The Broken Arrow Trail outside of Sedona, Arizona, is like an off-road amusement park ride. Spanning 2.8 miles in and out, it rises more than 400 feet and features the area’s iconic red rock formations as a stunning backdrop. It’s also the birthplace of Pink Jeep Tours, which has been ferrying people on and off the Broken Arrow since 1960. While the company’s pink-painted Wranglers are an everyday sight, it’s not every day that they share the road with caravans of mid-size three-row SUVs, specifically the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport.
It cost over $500 for a family of four to take a Jeep tour of the same route on which we drove the new fourth-generation Pilot. We couldn’t help but laugh at the shocked looks on people’s faces as they passed what probably looked like the SUV they had arrived in. Some passengers smiled and took photos with their cell phones; others sat gaping in open-top Jeeps, perhaps wondering if they could just drive their own vehicles instead of paying for a tour.
Trails tough enough like the Broken Arrow can’t be tackled in most family SUVs—at least without breaking a thing. Honda hopes to change that with the upgraded Pilot TrailSport, and our first experience at the wheel of the prototype suggests it’s more capable than the fake off-roaders so popular in this space (including the earlier Pilot TrailSport). By making a model as capable as advertised, Honda hoped the new Pilot would stand out in a hotly contested segment.
The TrailSport, which starts at $49,695, is the poster child for the fourth-generation Pilot. Its toughness encapsulates the pilot’s redesigned appearance and grander proportions. Compared to its predecessor, the new TrailSport is 3.7 inches longer overall — making it Honda’s largest SUV — with front and rear tracks that are 1.1 and 1.3 inches wider respectively. Unlike before, the Pilot also won’t be mistaken for a minivan, largely due to its square face and longer dashboard-to-axle ratio.
While every 2023 Pilot looks sturdier and benefits from a new platform that Honda says is the stiffest, the TrailSport stands out with exclusive off-road hardware. That includes 1.0 inches of lift that adds ground clearance (for a total of 8.3 inches) and trim-only suspension with retuned dampers with different valves, unique spring rates, and thinner front anti-roll bars for increased flexibility. The new TrailSport is the first factory-fit Pilot with all-terrain tires, which are mounted on dark-colored 18-inch rims with an inset spoke design and a unique wheel flange to prevent damage. It’s also the only model with full-size fit parts. Thankfully, we didn’t need to repair the flat on the Broken Arrow Trail, nor did we have to use TrailSport’s fore and aft restore points.
The Continental TerrainContact A/T TrailSport all-terrain tires and torque vectoring all-wheel drive work together to maintain maximum traction. The 30.5-inch tires safely clung to Broken Arrow’s rocky red terrain, slippery from the previous day’s snowfall. The all-wheel drive system can send up to 70 percent of the available torque to the rear axle, and 100 percent can be sent to one wheel. As the Pilot clawed his way through the toughest obstacles in the new Trail mode, we could feel Honda’s Trace Torque Logic at work while we relaxed in the front seats, which are now more supportive.
Our comfortable daydreams are occasionally interrupted by grinding gears as hard objects encounter the steel skid plates that protect the engine, transmission and fuel tank. Still, no real losses were incurred, and our Pilot’s convoy confidently marched on. Our confidence is heightened by TrailSport’s handy TrailWatch camera system, which has front, side, and 360-degree views that can be quickly accessed via a button at the end of the windshield wiper shaft. The front view is particularly useful on steep hills when the view above the hood shows nothing but the sky.
Enhanced On-Road Enhancements
While the TrailSport model draws the most attention, the regular Pilot is also much better. We dined on the top-of-the-line Elite, whose luxury features explain its $53,375 starting price. Apart from the TrailSport’s enhanced off-road cut, the new refinements the Pilot finds are the most exciting updates for the 2023 model. The structure is stiffer, there are a myriad of sound deadening measures, and Honda redesigned the suspension to improve ride comfort and stability. The chassis also features larger front brake rotors (13.8 versus 12.6 inches) and shorter overall brake pedal travel. The steering is quicker, and the wheels are slightly wider and covered in better materials.
The enhancements have not only helped make the Pilot a lot quieter inside, but driving this Honda SUV is also less of a total delay. Granted, the Pilot doesn’t corner or stop like the Civic Type R, but it doesn’t feel like a wobbly barge either. The direct feel of the steering is a big leap from the lifeless old steering, and combines with better body control and more responsive brakes for a much better driving experience than its predecessor.
Each Pilot has Honda’s double-overhead-cam 3.5-liter V-6, which shares the same displacement as the single-overhead-cam V-6 it replaces with notable improvements to the fuel delivery system, internals, and packaging. The new engine still produces 262 lb-ft of torque, but horsepower goes up from 280 to 285. The engine is mated to a new 10-speed automatic transmission instead of a nine-speed unit, and is front- or all-wheel drive.
The new powertrain doesn’t make the Pilot feel any quicker, but the throttle is more responsive at low speeds, and gearshifts go largely unnoticed. Fixed towing capacity of 5,000 pounds. The EPA’s estimated fuel economy for the front-wheel-drive model is a combined 22 mpg, while the all-wheel-drive version delivers a combined 21 mpg (20 mpg for the TrailSport). Those combined figures are all 1 mpg lower than the outgoing Pilot.
Breaking Old Mold
While the 2023 Pilot lacks 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 ever.
The pilot can comfortably seat seven or eight people, though maneuvering around the cabin is easier on its sliding-door sibling. However, the second row of seats is very flexible, and some models have a removable middle seat that can be stored under the rear cargo floor. However, the seats weigh over 30 pounds, so stowing them takes some muscle. When under-floor storage is not occupied, it offers 3 cubic feet of space. The removable load floor panels are 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 cup holders (for a total of 14). Cargo space is also larger, now with 49 cubic feet behind the second row and 19 cubic feet behind the third, increasing by two in both cases. Folding down 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 console bay and a handy dash-mounted parcel rack.
Only the top-level Pilot Elite has a 10.2-inch digital gauge cluster and a head-up display. All versions except the LX and Sport trims feature a 9.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s all part of an attractive package that includes standard driver assistance such as automatic emergency braking, automatic high beam, adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assistance.
We’re impressed with the 2023 model’s improvements. It breaks the mold of an older generation, evolving from forgotten to desirable—especially to all those who saw TrailSport follow the pink Jeep on the Broken Arrow Trail.
2023 Honda pilots
Vehicle Type: front engine, front or all-wheel-drive, 7- or 8-passenger, 4-door wagon
Base: LX, $37,295; LX AWD, $39,395; Sports, $40,495; AWD Sport, $42,595; EX-L, $43,295; EX-L AWD, $45,395; Tour, $47,795; AWD Tour, $49,895; TrailSport, $49,695; Elite, $53,375
DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and head, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 212 inches33471 cm3
Power: 285 hp @ 6100 rpm
Torque: 262 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
10 speed automatic
Wheelbase: 113.8 inches
Length: 199.9–200.2 inches
Width: 78.5 inches
Height: 70.9–72.0 inches
Passenger Volume, F/M/R: 57–59/57–59/40 ft3
Cargo Volume, Rear F/M/R: 87/49/19 ft3
bridle weight (CD approx.): 4050–4700 lb
SHOW (CD EST)
60 mph: 6.0–6.5 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.5–15.1 sec
Top Speed: 115 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/City/Highway: 20–22/18–19/23–27 mpg