New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Honda Pilot

What’s in a refresh? Not a lot, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

The 2019 Honda Pilot is a vehicle that epitomizes what’s become known as the mid-cycle refresh. An automaker launches a new-generation model to great fanfare and builds it for roughly three years. Then it tarts it up some before selling it for another three or so. Hence, we have the “new” 2019 Pilot. It doesn’t matter if it needs to be changed; it must be changed, because without change, apparently, we wither and die. (Or at the very least a bunch of people would be out of work.)

Sure, some of the updates to the refreshed Honda Pilot are welcome, like the upgraded stereo (the volume knob returns!) and improvements to its optional 9-speed transmission. And the addition of standard equipment like the Honda Sensing safety suite is to be applauded. But did Honda really need to futz with the Pilot’s front- and rear-end styling and a few interior trim bits? Not so much. Really, these are all changes that could have easily been added here and there, but then there wouldn’t be “new” one to market to customers, would there?

As you can probably guess by now, our drive of the 2019 Pilot wasn’t so much a revelation as it was a recitation of what the Pilot already does well. What is that you ask? For one thing, it seats seven (or eight) people in reasonable comfort. That’s no minor feat: To fit that many adult humans into a vehicle without torturing them, you generally need one of those Expedition-sized family trucksters. But the Pilot is one of only a handful of crossovers with a third-row capable pulling it off. (Bonus: There’s still adequate cargo room with the third-row seat in place.)

The Pilot also drives pretty well under the right conditions. It has a light-on-its-feet feel that’s become a Honda trademark, which is all the more impressive given that we’re talking about a two-ton crossover. Honda has also done a great job dialing in the Pilot’s steering feel without overboosting it or eliminating on-center feedback. Dive into the curves at speeds that will make the kids throw up, and the Pilot’s body simply refuses to lean. It’s as if it built the damn thing with a cement foundation.

For the record though, I think Honda cheated some by having us pilot the Pilot on some of Southern California’s smoother roadways. The first time I drove the 2016 Pilot—when this generation really was all-new—it was on the well-paved roads of Kentucky, and I was impressed. But the second time I drove it was on the choppy pavement of New York City’s suburbs, and even the smallest potholes unsettled it. We had a thousand-mile road trip on the frost-heaved roads of upstate New York ahead of us, and my wife was not thrilled: “I thought you said this thing would be comfortable!” I still shudder at the memory of her withering glare.

Will the 2019 Pilot exhibit the same rough ride quality over bad roads that I encountered? The chief engineer told us that other than improved brakes, there are no serious changes to the chassis, so we imagine it will. Still, we’d have to dispatch one to Todd Lassa or Jamie Kitman, our men in Detroit and New York respectively, to find out for sure.

One thing that did (sort of) impress me is how well the 9-speed automatic performed. After taking some criticism for its operation, Honda says it made extensive hardware and software changes to the transmission for the 2019 Pilot, and routine driving is greatly improved. Nine-speed Pilots now accelerate smoothly from a stop, and part-throttle power demands are met with a crisp downshift.

Still, it isn’t perfect. Stomping the throttle on the highway often led to lazy feeling, two-step downshifts. And we experienced some hesitation when we floored the go pedal from a dead stop (especially when auto stop/start was engaged). It is worth noting that the ZF sourced 9-speed, which is only available for the top trim Pilot Elite (other trims continue to employ the Honda-built 6-speed auto), is the only transmission Honda has ever outsourced; usually it designs its own. Lesson learned, maybe?

The engine to which both transmissions are strapped is a carryover—Honda’s well-worn 3.5 liter V-6. Horsepower is 280, unchanged since 2016. It’s adequate, to be sure, but with a horsepower race going on elsewhere in the industry, it may have been a mistake for Honda not to rework it in order to give it some more grunt.

Besides the updated transmission, Honda was eager to shine more light on the the torque-vectoring ability of the Pilot’s all-wheel-drive system, so it set up an off-road course that involved lots of body-bending, wheel-lifting dips and ruts. It was an impressive display. The Pilot was steady on its feet and did a good job distributing power where needed, even with one paw hanging in the air. Yes, we know, few Pilot owners will be doing any serious off-roading. But it’s very likely they’ll be driving their Pilots in snow and rain, and that same ability to find grip and avoid slip will serve the Pilot driver well when Mother Nature gets a bug up her caboose.

In case you didn’t already know, the Honda Pilot will also tow: 3,500 lb out of the box and 5,000 lb with the addition of a transmission cooler, and yes, Honda wanted us to experience that, too. So it set up a Civic race car on an aluminum trailer for a Pilot to tow, a combination it said weighed about 3,900 lb. I’m something of a trailering snob, critical of even the slightest sign of instability. But I was truly impressed with how well the Pilot handled the load; power, stability, and braking were as good as advertised.

Inside, the interior has been revamped with a new (and slightly less sensible to us) gauge cluster and—Heaven be praised!—a new stereo with a real-live volume knob. (Honda took some flak from customers and the press when it went without volume knobs on some of its recent models, and has been rolling them back out.) Other than that, changes to the dash are minimal. The easy-to-use climate controls, big cup holders, and center console storage cubby large enough to hide a toddler all remain.

More importantly, Honda has made its HondaSensing safety suite—collision warning with automatic braking, road- and lane-departure assistance, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams—standard on all Pilots. Hopefully other manufacturers will follow Honda’s lead and make these important safety features standard on lower-priced models.

All Pilot trim levels get a smattering of new equipment. Among the bits and bobs you’ll find in different models: Cabin Control, which lets back-seaters use their smartphone as a remote for the rear-seat entertainment system; CabinTalk, one of those voice-of-God features that lets the folks in front be heard in the back; a hands-free power tailgate; and a wireless charging pad.

Did the Pilot need any major revamping? The only real issues we’ve experienced since the present generation’s debut has been its rough road ride quality, which Honda didn’t address, and the mixed bag that is the 9-speed transmission. Other than that, it’s been well equipped to take on the competition for several years now. But that competition is tough and getting tougher all the time: The good-to-drive Volkswagen Atlas, uber-roomy Chevrolet Traverse, upscale Mazda CX-9, competent Ford Explorer, and promising new Subaru Ascent are all impressive rivals for the Pilot to face down. So maybe a “new” Pilot isn’t such a bad thing, after all.

Ultimately, your choice may come down to locale. If you live in an area where the roads are messy (hello, Michigan) the Honda may prove to be too much of a rough rider. Still, its combination of a roomy interior, mostly-usable third-row seat, and a reputation for epic reliability make it an appealing choice. Not very terribly exciting, but definitely appealing.

2019 Honda Pilot Elite AWD Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $49,015 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 3.5L SOHC 24-valve V-6/280 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7/8-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 19/26 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 196.5 x 78.6 x 70.6 in
WHEELBASE 111.0 in
WEIGHT 4,319 lb
0-60 MPH 6.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 110 mph (est)

 

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