EXPERT REVIEW

2023 Honda Pilot Review: Flying Straight and Level

honda-pilot-trailsport-2023-06-exterior-front-angle 2023 Honda Pilot | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry
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Road Test Editor Brian Normile is a reviewer, dog owner and Liverpool FC fan. His first car was a 1997 Toyota 4Runner. Email Brian Normile

The verdict: The fourth-generation Honda Pilot is greatly improved and no longer just a minivan in SUV clothing.

Versus the competition: With a legitimate off-road trim level, smooth V-6 power, competitive towing capacities and far better multimedia system usability, the 2023 Pilot is once again a viable choice in a crowded class — but not necessarily the front-runner.

The 2023 Honda Pilot is fully redesigned, with the fourth-generation SUV serving as a tacit admission by Honda that its predecessor was not the right approach for the segment. While the third-generation Pilot (which ran from the 2016-22 model years) had an impressive and capable all-wheel-drive system, its appearance was that of a minivan pretending to be an SUV. As trucklike three-row SUVs began to flood the market, the Pilot was left in the lurch. An atrocious infotainment system that relied on far too many touch-sensitive controls didn’t help, either.

Related: 2023 Honda Pilot Racks Up Space, Safety, Off-Road Chops for TrailSport

Honda is correcting the look with this new Pilot, giving it a much squarer appearance and, notably, a truly capable off-road trim in the TrailSport version. The TrailSport trim debuted on the 2022 Pilot, but aside from a slight suspension lift, it was mostly an appearance package — not out of the norm among unibody three-row SUVs, where off-road trims like the Hyundai Palisade XRT and Kia Telluride X-Pro are more show than go. The updated TrailSport trim for the 2023 Pilot comes with a 1-inch suspension lift as well as an off-road-tuned suspension, knobby all-terrain tires, a revised AWD system specific to the TrailSport and actual underbody protection. Other updates include a switch to one of Honda’s more modern and easier-to-use touchscreen multimedia systems, though curiously not its biggest or latest.

I recently traveled to Sedona, Ariz., to drive the 2023 Pilot TrailSport and Elite trim levels on local roads and even go off-roading in a TrailSport in a manner the average owner probably never would. (Per Cars.com’s ethics policy, we pay for our airfare and lodging when attending such manufacturer-hosted events.) The result: The Pilot is a much more traditional-looking three-row SUV that doesn’t necessarily break new ground in the segment, but rather brings the Pilot back up to snuff in a popular and crowded class.

On-Road Comfort

The Pilot’s new light-truck architecture — shared with the Acura MDX — is much stiffer than its predecessor, according to Honda. The suspension has been significantly revised, as well, with new front struts and an all-new rear multilink suspension.

I drove both TrailSport and Elite versions of the Pilot on the street, and I was struck by how comfortable the ride was regardless of trim. The roads we drove were mostly smooth save for the occasional cattle guard, but both versions felt comfortable and composed. The Pilot is not a small SUV, and is actually around 3 inches longer in both overall length and wheelbase, so “competent” might be a better word to describe its handling than “nimble.” Even so, the body roll I felt in corners was well controlled and switchbacks didn’t unsettle either Pilot or require excess braking — and speaking of brakes, the Pilot’s are larger in this generation. Pedal feel remains nice and linear without excessive grabbiness.

The Pilot TrailSport, with its extra inch of ground clearance and off-road-tuned suspension, was less happy on pavement, but not by much. Another trade-off in choosing the TrailSport are its more aggressive all-terrain tires, and while they weren’t as noisy as more aggressive off-road tires one might find on, say, a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, there was more noticeable vibration transferred into the cabin compared to the Pilot Elite’s street tires. On the other hand, the Pilot Elite’s 20-inch wheels and tires were more susceptible to pavement imperfections than the TrailSport’s 18-inch wheel-and-tire combo. That said, I would still call the Elite’s ride comfortable.

All Pilot trim levels are powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission. A V-6 of this size is common in the class, and power from Honda’s is smooth and adequate for highway passing and merging, though it doesn’t make the SUV feel quick. The new 10-speed automatic is a huge improvement over the outgoing nine-speed automatic, but while Honda touted quick four-gear downshifts under hard acceleration, it still felt a bit ponderous to me; the downshifts seem to happen one at a time rather than dropping all four gears at once, but once the power comes on, there’s more than enough. The transmission also fixes an issue that’s vexed me for years in previous Pilots: When letting off the accelerator pedal, previous Pilots would rapidly decelerate and not allow for meaningful amounts of coasting. This could be a problem when approaching a traffic light on a higher-speed road; you see in the distance that the light is red, but there’s no need to brake just yet. The new Pilot can actually coast, which will probably delight me and only me.

The previous generation of Pilot also used a 3.5-liter V-6, though the 2023’s has been revised and now produces 285 horsepower (up 5 hp from the previous Pilot) and 262 pounds-feet of torque (unchanged). Maximum towing capacity, which requires all-wheel drive, remains 5,000 pounds — enough for most toy-hauling excursions — but no longer requires a dealer-added transmission cooler. Front-wheel-drive versions offer 22 mpg combined, according to Honda estimates, while AWD non-TrailSports top out at 21 mpg (the TrailSport gets an estimated 20 mpg combined). That’s in line with the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride’s fuel efficiency, but it trails the updated 2023 Toyota Highlander with its new turbocharged four-cylinder engine — as well as the Highlander Hybrid. Despite Honda’s hybrid push in other popular models like the CR-V and Accord, the Pilot does not currently offer a hybrid powertrain.

Impressive Off-Road, But for Whom?

Taking the TrailSport off-road was impressive; I’ve seen what similar products can do and know that Honda’s AWD system is incredibly capable, but the TrailSport’s all-terrain tires and underbody protection let it go places owners will likely never venture. TrailSport and Elite models also add a TrailWatch camera system that provides useful views around the Pilot at speeds below 15 mph; switching to the Trail driving mode activates the camera, as does a button on the end of the right-side stalk on the steering column. The views aren’t quite as good as in a Jeep, and I found the dynamic guidelines indicating tire position a bit lacking, but having a camera system like this is extremely helpful and welcome. While similar systems have a dedicated washer function, the Pilot’s is tied to the windshield washers — use the front washers and the front camera gets a spritz. Same goes for the rear washer and rear camera.

The TrailSport can certainly keep up with the Ford Explorer Timberline and Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek, which, unlike many other “off-road” three-row SUVs, add more than just a rugged appearance. While the TrailSport’s capabilities are impressive, I do wonder what the use case is for the average buyer beyond thinking it looks cool. We tackled moderately difficult trails in the TrailSport without issue, but I’d want something more robust — a Jeep Wrangler, Ford Bronco or Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro — for frequent off-roading. That’s especially true because the TrailSport’s underbody protection is not as robust as what’s on more aggressive off-roaders, and large front and rear overhangs and average ground clearance will limit what terrain is passable in stock configuration.

A Competitive Interior — Finally

When we last compared three-row SUVs, the third-gen Pilot came last in a field of seven due in large part to its abysmal Display Audio touchscreen multimedia system, which relied on touch-sensitive controls and was slow and difficult to use. The new Pilot doesn’t use Honda’s latest or largest touchscreen technology, but it does move to a new 9-inch display on all but the base trim. This new display is much easier to use, has a physical volume knob and tuning buttons (a tuning knob would be preferable, but physical controls are still welcome) and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity. It’s a major and welcome upgrade, though it’s disappointing that the 12.3-inch touchscreen in the upcoming 2023 Accord didn’t make it to the Pilot.

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The front seats of the Pilot are revised and more comfortable, according to Honda, and I can attest to the comfortable part. Both vehicles I drove had as-tested prices above $50,000, and at this price, I felt interior materials quality was lacking even though everything felt very well built. Visibility was a strong suit of the previous Pilot, and while the new exterior design reduces forward visibility somewhat, it’s still good in my preferred driving position. I do wish there was more easily accessible storage up front — there’s a compartment under the climate controls, large cupholders, a deep center storage area and the return of the item shelf in front of the front passenger seat. The latter is hard to reach from the driver’s seat, however, and I’ve found the center console is more useful for items for which I don’t need immediate access. Pass-through storage under the center console or additional compartments would be nice, but I don’t think this is a deal breaker.

The second row of seats gets an extra 2.4 inches of legroom and 4 additional degrees of reclining by Honda’s measurements. The second row was already a strength of the Pilot, and the added room simply adds to the comfort. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the second row is that it can be a three-person bench seat, two captain’s chairs or, in the case of the Elite, both. The Elite comes with a second-row bench with a foldable and removable middle seat; owners can fold it forward to give second-row passengers cupholders, or remove the seat entirely for access to the third row. Honda also smartly added an underfloor compartment in the cargo area to stow the removable seat, allowing owners to switch from eight to seven seats on the fly. In my experience using removable seats (mostly in minivans), there hasn’t been a convenient way to stow and secure the extra seat without eating into available cargo space. Non-Elite Pilots still have this underfloor storage for cargo you want to keep out of sight.

honda-pilot-elite-2023-52-interior-second-row-removable-seat 2023 Honda Pilot | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Third-row passengers are still the unluckiest in the new Pilot, though Honda says legroom has increased by 0.6 inch; that takes legroom from wildly uncomfortable to unpleasant for adults, though head and shoulder room is impressive. The second-row seats do slide and recline, so passengers can share available room with those in the third row, but the rearmost row is still best left to smaller children. Accessing the third row is easy with the push of a button on the second-row seat, though I had difficulty exiting gracefully from back there.

Back in the Conversation

The 2023 Pilot is entering the market at a disadvantage after the flaws and flawed approach of its predecessor, but Honda has done an admirable job of clawing back into the competition. More detailed comparison testing will give us a better idea of where the Pilot stands in the class, but while it doesn’t feel like it’s blowing away the competition, it’s certainly much improved and worthy of consideration.

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Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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