2019 Honda Pilot: This full-size SUV's capability may surprise you [First Look]

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2019 Honda Pilot (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

As I approached the obstacle dubbed the “frame twister,” I had the fleeting thought that this shouldn’t be possible.

The front, left tire dipped into the deep hole, and as I crept forward, the rear, right tire popped off the ground and spun pointlessly in the air before losing momentum and stopping. The other three tires picked up the slack, and without much pause, pulled the 2019 Honda Pilot through the man-made off-road course.

That’s right. I said “Honda” and “Pilot” and “off-road” all in the same sentence.

I could also add words and phrases such as “mogul,” “log crawl,” “rock pile” and “sand” to the mix. Because the Pilot tackled those obstacles as well.

The Pilot is a 7- or 8-passenger family hauler, known more for carpool prowess than its ability to go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

So, with this 2019 refresh, Honda has a message to share: When equipped with the all-wheel-drive powertrain, the Pilot is more capable than you may think.

No, it’s not trail-rated. It doesn’t have a rear-locking differential or adjustable air suspension. It certainly doesn’t come with an off-road package or trim. And, no, customers will not be buying the Pilot to take a trek on the Rubicon trail.

That’s not the point.

Most customers who buy a Pilot will be taking family road trips on well-paved highways or carting kids back and forth to baseball practice.

However, if owners should find themselves in knee-deep snow, on a sandy beach or in a muddy field, the Pilot has a mode for that and can probably get them out of some precarious situations.

And that is the point.

Honda’s AWD system is a $1,900 option over the standard front-wheel-drive powertrain, but it comes with an intelligent torque vectoring management system (i-TVM4) as well as an Intelligent Traction Management (ITM) system that can be switched from normal to snow, mud or sand modes.

As I discovered during my drive in the obstacle course, this system can send 70 percent of the torque to the rear wheels and then 100 percent of the rear-wheel torque to a single wheel.

But this active torque vectoring plays well for on-road driving as well, distributing torque to the outside wheels when cornering in order to reduce understeer.

The overall effect is the 2019 Pilot feels really solid and planted on curvy roads.

Generally speaking, the refreshed Pilot is a very comfortable cruiser for all seating positions. I was able to get a decent driving position with great visibility out all windows, and I took turns sitting in each row to get an idea of leg and head room. I was fairly impressed with the third row in terms of roominess and ease of access.

The one complaint I had for the driver’s seat is that I wish the seat bottom was adjustable (it was a tad to long for my short legs), and I wish it tilted downward more. But, I typically chalk those issues up to #petiteproblems.

The engine carries over for the refresh, and is the same 3.5-liter V-6 from the 2018 model. There are no horsepower tweaks, so the power output remains 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. And it’s fine.

The acceleration is a bit sluggish for my tastes, but I will say it gets the job done. When merging with fast-moving traffic, I was able to get up to speed within a reasonable amount of time.

Though the engine isn’t new, and much of the interior styling stays the same, there are some significant changes to the 2019 model, the most visible of which is the restyled front and rear fascia. Honda wanted to go with a more aggressive look so that the exterior design more closely matched its capability.

The biggest news, however, is Honda Sensing is now standard on all trims. This includes safety features such as lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking. Also standard: LED headlights and daytime running lights.

Available features that are completely new to the Pilot lineup for 2019 include CabinControl, CabinTalk, HondaLink telematics, a hands-free power liftgate, wireless phone charging and power-folding auto-dimming side mirrors.

Pilot retains its five-trim structure, and pricing only increases $550 to $1,000 depending on the trim. Front-wheel drive is the base drivetrain for all trims except Elite, which is only available in AWD. The breakdown is as follows:

LX ($32,445): This trim is equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission, Honda Sensing, push-button start, 8-passenger seating, 5-inch color infotainment screen, 18-inch alloy wheels and 1 USB port.

EX ($35,325): This trim adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, heated front seats, one-touch second row, HD Radio, CabinControl, passive entry, remote start, 3-zone automatic climate control, 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat, 8-inch infotainment screen, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and SiriusXM radio.

EX-L ($38,755): Honda expects this trim to be the volume seller, and it adds nice up-level features such as memory driver’s seat and mirrors, second-row sunshade, power moonroof, power tailgate, leather seats, 4-way power adjustable front passenger seat and 2 USB ports.

Touring ($43,515): This trim is equipped with the 9-speed automatic transmission and adds features such as HondaLink, hands-free power liftgate, heated second-row seats, 20-inch alloy wheels, auto stop/start engine, roof rails, navigation, parking sensors, 10-speake premium audio and available captain’s chairs.

Elite ($49,015): This top-tier tri adds wireless charging, power-folding auto-dimming side mirrors, dual-pane panoramic moonroof, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel and rain-sensing wipers.

During the press preview, we only had access to the Elite models, and I really liked the up-level materials, large infotainment display and hands-free power liftgate.

However, in looking at the base specs, I’m disappointed to see that only 1 USB port is standard, and you don’t get access to Apple CarPlay/Android Auto at the base trim.

The Bottom Line

Overall, the 2019 Honda Pilot got some much-needed updates (like an available hands-free liftgate) and remains a solid competitor in the full-size SUV segment – especially with the inclusion of standard Honda Sensing and maintaining a competitive price point.

If you’re looking at vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder, Volkswagen Atlas or Subaru Ascent, you should absolutely add the Pilot to your must-test list. I found it more comfortable than the Atlas and Pathfinder and better appointed than the Highlander.

Pilot has some neat features such as the one-touch second-row seats and CabinTalk, and the third-row roominess is pretty exceptional. And, though an owner will likely never seek out a rugged off-road trail to go joyriding, it’s nice to know that Pilot can handle some sticky everyday situations when it must.

Editor’s Note: Driving impressions in this “First Look” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Honda covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.