ability to get out into the countryside, on top of the Pilot's usual comfort and utility as an everyday and road-trip-worthy family vehicle. The fuel economy is the only thing that gives us pause for thought before giving an outright recommendation.
That's a concession that's balanced by the naturally aspirated V6's proven performance, reliability, and simplicity versus a turbocharged equivalent, and one to be weighed up in value on an individual basis. If that appeals, though, then the Pilot TrailSport becomes an easy recommendation for those that don't need a dedicated off-roader like a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota 4Runner. As far as capable soft-roaders go, this one is right up there.
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