Payne: TrailSport takes Honda Pilot to higher ground

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2023

Sedona, Arizona — The Honda Pilot is an excellent three-row SUV to drop the kids off at school or take them up Broken Arrow mountain trail to 4,200 feet for one the most breathtaking views in America.

Oh, I’m not kidding.

Broken Arrow is a bucket list item for anyone who enjoys the American West. It’s the exclusive territory of Sedona-based Pink Jeep Tours that load families into three-row, battle-hardened Wranglers that crawl three miles over tortuous red mud and slippery rock to the trail’s grand finale: Chicken Point. Ooooh.

If you dare, you can take your own Jeep Wrangler or 4×4 or side-by-side and join the Pink Jeeps nearly a mile up on Chicken Point. Above you are some of the West’s most famous rock formations: the Two Sisters, Madonna and Child, Chapel Butte. Below you: the red abyss. It’s as heavenly as the names suggest.

I’ve made the trek twice in Pink Jeeps in recent years. Pals have conquered it in their own Wrangler Rubicons. I hadn’t seen anything but truck-based 4x4s or side-by-sides … until this January.

With all-wheel drive and all-terrain tires, the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport can scramble up slippery rocks on the Sedona trails.

My Pilot TrailSport tester made quite a sight next to these off-road bruisers. A side-by-side driver waggled a Hang Loose! sign at me. Pink Jeep pilots stared like Porsche drivers at Waterford Hills Raceway upon seeing, well, a Pilot doing hot laps.

Track-focused performance cars are a common sight. Pilot TrailSport is the intersection of production and performance, but aimed at off-roading. It’s a growing trend as Americans have gone bonkers for sport utes. TrailSport joins an elite list of three-row SUVs (Ford Explorer Timberline, Kia Telluride X-Pro) hardened with off-road essentials — all-terrain tires, skid plates, all-wheel drive and lifted suspension.

WHUMP! Pilot’s front skid plate took a hit as I descended Broken Arrow. The chassis was unscathed and I kept on muddin’.

Got skid plates? A display of the twin skid plates standard on a 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport to protect the underbelly from off-road harm.

Sure, take that Pink Jeep tour when in Sedona. It’s awesome. But if you’re a Michiganian who likes to winter in Arizona, you can return time and again in the TrailSport for a fried chicken picnic on Chicken Point.  Ditto if you live in Metro Detroit. Go to Detroit 4fest at Holly Oaks and get a ride aboard an earth-chewing Bronco. Then bring the family back there in the TrailSport with its sure-footed tires and tough underbelly.

Honda built the ‘23 Pilot new from the ground up with off-roading in mind. But also because the three-row SUV segment has become brutally competitive.

Over its four generations, Pilot has had to compete against King Explorer (which invented the segment) and formidable Toyota Highlander. But the three-row shark tank has grown with predators like the gorgeous Kia Telluride, sci-fi Hyundai Palisade, athletic Mazda CX-9 (and coming CX-90). Even the Nissan Pathfinder awoke from its slumber and was remade with handsome looks and endless interior room.

Like the rest of the 2023 Honda Pilot, the rear gets a complete makeover with big, blocky taillamps connected by a horizontal bar emblazoned with PILOT.

In short, this is a segment that new requires character as well as competence.

Continuous improvement

Pilot has always had bucket-fulls of the latter. The third-gen Pilot was an ergonomic marvel with its sliding console door — Whoa! It can swallow a purse whole! — and second-row seats that would collapse forward — Zounds! With the push of a single button! — for easy third-row access. From the Fit’s magic seats to the Civic’s multi-purpose console to the Pilot, Honda has never lacked in a intuitive understanding of what makes interiors more livable. But … as our friends at Car and Driver bluntly put it, the last-gen model “looks like a lifted minivan.” Ouch.

The next-gen required an emotional connection. Starting with the 2021 Civic, Honda isn’t just remodeling the home with the latest appliances; it’s brought in an interior designer.

The redesigned Pilot continues a theme across the Pilot lineup — including the Civic, HR-V and CR-V — of updating core models with style and performance improvements.

Pilot follows the Civic, HR-V, CR-V (and forthcoming Accord) with a handsome, more chiseled exterior and interior to match. Upright, squared-off grille. Slit LED headlights, muscular shoulders outside. Crisp interior switches, tablet dash screen, digital dials inside.

The ergonomic genius is still here: one-touch collapse second-row seats, bigger cupholders to hold tall Thermoses, sub-floor rear cargo room, space-saving “trigger shifter,” 2.4 more inches of second-row legroom. The touchscreen is complemented by (starting with the most popular EX-L trim at $43K) wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, wireless charging (so phones don’t run out of juice while navigating) and standard adaptive cruise control.

In the second row of 2023 Honda Pilot models equipped with a bench seat, the middle portion can be used a seat, cupholder, or can be removed entirely (as shown here).

Electrifying, not electric

Notably, the Pilot is not electric. It’s fashionable to say the future is electrified, but reality intrudes in three-row family vehicles that demand a gas engine’s superior efficiency and convenience. EVs are niche vehicles for multi-car households.

Pilot doesn’t even offer a hybrid. Swiss Army knife utes are packaging marvels, and hybrid batteries take up space better used for, say, spare tires. Not that Pilot’s 3.5-liter V-6 is an old, pot-bellied wood-burner.

Also remade, the growling six-pack is a peach when paired with a new 10-speed transmission. Multi-cog boxes aid fuel efficiency but often at the expense of smoothness as the electronics hunt for which gear to use. Nailing the throttle in SPORT mode over Sedona’s heaving asphalt roads, I found Pilot the smoothest drivetrain in class this side of the Mazda CX-9’s sublime 6-speed.

The remade interior of the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport follows the CR-V in its horizontal layout with a high-mounted tablet screen.

That comfort is even more refined in the Honda’s top-drawer Elite model, its chassis stuffed with sound-deadening foam while adding goo-gaws like a 12-inch configurable instrument panel and head-up display.

Put me down for TrailSport. All-terrain tires can be noisy with their bigger tread blocks, so Pilot engineers sweated the details to make them virtually indistinguishable from the standard all-season tires for on-road drivability.

With 30% more body rigidity, Pilot is poised off-road — displaying none of the body flex I’d expected. That rigidity translates on-road.

With little penetration into the cabin after a 37 mph side impact, the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport passed the IIHS test with flying colors (see the color code on the interior).

In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, Pilot’s structure absorbed a 37-mph side impact hit that battered the doors but left the interior unperturbed. Like Tiger Woods’ Genesis GV80, it’s evidence of how safe modern vehicles have become.

All this reengineering costs money, and TrailSport is a healthy four grand (to $50K) north of the last gen’s simpler TrailSport appearance package. Happily, Honda has brought back the base LX model at $37,245.

The panoramic roof in the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport enables better viewing of the sights for all passengers.

Turning onto Broken Arrow, I toggled the mode selector to TRAIL. I pushed a button and the ceiling retreated, the panoramic roof revealing the red rocks rising above us. Kind of like a Jeep. Heck, maybe Pink Jeep will paint some Pilots for customers who want more interior comfort than a Wrangler bruiser.

Pink Pilot has a nice ring to it.

Next week: 2023 Lexus RX350h

2023 Honda Pilot

Vehicle type: Front engine, front- and all-wheel-drive seven- to eight-passenger SUV

Price: $37,245, including $1,295 destination fee ($50,150 TrailSport and $53,375 Elite as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6 cylinder

Power: 285 horsepower, 262 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0-6.5 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,035-4,685 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 19 city/27 highway/22 combined (FWD); 19 city/25 highway/21 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Upscale styling inside and out; real off-road dexterity

Lows: Miss the old sliding console door; head-up display only available in Elite trim

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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