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2019 Honda Pilot Test Drive Review
The new Pilot feels like a minivan on steroids, bringing know-how from the Odyssey minivan to improve this spacious 3-row Honda SUV.
The 3-row crossover is the king of family vehicles. Sure, minivans remain a popular choice for large families, but there has been a pendulum swing from the days of blocky old Dodge Caravans to now. Having one or two children does not immediately necessitate a minivan, and there are plenty of useful, capable, and more nimble SUVs from which to choose.
The 2019 Honda Pilot stands as one of the cornerstones of this 3-row SUV market. It’s large, versatile, and designed specifically with families in mind. It may not have the sliding doors or built-in vacuum of the Honda Odyssey, but for active families, a vehicle like this truly rivals a minivan in actual usability.
The Pilot joined the SUV market in the early 2000s, at the height of the SUV craze and in the waning days of the minivan’s rule. With plenty of cabin space, moderate ability to get off the beaten trail, and V6 power, the Pilot was perfectly positioned for rising fuel prices later in the decade. As many consumers ditched their traditional truck-based SUVs to save on fuel, the Pilot only grew in popularity.
The Pilot is now in its third generation, having received a mild refresh for 2019 that includes slightly updated front and rear styling. It also receives an updated infotainment system and, more importantly, it brings the Honda Sensing suite of driver-assistance features as standard equipment.
Look and Feel
Visual updates are subtle, but an enthusiastic and knowledgable Honda shopper will spot them. The headlights are more futuristic, and the lower front valence has a cleaner design. The grille area looks more like the front grille of the recently refreshed Honda CR-V, only scaled up to Pilot size, and includes a larger Honda “H” logo.
Out back, Honda adds a bit more detail around the lower rear bumper, and the taillights now incorporate more white and amber portions. It’s incredibly subtle but manages to give the Pilot a slightly more distinguished derriere.
Inside, the Pilot gets an updated steering wheel, Honda’s new proprietary shifter design (more on that later), and a new infotainment system (more on that later as well). There are very slight changes to the climate-control vents, and that’s mostly it for interior updates.
Trims for the Pilot are LX, EX, EX-L, Touring, and our test vehicle, the range-topping Elite. As for the base LX, it comes equipped with 18-inch alloy wheels, push-button start, a pair of front-row USB ports, Bluetooth connectivity, and a 5-inch color display that operates a standard 7-speaker stereo with subwoofer. It also features a 60/40 split-folding second row and fold-flat third row.
Next up in the lineup is the Pilot EX, which is our recommended trim. It adds passive entry and auto-locking as you walk away from the vehicle, LED fog lights, 3-zone climate control, and a conversation mirror integrated into the sunglasses holder. Other features on the EX include one-touch folding second-row seats, a 12-way power driver’s seat, and the 8-inch Display Audio infotainment system, complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Next is the EX-L. The “L” stands for leather, but this trim comes with a few other features as well. In addition to the upgraded upholstery, the EX-L gets a power tailgate, one-touch power moonroof, an acoustic glass windshield, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. It also adds second-row manual sun shades, a 4-way power front-passenger seat, and the addition of a compass and turn-by-turn navigation directions into the digital panel in the center of the instrument cluster.
The Touring trim brings a lot of additional content, including some things that are optional on the EX-L, such as navigation, a wall-style power outlet, and the advanced rear entertainment system with 10.2-inch screen, BluRay player, and built-in streaming apps. Other features on the Touring include a multi-zone audio system, mobile hotspot capability (subscription required), and a 500-watt premium audio system with 10 speakers, including a subwoofer. Courtesy door lights, blue LED ambient lighting, front-and-rear parking sensors, and LED low beams round out the Touring.
Finally, there’s the range-topping Elite. It adds a panoramic moonroof, LED front-row map lights, a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated second-row captain’s chairs, and a wireless charging pad. Our test model also came with remote start, which is one of the best features you can offer to drivers in colder climates.
Regardless of trim, the Pilot comes standard with a V6 engine, giving it a performance edge over its rival, the Toyota Highlander. Toyota’s family hauler comes standard with an anemic 4-cylinder engine, and you have to option-up (read: pay more) to get the available V6. In the Pilot, the 3.5-liter V6 makes 280 horsepower, and 262 pound-feet of torque, delivering solid acceleration. This engine includes cylinder deactivation and auto stop/start to save fuel. The auto stop/start is a bit abrupt and doesn’t allow you to turn the steering wheel when the engine’s off. Luckily, there’s a button to turn off the stop/start system.
The V6 sends power through a 6-speed automatic in most trims, but the Touring and our Elite test vehicle get Honda’s new 9-speed automatic. This transmission is designed to deliver better power management and improved fuel economy. The 6-speed gets a traditional shifter, while the 9-speed gets Honda’s proprietary shifter design. This is a classic case of “don’t mess with what isn’t broken.” The design is okay, but it can be confusing if you are lending the car to someone who has never used it before. Things like shifter design should be standardized.
The 9-speed has the added benefit of steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. When you’re driving along and want to overtake a vehicle, you can use those paddles, or press the shifter's “D” button a second time to engage “S” or Sport mode. And yet, despite the strong acceleration, the driving experience feels a bit disconnected from the road. While the steering has decent weight and response to it, the gas and brake pedals feel vague, and there’s a good amount of body roll. So in this sense, it definitely drives like a minivan. The upshot of its soft ride is that the Pilot drives perfectly fine over rough roads.
Depending on the configuration, power gets sent to the front wheels (FWD) or Honda’s Intelligent Variable Torque Management (i-VTM4) all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, which comes standard on the Elite. EX and above trims also get Intelligent Traction Management with various drive modes. FWD vehicles have Normal and Snow modes, while AWD vehicles provide Normal, Snow, Mud, and Sand drive modes. Honda claims i-VTM4 is quite capable over various types of terrain, and although a Pilot will never be confused with a Jeep Wrangler, it should get you off the beaten path when needed.
The Pilot's fuel economy varies based on its trim and, more importantly, its transmission. The LX, EX, and EX-L all have the same 6-speed automatic and return fuel economy of 19 mpg city, 27 highway, 22 combined with FWD. With AWD, they return 18, 26, 21.
The FWD Touring returns 20, 27, 23 mpg, representing the most efficient setup in the Pilot lineup. The AWD Touring and Elite trims are expected to return 19, 26, 22 combined, but in a week of combined city and highway driving, we observed fuel economy of 23.1 miles per gallon.
Form and Function
There are two dozen 3-row SUVs on the market of various shapes and sizes. Maybe ten or more of them are among the midsize 3-row SUV segment. And among those, only a handful of options have truly adult-friendly third-row seating. Sure, most can hold adults for a short drive around town, but the only vehicles in this class that can hold adults for long trips are the Volkswagen Atlas, Chevrolet Traverse, and the Pilot. Seldom will you actually need to seat adults in the back, but it’s good to know you can do it.
The rest of the time, the Pilot will seat kids in the second and third rows, and there are plenty of places to store their gear, including double-level in-door storage spaces.
The Pilot also comes standard with 15 cupholders: five in the front row, six in the second, and four in the third.
Cargo volume actually varies based on trim, but the basic space behind the rear seats is 16.5 cubic feet (the Elite has less, at 16.0 cubic feet). With the third row folded (a common configuration), the Pilot provides 46.8 cubic feet of cargo space (46.0 for the Elite). Finally, with all seats folded, the Pilot offers up to 83.9 cubic feet of cargo space. EX, EX-L, and Touring provide 83.8 cubic feet (if you’re splitting hairs), and the Touring has 82.1 cubic feet. All this variation is due to the different content offered by each trim.
Considering the competition, the Pilot has about the same capacity as the Toyota Highlander and a hair less than the Subaru Ascent. As with third-row passenger space, the top performers for cargo room are the Volkswagen Atlas, at 96 cubic feet, and the Chevrolet Traverse, which has 98 total cubic feet available.
The Pilot has a new infotainment system, complete with a Volume knob. The addition of a Volume knob may sound trivial, but think about all the ways you interact with a car and how many of those interactions occur instinctively. The turn signals, horn, wipers, climate control, shifter, and radio are all things you should know how to use when you get into any car. After a few years of Volume-knobless Pilots, Honda has finally listened to the critics and brought the Volume knob back.
As for the new touchscreen, it comes standard on every trim above the base LX and features crisp graphics and effortless menu navigation. Combined with the Volume knob, it’s a huge improvement over last year’s system. It’ll be nice when there’s a tuning dial as well.
As for keeping the kids occupied on long trips, the Touring and Elite come with a flip-down rear entertainment screen with a pair of headphones. This system is also available on the EX-L. And if the little ones disagree on the movie selection, a pair of available rear USB ports will let two backseat occupants charge their own devices, and the mobile hotspot in the Touring and Elite trims will ensure they can stream movies to them as well.
When it comes to parent-friendly tools, there are some low-tech solutions like the aforementioned wide-angle cabin mirror that lets you keep an eye on the little ones. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the CabinTalk PA system, which allows the driver to speak to the rear passengers through the rear entertainment system headphones, and in the Elite, all the rear speakers.
The Pilot comes standard with a full array of front- and side-impact airbags, vehicle stability control, a reversing camera, and a tire pressure monitoring system with fill assist, which indicates when the tires are full.
For 2019, the Pilot also comes standard with the Honda Sensing suite of driver-assistance features, including forward-collision warning and avoidance, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and automatic high beams. In past years, buyers had to spend more to get these features, but they are now all included on all trims, even the base LX trim.
Of course, there are still a couple of features that you will have to spend a bit more to get. If you want blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, you’ll have to upgrade to any trim above the LX.
Base MSRP for the 2019 Honda Pilot is $31,450. The midrange EX that we recommend checking out starts at $34,330, while the leather-clad EX-L starts at $37,760. Moving to the upscale Touring costs $42,520, while the range-topping Elite starts at $48,020.
Considering the rest of the midsize 3-row SUV market, the Pilot's starting price is right in the meat of that vehicle segment. If you're looking for the best combination of content and value, check out the EX trim. And while the Elite is somewhat pricey, some competitors, when fully loaded, can surpass it in price. Both the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Traverse can top out at more than $55,000, which is crazy for a non-luxury family vehicle.
Over the past couple of years, I have really wanted to recommend a Pilot, because it does so much right when it comes to accommodating families. But the poor infotainment system and lack of a Volume knob led me to suggest checking out comparable rivals. The new shifter for the 9-speed might be a step backward, but from the now-standard Honda Sensing to the new infotainment system and Volume knob, Honda has eliminated the main things that prevented me from previously recommending the spacious, 3-row Pilot.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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