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2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport Review: Off-Road Legit

Starting its fourth generation in 2023, the Honda Pilot grows to 200 inches long and stands on a stiffer platform with a new engine under the hood. Now, the TrailSport trim stands out and stands tall with legit off-roading equipment, which means it's time for a proper test in Sedona, Arizona.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review(Photo/Robin Warner)
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The family-sized (you could say minivan-sized) crossover SUV continues to flourish in today’s automotive market. Trends are also shifting toward more capability to adventure outdoors. Families want to travel farther from coffee shops, cell service, and even pavement. Hence the motivation for the 2023 TrailSport trim to no longer exist merely as an appearance package, but as an actual, legitimate off-road capable utility. Seriously.

But first, a few fundamentals. The 2023 Honda Pilot, with new squared-off shoulders, a larger grille, and a longer hood comes in several trims and is ready to swallow nearly 160 cubic feet of passengers and stuff.

Honda built the TrailSport from its latest “light-truck platform,” which we first saw in the 2022 Acura MDX and MDX Type S. The Japanese brand claims the 2023 TrailSport is much stiffer than the outgoing model.

In short: After an especially sporty drive up the Broken Arrow trail in Sedona, Arizona, I was more than impressed by the well-thought-out off-road capability additions in the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport. It’s not going to be as capable for four-wheeling as, say, a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, but it will get you and anyone you’re adventuring with well away from that boring pavement.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport Review

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

New V-6 Sticks to Old-School Strengths

All three generations of Pilot preceding this one included the same fundamental engine — a single-overhead cam 3.5L V-6, though plenty of updates occurred. Since 2003, its power rose from 240 to 280 horsepower, and torque reached 262 pound-feet (from 242 pound-feet).

Also, the number of gears in the transmission climbed from five to nine. It all changes for 2023 — sort of. 

2023 Hond Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

For 2023, a double-overhead cam 3.5L V-6 lies under the hood. It produces a whopping — wait for it — 285 horsepower and the same amount of torque. In fact, torque peak comes a bit later than before, now at 5,000 rpm, instead of 4,700. This, admittedly, is a bummer. But peak output figures do not tell the whole story.

Despite the similar specs, the engine is fundamentally different than the outgoing powerplant. In fact, it’s a much closer relative to the turbocharged 3.0L V-6 mounted in the MDX Type S. And the engine does output drastically different emissions. Specifically, Honda claims a 50% reduction in particulate matter emissions and a 40% reduction in both non-methane organic gas and nitrogen oxide emissions. Good things!

Channeled through a new 10-speed automatic transmission, power then goes to either the front or all four wheels, depending on your trim and preference.

Fuel economy follows suit. Expect 19 mpg in the city, 27 on the highway, and 22 combined in front-wheel drive (FWD) Pilots. All-wheel drive (AWD) models match city mpg, but fall to 25 on the highway and 21 combined. Very close to what last year’s Pilots managed and competitive with other similar-sized mainstream crossovers.

Note the Pilot TrailSport only comes in AWD. It also has even worse fuel economy, due to the A/T tires and small lift it uses — 18 mpg in the city, 23 on the highway, and 20 combined.

More Power! But More Enough?

2023 Hond Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

Floor the throttle and a balanced growl emits from the twin tailpipes. The V-6 quickly revs toward its 6,500 rpm redline with nary a hint of tire spin — in AWD form at least. The automatic shifts a couple of hundred rpms shy of that on its own. But you do have paddle shifters if you want a touch more control. Both your one-two and two-three shifts happen seamlessly and reasonably quickly. The Pilot reaches highway speeds with little trouble.

It isn’t quick, but it isn’t slow either. The 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport lies in that fun middle ground of “fitting in” that many modern families seek. So, job well done.

If you want a touch more liveliness and performance, engage sport driving mode, and the engine will hold lower gears, higher revs, and sacrifice a bit of smoothness for quicker shifts. It’s good clean fun.  

All in all, the DOHC V-6 delivers stout power to move around the Pilot’s 4,262- to 4,685-pound curb weight, depending on trim and drivetrain. But it may struggle a bit if you max out the 5,000-pound towing capacity. That’s for the AWD models. Front-wheel drive Pilots handle up to 3,500 pounds of trailer.

Considering the newness of the engine as well as the Pilot’s footprint and towing capacity, more peak torque and a horsepower figure that started with a three would certainly come in handy. It’s reasonable and competitive in its class, but, ultimately, a bit underwhelming.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

Vastly Improved Road Manners

On the plus side, once up to speed, the Pilot greatly benefits from its new platform. It feels rock solid and rolls down the road much better than the outgoing model, absorbing bumps with aplomb without ever feeling too soft or floaty.

Moreover, Honda isolated the Pilot’s cabin brilliantly. Even at highway speeds, you hear very little wind and road noise, which makes it a pleasant and soothing space. Overall, the Pilot is quieter than most of its competition. It runs neck-and-neck with the also updated and supremely quiet 2023 Hyundai Palisade.

And when the going gets twisty, the Pilot returns positive steering feedback and good response. The body leans a bit, but less than the mainstream competition, meaning you can hustle into a corner with confidence that the Pilot will react predictably.

It’s even a bit of fun. Sure, you have understeer, but not excessive amounts. After all, AWD Pilots get the second-generation i-VTM4 torque vectoring system that can send up to 70% of torque to the rear wheels and then 100% of that torque to either side. It’s Acura’s SH-AWD system by another name, tuned for the Pilot. And it’s a blast. You’d have to look at premium SUVs to find a true competitor.

‘TrailSport’ Now Means More Than Just Looks

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

It’s true many folks just like a rugged look in their SUV. In the past, that seemed the TrailSport’s purpose. A bit of garnish to give off more outdoorsy vibes while sitting in the grocery store parking lot. No more. For 2023, the Honda Pilot TrailSport comes with real-deal equipment to genuinely get dirty from going off-road

Standard equipment includes all-wheel-drive and a one-inch suspension lift for more ground clearance (8.3 inches instead of 7.3 inches). Also included: off-road suspension tuning, off-road drivetrain tuning, a full-size spare tire, a four-camera system called Trailwatch, two steel skid plates (to protect the oil pan/transmission and the gas tank), front and rear recovery points, and all-terrain tires

trailsport wheels
(Photo/Robin Warner)

Not knobby all-season tires. Actual all-terrain rubber that hurt fuel economy and everything. In this case, that’s a good thing. Modern all-season tires work really hard to deliver low rolling resistance. That improves fuel economy, but limits the ability to cope with varying road surfaces, like mud, sand, and wet rocks.

Honda mounted off-the-shelf Continental TerrainContact A/T tires (265/60R18) to the TrailSport. They make more noise on the highway and do not respond as quickly to steering inputs — on pavement. And it’s not just the type of tire. It’s also wider and has more sidewall than the other Pilots.

Follow the Broken Arrow to Chicken Point

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

In fact, Honda felt confident enough to let us take the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport to the Broken Arrow trail outside of Sedona, Arizona. Replete with mud-covered rock, rutted V-shaped lanes, massive potholes, a few steep inclines, and quite a few narrow passages.

Aside from the TrailSport, we only saw side-by-sides and Jeeps. It’s ultimately not a strenuous trail, but Broken Arrow does go beyond what most crossovers can handle. Time to ascend and test the “Trail” drive mode and Trailwatch cameras.

When in Trail mode, the i-VTM4 behaves differently to accommodate more slippery conditions and, indeed, not all four wheels touching the ground at the same time. It also shifts logic such that no one wheel receives more than 75% of torque, even if the other wheel on the axle is several inches off the ground. This allows instant forward momentum once that wheel returns to the surface and provides better overall performance. 

TrailSport cameras
(Photo/Robin Warner)

Also, assuming you’re traveling below 15 mph, the Trailwatch cameras automatically display on the center console screen. This gives you a view of where the wheels are when all you see through the windshield is sky. 

Getting Dirty in the 2023 Pilot TrailSport

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport ski plate
(Photo/Robin Warner)

Not much more than a quarter-mile into the trail, I managed to test the front skid-plate. With an unintended, sudden 12-inch drop of the front axle, I sunk into mud. This gave the plate a good smack before the rear axle could grab on to ground behind and once again lift the middle of the platform up.

That was right before heading up what felt like a 45-degree slope, the windshield providing an excellent view of the jagged red peaks of Sedona’s unique landscape, but little else. Thank you, Trailwatch.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
Notice the rear wheel off the ground; (photo/Robin Warner)

Scratching past cropped branches, we traversed deep muddy puddles. These had developed earlier that day from melting snow and sprayed evidence of the crimson surface on the TrailSport’s fenders.

On some ascents, I definitely felt wheel slip. But nothing more than a few tenths of a second here or there. The TerrainContact tires dug in for purchase and the all-wheel-drive system shifted torque across the four corners of the crossover.

Pilot TrailSport Interior

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

All the while, I sat inside quite comfortably. After all, in addition to three-zone climate control and heated front seats that come standard on the Pilot, I also enjoyed a heated steering wheel, a 9-inch center console touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a wireless charge pad for my phone. Not to mention rubber floor mats and TrailSport embossed headrests.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

And it’s bigger too. The 2023 Pilot’s wheelbase grew an additional 2.8 inches to 113.6 inches. The crossover stretches 3.4 inches longer (now 199.9 inches) and 0.4 inches taller (now 71.0 inches) than before — all while measuring just a tenth of an inch narrower — a still-wide 78.5 inches.

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

That allows for more space for folks inside, increasing legroom for both the second and third rows. Or for packing it with stuff. The Pilot has more than 110 cubic feet behind the front row, Honda claims, and a reasonable 22 cubic feet with all rows up.

2023 Pilot TrailSport: Off-Road Capable

2023 Honda TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

As we summited a final, fairly steep rock surface and reached Chicken Point, Sedona rewarded us with a stunning vista. The trail proved manageable for a novice off-roader like me. The combination of skid-plates, more ground clearance, and all-terrain tires provided the Pilot TrailSport with capability to spare. 

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport Review: Pricing & Availability

2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport review
(Photo/Robin Warner)

Honda will sell six trims of the 2023 Honda Pilot. The base, LX trim starts at $37,245. From there, Honda offers the Sport, EX-L, TrailSport, Touring, and top-of-the-line Pilot Elite for $53,325, which comes loaded with plenty of luxury goodies. Despite sitting in the middle of the lineup, equipment and luxuries put the cost of the TrailSport towards the top, starting at $49,645.

For that money, you get a nice combination of capability and comfort. No, it’s not as nice as the other trims for on-road behavior. But you and six of your friends and family members can decide to drive to Chicken Point, in comfort. Or, you know, look really good in the grocery store parking lot. 

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