When an expected winter snowfall paints the red rock landscape of Northern Arizona white, residents and tourists quickly head to off-road parks for the cold, crisp air and a rare snowy adventure. As soon as the sun rises, muddy trails, hilly climbs and slick rock faces and are filled with Pink Jeeps, ATVs and … Honda Pilots? The automaker’s big-selling family favorite SUV does many things very well, but conquering trails hasn’t historically been high on the list.
Nevertheless, that’s where we found ourselves as we took the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport ($48,350) to Broken Arrow Trail near Sedona, Arizona, to test drive the off-road version of the redesigned classic 3-row SUV. The surprise winter storm put to test the rugged TrailSport model, an SUV that Honda boasts is capable of taking on more than half of the public off-road trails in the United States.
To do this, Honda equipped it with a more sophisticated all-wheel drive (AWD) system with new drive modes, factory-installed skid plates (which we put to good use), a one-inch lift over the standard model, all-terrain tires, a 360-degree camera system (appropriately named TrailWatch) and a full-size spare tire. On our test drive the TrailSport easily passed the test (and we greatly appreciated the TrailWatch cameras).
We were on a course that was rated moderate, so the challenges were more Instagram weekend than King of the Hammers, but they convinced us that a surprise Nor’Easter would be a cinch, and that’s all that really matters to many Honda Pilot buyers, who’ll get to meet the Pilot in person this month at dealerships.
Before we hit the trails, however, Honda also gave us the low-down on some of its design choices for the new Pilot.
2023 Honda Pilot: Trail Inspired
During the design process, Honda’s research showed people spending more time outdoors and targeting adventure-focused activities, with 77% more households and 58% more families spending time camping since 2015. The pandemic put this trend into hyperdrive, and the automaker is keen to capitalize on this lifestyle trend.
The more rugged TrailSport trim was introduced in the previous-generation Pilot and Passport in 2022 and accounted for more than 1 in 5 models sold.
For this 2023 redesign, Honda’s Ohio engineers and California designers were charged to modernize the Pilot with more customer-friendly features as well as more adventure capability—in all models, not just the TrailSport. At the heart of the SUV is a redesigned 285 HP V6 engine with 262 pound-feet of torque, a more capable AWD system ($2,100 on most Pilots but standard on the TrailSport and top-trim Elite) and a stiffer body structure. That helps off-road capability and on-road comfort while boosting crash resistance.
Honda has draped the new Pilot in a sharper suit that both looks cleaner and more rugged without looking gimmicky. There is a noticeable increase in the use of body color. Gone are the chrome accents framing the windows and black pillars between the center and rear windows, and this sporty, elegant look adds up to a more 4Runner-like visage.
They’ve also crafted interiors that are both premium and resilient, though Honda decided to forego features like rear seat entertainment systems that added cost and complexity.
Families have long loved the Honda Pilot, and for good reason: the large accessible third row, good cargo space, slide-and-tilt center row seats and Cabin Talk, which allows front seat passengers to easily communicate with third-row occupants.
Many of these features were first developed on Honda’s Odyssey minivan, and for 2023 one feature that will surely be a top selling point is one we first saw in the 2018 Odyssey: a removable center-row middle seat. The center seat can be taken out and stowed under the rear cargo floor—a deep cargo floor behind the third row, another favored feature in minivans. It can also be folded flat for an armrest and cupholders, as well as a better view of the third row.
Honda calls this “On Demand” seating, which allows owners to seat 7 or 8 as needed, and is available in the Touring ($47,795) and Elite ($53,375) trims. That’s a little more than the Hyundai Palisade, but the Pilot has a bigger third row, and the pricing is about even with Volkswagen’s Atlas. At the low end, buyers can pick up a base Pilot Sport for $40,495. (All prices include a $1,295 destination fee).
Bigger on the Inside, Too
Even with the “on demand” seat in place, families will find more center and third-row leg room better wayback access, more headroom, more storage and more cargo room inside the new Pilot. 3.5 inches longer on the outside than before the larger size translates to 2.5 more inches of middle-row legrom, 0.6 inches of additional third-row legroom and 4 more cubic-feet of cargo space behind the third row.
Honda also made sure the space is flexible. All models feature second-row seats that slide forward and back, recline, and slide and tilt forward. All this accessibility makes installing kids car seats even easier, as do the now easier-to-reach lower anchors and tether anchors.
All seats, with the exception of the removable middle seat, have tether anchors on the seat backs. The slide and tilt feature works even with a child passenger car seat installed, as long as it’s installed using the LATCH system. Overall, configuring kids’ car seats, installing them and getting everyone in and out of the Pilot is easier than ever.
Also adding to the upgrades are more comfortable seats and a quieter ride. Passengers — especially in back—will really appreciate the new seats with more lower body support and more cushioning for less jostle on the off-road trail.
After a few hours of driving up a mountain and then back down again, it was a comfort to relax in the rear seat, stretch out my legs in the expanded rear seat and chat with my companions without the intrusion of road noise. Now, about hitting that trail…
Tackling the Broken Arrow
To test out the Pilot TrailSport we headed to Broken Arrow Trail. While this trail is rated “moderate” it’s not a challenge for just any AWD SUV. I was grateful for the skid plates, which scraped more than a few rocks along the route, and the torque vectoring traction that powered us through uneven ditches.
Once at the trailhead, we put the system into Trail mode to engage the Honda Pilot’s new AWD system. Last year’s Pilot offered a selection of Normal, Snow, Sand and Mud modes (the first two also available on the front-drive Pilots), but the redesigned Pilots now offer more options. Front-drive models get Normal, Econ, Sport, Snow and Tow (front-drive pilots can pull 3,500 pounds, AWD ones 5,000) while AWD version also gets Sand and Trail modes. The redesigned computers gauge traction and, like Subaru’s X-Mode system, distribute power to where it’s best used.
Trail mode kept us moving confidently across slippery snow-covered rocks and through icy creek beds. On uphill climbs the Pilot TrailSport delivered constant, even power, allowing me to keep my momentum through the climb.
I thought that we might need the downhill descent control to manage a few steep downhill climbs, but we didn’t; the more powerful braking system did the job. Still, I tried out the hill descent control and it worked as its supposed to, regulating the Pilot’s speed as it makes its way down the hill.
I greatly appreciated the TrailWatch camera system on the off-road course.
Once you engage Trail mode, the system comes on automatically and it stays on until the vehicle picks up speed; when the vehicle slows, the camera view is again displayed on the center screen. Honda also added a quick access on-off button on the end of the windshield wiper stalk for the TrailWatch camera system, which is also available in the Elite model. While designed for the trail, such systems are also really helpful in tight urban areas.
Once we left the trail we took a ride through the highways and backroads of Northern Arizona. In Normal mode the Pilot is easy and comfortable, accelerating nicely. The engine speed picks up a bit in Sport mode (again new for 2023), and indicators on the driver information screen are highlighted in red to accent the mode. Econ mode, also new, lowers the engine speed to save fuel.
Traveling through a variety of roads, both city and highway, Normal mode gave us all the acceleration and power we needed for a confident and comfortable ride. The new Pilot might be more rugged in TrailSport form, but it hasn’t lost any of its smooth on-pavement moves.
When we arrived back at our hotel, we hopped out feeling all the exhilaration of the day but none of the fatigue of spending hours in the car. Which gives a true sense of elegance to an adventure on the road.
Honda provided lodging and meals to enable Forbes Wheels to bring you this first-person drive report. Although Forbes Wheels sometimes participates in manufacturer-hosted events, our coverage is independent, unbiased and aimed at offering consumers an objective view of every vehicle we test.