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Honda Tough: Taking the Pilot to the Air

It turns out you can jump a Honda Pilot.

Many a good adventure begins with a harebrained idea. Mine was to jump a $47,000 Honda crossover.

The notion surfaced when a Honda rep bragged how the 2016 Pilot, a glorified minivan without sliding doors, could handle the Rubicon Trail. I've banged over the 20-mile-long High Sierra spine-scrambler and assured him, no, it could not. In fairness, the conversation took place as we trundled a Pilot up a steep dirt mound in a demonstration of the crossover's Intelligent Traction Management system. I couldn't imagine a Ford Windstar clearing the grade.

With traction control set to Sand, we crested the rise as Honda's man told me some of the development work on the multiterrain system occurred in Dubai. I eyed the hump and imagined taking it much, much faster. Had anyone tried to jump a Pilot, Baja style? Now that might prove how tough the crossover really is.

Weeks later, Honda delivered a Pilot Elite, having replaced the 20-inch citified rubber with 18-inch Pirelli Scorpions, a tire with more all-terrain bite. I headed west from New York toward the wilds of Pennsylvania and the Poconos.

The Pilot got its first taste of black-veined dirt in the former coal fields of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area. The pay-to-play site, 6,000 acres in Coal Township, is some 60 miles north of Hershey. The Keystone State is laced with dedicated off-road sites, some operated with official hours and welcome centers, such as Anthracite, and others by seasonal permits. Anthracite opened in 2014 and has a spiderweb of trails that range from mud bogging to rock crawling. It is economical too: An annual pass starts at $120.

In the quest to see if Honda can hang a macho mustache on the Pilot—it shares its platform with the Odyssey minivan and the Accord—some extra fun came along too. The company makes everything from lawn mowers (including the world's fastest, a 109-hp monster capable of 116 mph) to weed trimmers. So a Rancher ATV and a side-by-side Pioneer UTV joined the fray. While Honda builds neither expressly to jump, I was reasonably sure they could—though probably not by me.

I needed seasoned operators in the form of genuine off-roading Pennsylvanians Dale Esbin and his 15-year-old son, Jake. Dale is an old-school dirt hound and all-around outdoorsman, and Jake possesses natural talent, having ridden four-wheelers since he was 5. The Esbins would be good judges of the Honda's outdoor, mud-splashing, boulder-grinding worthiness.

They had their doubts about the Pilot. After all, it had shiny green metallic paint, a standard panoramic glass roof, second-row heated captain's chairs, and room for seven. The Pilot's subtext is almost-luxury, the owner a comfortable dad whose likeliest foray off-piste is into the bunker at his favorite nine.

Before we found out, Dave Porzi, Anthracite's director of operations, led us on a recce around the property. "I grew up riding around these mountains, but it got to the point where I wouldn't come out here anymore, with all the shooting and boozing and druggin' going on," he said. "But the county commissioners had the idea of turning this former coal land into an economic engine for the area, where we could sponsor responsible recreation and conservation."