The current Honda Pilot debuted for 2016, which means its time for what the industry calls a mid-cycle refresh. The perennial three-row family hauler has been a consistent best-seller since the nameplate debuted all the way back in 2002, and Honda aims to maintain a commanding position in a segment that's more important — and more cutthroat — than it has been in this century.
This update is more about interior technology than a stylistic revamp, but it's prudent to point out the visual differences between the 2019 model and the versions it is replacing.
The bottom half of the front fascia has been redesigned, trading the black plastic inlets with horizontal bars just beneath the headlights for more sculpted housings for the SUV's running lights. The result is that the leading edge of the bumper now has a wider visual stance, flowing into the C-shaped running light housings, while the lower lip of the front fascia now incorporates a mesh insert. The grille itself has been reworked as well, featuring a thicker chrome bar at the top that stretches into the headlights themselves, while the round fog lights have been relocated from the bottom of the front fascia into the newly-shaped DRL housings. Out back, Honda has also tweaked the design of the taillights, though the changes are less noticeable. The overall result is a sleeker and less cluttered front fascia that goes a little lighter on black plastic.
Under the skin, Honda has recalibrated the nine-speed automatic transmission, tweaking it to provide smoother launches and less-noticeable gear changes, in addition to reworking the start-stop system that was a little too laggy on the outgoing model. The Pilot keeps its 3.5-liter V6 — the sole engine in the range — though in the lower trim levels buyers can also pair this engine with a six-speed automatic. 280 hp and 262 lb-ft are available to propel the Pilot, thankfully without needing premium fuel.
The Pilot has a few off-road tricks up its sleeve, even though we rarely see it travel off-road intentionally.
When it comes to tech the Honda Sensing Suite is now standard across the board, offering greater driver safety features and awareness, which includes lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, road departure mitigation, and forward collision alert. The automaker has also made the blind spot information system — previously coupled only with the Elite trim — standard on all trims except the base LX flavor.
When it comes to infotainment, this is where three years of progress becomes really apparent. Honda has redesigned the instrument cluster, adding a larger 7-inch screen, and has also improved the Display Audio system and its 8-inch touchscreen. The new system features a simplified menu structure featuring big icons that look like smartphone apps that can be rearranged just like on a smartphone to suit your tastes. What's more, the infotainment system can now be upgraded via over-the-air updates, like Tesla's, or the old fashioned way through a USB stick. This gives the system some futureproofing, since in-car infotainment systems are already outpacing the speed of vehicle updates themselves. (Sadly, there's no over-the-air update for a Ludicrous Mode, or an option to uncork an extra 50 hp. At least not yet).
Depending on how much you want to tinker with the car via a smartphone, there is now an option to do just that via an app called CabinControl, which can be downloaded on a smartphone and used to control onboard settings like the rear climate control system, the audio, and the rear entertainment system. Backseat drivers can also add addresses and points of interest to the navigation system via their phones (or just tell the driver out loud to go to that place). The coolest, and perhaps most agreeable, feature of this system is called Social Playlist, which allows up to seven connected phones to share music on a playlist that is displayed on the main infotainment screen. Since there are so many phones now presumed to be in the Pilot at any given time, wireless charging is now standard on the Elite trim level and available as a dealer-installed feature on EX, EX-L and Touring flavors of the SUV. Also, the volume knob is back due to popular demand, after an unsuccessful experiment in user interfaces.
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On the road the Pilot still feels like a larger version of the CR-V. That's no surprise as handling across Honda's lineup tends to be very consistent, more consistent than with other automakers. Straight line acceleration is mostly drama-free, as the V6 builds up speed with ease and a determined but hushed growl as the automatic rows through the gears. The Pilot's road manners also remain mostly drama-free during an opportunity to hoon something this large in the hills a couple of hours north of LA.
Still, there is no hiding the Pilot's size, and this means some moderate body lean in the corners, and a steering system that clearly errs on the side of comfort. As I try to make the Pilot impersonate a Civic Type-R through the twisty mountain roads, the tires and the suspension take it all in with just a slight shrug — the top-heavy Pilot can handle itself when pushed well past its school run comfort zone, even though it would greatly prefer that I didn't throw it around in the corners like a hot hatch.
One aspect of its handling that's a bit of an outlier are the brakes: They require a lot of pedal travel, and there's no hiding the accompanying nosediving that comes with it. In a way this is consistent with the CR-V — it also needs a generous application of the brakes to come to a stop — but the brakes are still a bit softer than its competitors' in this segment.
Steering feel is also on the softer side, at least when it comes to puttering around in town. Honda builds family cars, so until a Pilot Type-R comes along this is all the steering feel and sharpness that I'm going to get.
Even though the Pilot makes its living on the daily commute, it's still an SUV with some off-road skills up its sleeve, skills that Honda has scarcely publicized. Until now. I got to take the Pilot on a short off-road driving course meant to show off its off-road chops, ascending steep grades, crawling over some sharp rocks, and tackling moguls — activities you won't find advertised as the Pilot's primary mission at a Honda dealer. Lo and behold, the Pilot transfers its tidy on-road manners to some moderately challenging off-road terrain, climbing over some fairly steep dirt hills and traveling over deep ruts, ready to stick its front and rear tires in the air as it balances on moguls. The Pilot's chassis maintains its poise through this off-road trial, allowing me to take it well outside the usual set of challenges that such an SUV faces in daily driving. Perhaps Honda is missing an opportunity to market the Pilot to oil field workers and prospectors, the kind that actually experience this terrain on their daily commutes.
The major updates are inside (which is where you'll be spending most of your time in the Pilot).
The Pilot remains a reliable choice of wheels for large families, and the 2019 model year revamp keeps it fresh when it comes to in-car tech. Even though the changes are on the subtle side, it's worth it to go for the 2019 model over the 2018 leftovers; the tech goodies will be worth it to those who make full use of the infotainment system.
In a segment that sees new entries show up every few months, the Pilot is now forced to perform the tasks asked of the Odyssey a generation ago, serving the large family cruiser pressed into round-the-clock duty. There are certainly sportier choices out there if you need that, but for the slog of daily commutes it's tough to top the Pilot's ease of use and well-balanced road manners.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $32,445
As Tested Price: $42,915
Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6; six-speed automatic or nine-speed automatic
Output: 280 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,036 lb.
Fuel Economy: 19/27/22 mpg(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Roomy, good road manners, seats eight, quiet, good visibility, lots of safety tech
Cons: Soft brakes, feels heavy, gas mileage corresponds to size