Broken Arrow Trail outside Sedona, Arizona, is like an off-road theme-park ride. Spanning 2.8 miles in and out, it rises over 400 feet and features the region’s iconic red-rock formations as a breathtaking backdrop. It’s also the birthplace of Pink Jeep Tours, which has hauled people up and down Broken Arrow since 1960. While the company’s jacked-up pink-painted Wranglers are an everyday sight, it’s not every day that they share the trail with a caravan of mid-size three-row SUVs, specifically the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport.
It costs a family of four more than $500 to take the Jeep tour on the same route where we drove the new fourth-generation Pilot. We couldn’t help but chuckle at the surprised looks on people’s faces as they passed what probably looked to them like the SUVs they’d arrived in. Some passengers smiled and snapped photos with their phones; others sat slack-jawed inside the open-air Jeeps, perhaps wondering whether they could have driven their own vehicle instead of paying for the tour.
A moderately difficult trail such as Broken Arrow can’t be conquered in most family SUVs—at least not without damaging something. Honda hopes to change that with the improved Pilot TrailSport, and our first experience at the wheel of a prototype showed it to be more capable than the faux off-roaders so popular in this space (including the previous Pilot TrailSport). By making a model that’s as capable as advertised, Honda hopes the new Pilot will stand out in a hotly contested segment.
The Outdoorsy Pilot
The TrailSport, which starts at $49,695, is the poster child for the fourth-gen Pilot. Its ruggedness encapsulates the redesigned Pilot’s boxier appearance and grander proportions. Compared with its predecessor, the new TrailSport is 3.7 inches longer overall—making it Honda’s biggest SUV ever—with front and rear tracks that are wider by 1.1 and 1.3 inches, respectively. Unlike before, the Pilot also won’t be mistaken for a minivan, mostly due to its square-jawed face and longer dash-to-axle ratio.
Although every 2023 Pilot looks brawnier and benefits from a new platform that Honda says is the most rigid ever, the TrailSport stands out with exclusive off-road hardware. That includes a 1.0-inch lift that adds ground clearance (for a total of 8.3 inches) and a trim-specific suspension with retuned dampers with different valving, unique spring rates, and a thinner front anti-roll bar for improved flexibility. The new TrailSport is the first Pilot the factory fit with all-terrain tires, which are mounted on dark 18-inch rims with an inset spoke design and a unique wheel flange to prevent damage. It’s also the only model with a full-size matching spare. Happily, we never needed to fix a flat on Broken Arrow Trail, nor did we have to use the TrailSport’s front and rear recovery points.
The TrailSport’s Continental TerrainContact A/T all-terrain tires and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive worked together to maintain maximum traction. The 30.5-inch tires securely clung to Broken Arrow’s rocky red terrain, which was slippery from snowfall the day before. The all-wheel-drive system can send up to 70 percent of the available torque to the rear axle, and 100 percent of that can be sent to a single wheel. As the Pilot clawed over the toughest obstacles in the new Trail mode, we could feel Honda’s Trail Torque Logic working while we relaxed in the front seats, which are now more supportive.
Our comfy reverie was occasionally interrupted by teeth-clenching scraping when hard objects met the steel skid plates protecting the engine, transmission, and fuel tank. Still, no real harm was done, and our convoy of Pilots confidently marched along. Our confidence was enhanced by the TrailSport’s useful TrailWatch camera system, which has front, side, and 360-degree views that are quickly accessed through a button on the tip of the windshield-wiper stalk. The front view was particularly useful on steep hills when the view over the hood showed nothing but sky.
Improved On-Road Refinement
While the TrailSport model attracts the most attention, the regular Pilot is significantly better too. We spent time in a top-of-the-line Elite, whose fancy features explain its $53,375 starting price. Apart from the TrailSport’s enhanced off-road chops, the Pilot’s newfound refinement is the 2023 model’s most compelling update. The structure is stiffer, there are myriad sound-deadening measures, and Honda redesigned the suspension to improve ride comfort and stability. The chassis also features bigger front brake rotors (13.8 versus 12.6 inches) and shorter overall brake-pedal motion. The steering is quicker, and the wheel is slightly wider and wrapped in nicer materials.
Not only do the enhancements help make the Pilot much quieter inside, but driving this Honda SUV is also no longer a total snoozefest. Granted, the Pilot doesn’t corner or stop like a Civic Type R, but it doesn’t feel like a wobbly barge anymore either. The direct feel of the steering is a big leap over the old lifeless rudder, and it combines with improved body control and more responsive brakes for a driving experience that’s far better than its predecessor’s.
Every Pilot has Honda’s new double-overhead-cam 3.5-liter V-6, which has the same displacement as the venerable single-overhead-cam V-6 it replaces with notable improvements to the fuel-delivery system, internals, and packaging. The new engine still makes 262 lb-ft of torque, but horsepower rises from 280 to 285. The powerplant pairs with a new 10-speed automatic transmission instead of a nine-speed unit, and front- or all-wheel drive.
The new powertrain doesn’t make the Pilot feel discernibly quicker, but the throttle is more responsive at low speeds, and gearchanges mostly go unnoticed. Towing capacity remains 5000 pounds. EPA-estimated fuel economy for front-wheel-drive models is 22 mpg combined, while all-wheel-drive versions earn 21 mpg combined (20 mpg for the TrailSport). Those combined figures all are 1 mpg lower than the outgoing Pilot’s.
Breaking the Old Mold
Although the 2023 Pilot doesn’t have its predecessor’s obvious visual ties to the Honda Odyssey minivan, the new SUV’s larger dimensions and 2.8-inch-longer wheelbase make it a more practical people mover than before.
The Pilot can comfortably fit seven or eight people, even if maneuvering around the cabin is easier in its sliding-door sibling. Still, second-row seats are highly flexible, and some models have a removable middle seat that can be stored under the rear cargo floor. However, the seat weighs more than 30 pounds, so stowing it requires some muscle. When the underfloor storage isn’t occupied, it offers 3 cubic feet of space. The removable load floor panel is also reversible, with carpet on one side and rubber on the other.
The Pilot’s roomier third row has a USB port on each side and four cupholders (of the 14 total). The cargo area is bigger too, now with 49 cubic feet behind the second row and 19 cubes behind the third, in both cases a gain of two. Folding all the rear seats creates a flat floor and opens up 87 cubic feet of space. There’s also extra storage up front via a larger center-center console bin and a useful parcel shelf built into the dashboard.
Only the top-tier Pilot Elite features a 10.2-inch digital gauge cluster and a head-up display. All versions except the LX and Sport trims have a 9.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s all part of a compelling package that includes standard driver assists such as automated emergency braking, automatic high-beams, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keeping assist.
We’re impressed by the 2023 model’s improvements. It breaks the mold of the old generation, blossoming from forgettable to desirable—especially to everyone who saw the TrailSport keep up with the pink Jeeps on Broken Arrow Trail.