First Drive – 2019 Honda Pilot
Honda Emphasizes Ruggedness for the Pilot’s Mild Refresh
Honda revealed a mildly refreshed 2019 Pilot a few weeks ago, but if you blinked, you probably missed it. The evergreen three-row crossover tends to fade into the background, offering spacious and comfortable seating for the whole family but not much in the way of visual excitement. In fact, the current Pilot's substantial competency was spoiled by only one thing: a nine-speed automatic transmission that had a tendency to hunt and shudder in certain gear-change situations. It wasn’t terrible, but set against an otherwise excellent backdrop, the gearbox was the only fly in Honda’s ointment.
That’s slated to change as the 2019 Pilot makes its way to dealers, starting now. Though mostly the same as its 2018 variant, the new Pilot has been optimized with revised transmission tuning and some new hardware—valving and other internals have been changed to ensure firmer, more positive gear changes. Furthermore, in its default mode, the new Pilot starts out in Second gear to provide smooth, jerk-free acceleration from a standstill. Push the go pedal hard or activate the transmission’s Sport mode and you’ll get the full forward thrust of the ultra-low First gear.
The 2019 Pilot is also ever so slightly restyled, with a new front bumper, front grille design, rear bumper, and rear taillights. The front and rear bumpers also get skidplates (that we doubt provide much actual protection), and the reverse lights migrate from the rear bumper to the combination taillights. The changes are almost imperceptible, but they do give the Pilot a slightly cleaner profile front and rear. It’s a difference of only a few degrees, but every little bit helps.
Honda says the updates also give the Pilot a more rugged demeanor. Amid a tacit acknowledgement that the company has done little to publicize the Pilot’s rough-road talents, Honda’s changes to the 2019 model are intended to advertise its torque-vectoring all-wheel drive more overtly.
When the Pilot was redesigned for 2016, it traded its predecessor's blocky, Lego-inspired styling for a smoother, plus-size–CR-V profile. The company says prospective customers saw the old Pilot as non-aerodynamic and inefficient (even though numbers suggested otherwise), so the new one’s design was more streamlined in order to capture the attention of those efficiency-conscious families.
However, an unintended side effect of this was the new Pilot lost the old one’s sense of perceived ruggedness. In an attempt to reestablish the crossover as a reasonable off-road companion, Honda invited us out to try the 2019 Pilot on a variety of terrain, cycling through the SUV’s Intelligent Traction Management (ITM) modes to experience how each affects the crossover.
On-RoadBefore we get too far ahead of ourselves, the Pilot’s updated nine-speed automatic transmission is indeed an improvement on the gearbox it replaces. The tuning and hardware changes made to the ZF-sourced auto make it much more pleasant in low-speed driving, with none of the hunting or shuddering that frustrated the Pilot’s otherwise excellent demeanor in normal commuting. That nine-speed is exclusive to the Pilot Touring and Pilot Elite; LX, EX, and EX-L models get Honda’s tried-and-true six-speed automatic, docking efficiency slightly but offering just as much smoothness and performance as the nine-speeder.
Also improving the Pilot’s everyday experience is an updated infotainment system. It still uses an 8-inch touchscreen, but Honda mercifully added a physical volume knob to the left of the display, ditching the touch sliders once and for all. Menu structures have also been reorganized for better ergonomics, but we’ll need a bit more seat time to verify that.
Otherwise, the Pilot is the same comfortable family crossover it has always been, with plenty of room in all three rows for adults, teens, and kids.
In the RoughHonda made absolutely no changes to the optional Pilot’s intelligent Variable Torque Management (i-VTM4) all-wheel-drive system for 2019. Even so, the company placed a high importance on the system, which offers dedicated torque vectoring on the rear differential, during the reveal event for the 2019 Pilot.
The i-VTM4 system (shared with the Ridgeline) is standard on every all-wheel-drive Pilot, and its centerpiece is an electronically controlled, hydraulic-activated rear differential. Capable of sending up to 70 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels, i-VTM4 and its trick diff can apportion up to 100 percent of rear-axle torque to either wheel. Paired with the aforementioned ITM, the 2019 Pilot is capable of some surprising off-road antics.
Honda proved this by building a large off-road course in scenic Thousand Oaks, California. The course included a deep sand pit, large rock field, and several frame twisters, each intended to tax the Pilot’s different traction aids. One of the frame twisters, for example, lifted one of the rear wheels off the ground. Rather than uselessly spinning that airborne rear wheel, i-VTM4 instead shuffled power to the other side of the axle, giving the Pilot the necessary traction to move forward.
The sand pit illuminated the virtues of ITM’s different drive modes. Normal, for example, has the stability control set at full, with slightly sluggish throttle response for a smooth driving experience. Switching to Snow dulled throttle response even further, helping make low-traction launches easy. Neither of these modes is ideal for deep sand, however, which is where ITM’s setting for that terrain comes in. In Sand mode, throttle response is ratcheted up and traction and stability controls are mostly deactivated, allowing the driver to mat the throttle, thrash the sand around, and make some real forward progress. Mud mode is similar, with a slightly less jumpy throttle befitting that kind of sloppy terrain.
As with any off-road excursion, picking the correct line helped keep the Pilot moving forward with minimal drama. But even when we deliberately got the crossover crossed up, we could feel i-VTM4 shuffle traction around to resume forward momentum, and each time it worked perfectly.
The 2019 Pilot is in dealers now, with prices starting at $32,445 for the base LX 2WD and $34,345 for the LX AWD. Those models (and all others with the six-speed auto) get 19 city/27 highway/22 combined and 18 city/26 highway/21 combined mpg respectively. The Pilot EX asks for $35,325 or $37,225 depending on front- or all-wheel drive, while the leather-equipped EX-L costs $38,755 or $40,655 depending on drive. The nine-speed–equipped Pilot Touring costs $43,515 or $45,415, while the all-wheel-drive–only Pilot Elite is $49,015. Models with the nine-speed auto and front-wheel drive achieve 20 city/27 highway/23 combined mpg, while the nine-speed/AWD combo nets 19/26/22.
In sum, the 2019 Honda Pilot’s off-road prowess is commendable. Now, before you fire up your typewriters and call us four-letter words for describing a family crossover in off-road terms, know that even Honda acknowledges that the Pilot is better suited for family adventures than maximum-attack Moab duty. But for those moments when the trail to your favorite campsite is rougher than usual or the temptation to travel down an unmapped road is too great to deny, know that the Pilot is equipped to handle worse conditions than one might think.
Not bad for a suburban family crossover.