It may be hard to believe that the 2023 Honda pilot Trail sports followed the trails of Jeep Wranglers on the snowy rocks and muddy trails outside of Sedona, Arizona this January. To be fair, the Wranglers were painted pink and featured an open rear that could accommodate eight tourists under a safari-style canopy. Though a far cry from Jeep Jamboree-type material, the Pilot Trailsport was more capable than the tourist crossover SUVs left in the parking lot.
Above all, the revised eight-seater crossover SUV with the off-road equipment proved its ability rival softroaders like them Ford Explorer Timberline and Kia Telluride X-Pro (and even the Honda Passport Trailsport), which excel more in robust marketing than off-road capability.
According to Honda, the new 2023 Pilot Trailsport is capable of handling off-road terrain that is considered easy to moderate and makes up 52% of public land in the US. It’s not for scaling the smooth rock of Moab or hiking up and down a ravine, but it exceeded expectations in the rugged semi-desert sandstone of Sedona.
The longest and tallest Pilot grows a little longer as a trail sport, riding an inch higher than other Pilots with a ground clearance of 8.3 inches. Departure angle increases and a 4.0 mm thick high-strength steel front skid plate protects the new 285 hp 3.5-liter V6 and new 10-speed transmission that power the fourth-generation Pilot.
2023 Honda pilot
Torque remains the same at 262 lb-ft, but the new powertrain reduces carbon emissions by at least 40% despite having an EPA rating of 1mpg less than its predecessor. Still, with standard all-wheel drive, the Pilot Trailsport rides quietly and smoothly on tarmac, even with Continental Terrain Contact all-terrain tires (265/60 R18) wrapped around 18-inch wheels.
The engine feels familiar, but the 10-speed shifts through gears so quickly it’s imperceptible. It can quickly shift down four gears at once for quicker response to overtaking, and standard paddle shifters give the driver some control. In Sport mode it can be a bit jumpy when downshifting, but otherwise it’s far smoother than the competition’s 9- and 10-speed speeds, which can dance around in search of a partner. It helps keep the engine and cabin quiet, except in Sport mode when Honda amplifies some engine noise through the speakers. It sounds pretty good too.
Flicking through the ride modes — Normal, Econ, Snow, Tow, and Sport — adjusts throttle response, shift timing, and steering weight to give the family hauler a bit more personality for the conditions, and AWD models add Trail and Sand modes . With the 18-inch tires, there wasn’t much of a difference in ride quality overall in trail racing compared to the Pilot Elite and its 20-inch wheels.
2023 Honda pilot
The 2023 Pilot shares the brand’s new global light truck platform with the Acura MDX and is up to 60% stiffer than its predecessor. Revised McPherson struts up front and a stiffer multi-link rear suspension give it a more solid feel on the road with less lean than its predecessor.
Trail mode was welcome in trail sports off the pavement. The tall lower gears, which can induce a bit of sluggishness at a stoplight, help at low speeds when crawling up a flight of snow-covered rock stairs. On climbs like this, a light tap of the gas pedal ensured it moved forward without bucking forward, but once it let off the gas it didn’t rock back either. The tires helped and the trail sport stayed stable.
A more advanced four-wheel drive system also helped move the trail sport in and out of ruts and through mud puddles. Similar to Acura’s super-handling 4WD, the Pilot’s variable torque management system can send up to 70% of torque to the rear wheels. A torque vectoring rear differential can then direct up to 100% of that torque to the rear wheel with the most grip. Even on instances where riders seemed to stop and tip toward a desert bush, the system used the grounded wheel until the other fully reset to go forward with ease.
2023 Honda pilot
Another skid plate protects the fuel tank, but the Trailsport’s standard full-size spare and hitch cut into the downhill angle and could result in a scrape coming out of a rocky rut. Both the hitch and front skid plate feature recovery points designed to pull out twice the total weight of the trailsport’s vehicle. Curb weight is 4,650 pounds, and it’s rated for a 5,000-pound towing capacity.
Modified sway bars help with wheel articulation, but the Pilot Trailsport lacks the shocks and true off-road bits to expand wheel travel to rock crawler levels. Still, it shouldn’t have a problem getting through access roads through the forest to hunting or farmland.
2023 Honda pilot
Honda also adds standard hill descent control. It maintains throttle and brake control between 2 and 12 mph on inclines of seven degrees or more. I’ve tested it, but I doubt many Pilot Trailsport riders will be going down steep climbs for as long as it takes, but when they do, Honda also provides a spotter. A surround-view camera system, activated in Trail mode or via the wiper stalk, provides eyes up front, overhead and from the side mirrors, helping the tall pilot to navigate turns and spot drop-offs.
Trail racing gave me more confidence than I expected, and Honda let it prove itself on a tourist-laden course shared with Wranglers. The Pilot Trailsport also seats seven passengers and its panoramic sunroof acts like a sheltered safari canopy, but it can also take the family across the country with peace and quiet. The $49,695 Pilot Trailsport has unexpected off-road capabilities that bring an adventurous spirit to a sensible family van.
Honda paid for the airfare and lodging for the Motor Authority to bring you this first-hand account.