The 2019 Honda Pilot is as comfortable as a generous dose of anesthesia and doesn’t mind if you’re allergic to packing light. This SUV is so family friendly it even helps you yell at your kids. But actually–there’s an intercom you can use to bark from the front seat to the back, like, a pilot.
(Full disclosure: Honda sent a shiny black car to my apartment, with a driver who did a great job pretending he didn’t mind I was 20 minutes late, to whisk me to a gorgeous golf resort where I got some free snacks and this cute blue notepad that says “HONDA.” The next day I got the keys to a 2019 Honda Pilot to drive to Starbucks and then around a horse paddock that’d been raked into big piles of dirt.)
The Pilot seems to have more usable space than some larger SUVs, but hangs on to Honda’s characteristically car-like user friendliness. I mean, really, it wouldn’t be crazy to think of it as an Odyssey van with a little more ground clearance and a slightly lower ceiling. And Odyssey fans will note that the front-to-rear intercom system has been a feature in the van for some time.
But the Pilot also survived towing a race car around a neighborhood and crawling its way across some uneven terrain during our half-day test drive. The SUV itself doesn’t exactly exude personality but as far as hauling a family from here to wherever, I think Honda’s pretty much got the formula figured out.
What Is It?
The 2019 Honda Pilot is a mild tweak on the third generation of the three-row SUV that came out in 2016, which shares its sleek face with the Ridgeline pickup truck. Well, not exactly anymore. A revised front facia is part of the Pilot’s updates for this year.
The Pilot’s front end gets a little tougher looking, now with black or chrome eyebrows. New for ’19 treatments also include a few optional sticker packages, which kind of crib from the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, a new automatic transmission in top trims, and one of the best gauge clusters I’ve ever seen in a passenger vehicle.
The Pilot provides plenty of cupholders, really robust interior build quality and reasonable fuel economy for a machine of its stature and heft.
In fact, the interior kid-proofing and gas mileage are really why people in the market for Ford Expeditions and Chevy Tahoes should look at something like this Honda.
If family travel really is the priority, you’re still hard-pressed to do better than a minivan. But if you can’t be unconvinced that SUVs are where it’s at, consider this: a four-wheel drive Tahoe gets rated at 18 mpg in combined driving, an AWD Pilot is supposed to do 22. A Tahoe has a factory claimed 15.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind its third row, a Pilot has 18.5. They’re not considered direct competitors because they’re built differently, but practically speaking, the bigger rig doesn’t really seem better. Especially when you realize how plush a high-trim Honda is.
Specs That Matter
All U.S.-market Pilots run the same 3.5-liter VTEC V6 that Honda claims can crank out 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. It actually sounds decent when you lean into it, and propels the 4,000 to 4,300 pound vehicle willingly. Basic trims get a six-speed automatic, nicer ones move up to a new button-shifted nine-speed. Front-wheel drive is an option but most Pilots will be all-wheel drive and fitted with Honda’s adjustable traction control system.
Standard towing is 3,500 pounds, but an optional pulling package adds a transmission cooler and ups that rating to 5,000. I drove a so-equipped Pilot few miles with 3,900 pounds of trailer and race car, which definitely got the SUV’s heart rate up, but didn’t ruffle its stability.
The EPA says a nine-speed AWD Pilot should be able to get 19 mpg city, 26 highway, and 22 combined. The six-speed FWD lands at 19 city, 27 highway and 22 combined. A green “Econ” button near the driver’s left knee reduces the Pilot’s motivation a little bit to help you hit those efficiency targets by encouraging gentle driving.
Regardless of what powertrain and trim level you end up with, the Pilot has comfortable seating for six people (or seven or eight if they’re tiny and you skip the second-row captain’s chair option) and a sizable cargo bay even behind the third row. Honda measures it at 18.5 cubic feet, but I can tell you it looks a lot hungrier than the little space you get behind the last seats of a Toyota 4Runner, Chevy Tahoe or even a Mercedes GLS. Drop that third row of seats down and you get 55.9 cubic feet.
The cupholder count is equally impressive: each window seat gets a least two.
A base LX with front-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic starts at about $31,000. The nicest Pilot Elite is just shy of $50,000.
That Trick Traction Control
Honda’s very proud of the AWD Pilot’s “true torque vectoring,” which effectively prevents the SUV from pissing all its power away to a tire that’s not touching the ground, or one that’s on a slippery surface. Theoretically, that helps you get over rough stuff as much as it improves cornering stability.
I can’t say I really felt it working on the pavement, which I guess would be exactly what I was supposed to feel. But it was a little more prominent while curtailing random wheel spin while we forced the poor Pilot through a teeter-totter of moguls.
Just like the Ridgeline pickup truck, the Pilot’s traction control, which is technically called Intelligent Variable Torque Management, gets four modes:
- Normal: Stability control is on, power gets pushed around between the wheels automatically.
- Snow: Throttle response is pulled a little, more torque pushed to the rear of the SUV.
- Mud: Throttle response is exaggerated, gears are held longer, the AWD systems is locked at 50/50, a little more wheel slip is allowed.
- Sand: Basically the same as mud mode, but a little “more.” Sand mode is effectively the most aggressive drive setting.
The SUV doesn’t have a lot of suspension travel, so it doesn’t take much of a rut to put a wheel in the air. If and when that happens, the Pilot can pretty much figure out what to do even if the driver doesn’t feel like it. That said, I found that a little left-foot braking still makes the crawl quieter and smoother.
Three things impressed me as soon as I climbed into the cabin of the 2019 Honda Pilot Elite: The seats are extremely comfortable, the interface in general is excellent (a volume knob is back!) and the dashboard is a really beautiful digital display.
Basically, you get an analog water temperature and gas gauge abutting a rectangular screen that takes care of everything else. It’s fancy enough to feel futuristic without being overly complex or doomed to look obsolete soon. It’s just easy to read information with a neat horizontal tachometer, nicely presented. You can change what’s in the center too, between trip info, car status, and messages. Or watch it display a cute little animation for each driving mode, as you can see above.
Visibility to the outside world is fantastic, too.
But in the cabin I felt like I could sprawl out in the Pilot. There are shelves and pockets and cupholders all over the place. The center console is wonderfully sized, swallows everything, and is just the right height to be a useful tray when it’s shut.
I don’t have kids, but I have seen them, I once was one, and got the sense that the Pilot’s interior is robust enough to resist kicking and gnawing and stickers ending up all over the inside of the rear windows. Even the optional pull-down video player screen feels like it was made to survive being left in a sand box for a week.
Speaking of sand boxes, loose surface traction seemed solid, too. Honda had us run the Pilot through a curated off-road obstacle course, which basically simulated getting lost on a miniature golf island. That advanced traction control system I talked about earlier helped keep the car moving even when a drive wheel was in the air.
Hard to say there felt like a huge difference between the drive modes, but the vehicle in general seemed to be doing a good job keeping its wheels from slipping regardless.
A little careful driving goes a longer way to getting you out of trouble when you’re in really deep ruts, but I think the Pilot’s traction management prowess will really come in handy in more realistic driving situations like wet or icy roads. In those cases, efficient power distribution you don’t have to think about can take a lot of white-knuckling out of long drives through bad weather.
But the Pilot’s turning radius might actually be its most impressive party trick. Honda puts the curb-to-curb turning diameter spec at 39.4 feet, and I have to say I felt like I could pretty much U-turn the thing anywhere.
If you have any sensibilities toward performance driving, the Pilot’s sleepy steering will frustrate you. Pretty much all indications of road feedback have been ironed out, and the connection between the front wheels and the steering wheel is pretty numb.
Road and wind noise also find their way into the cabin a little more aggressively than I would have liked for a car with a $50,000 price tag. A 360-degree parking camera would have been nice at the top trim, too. I mean, the Pilot is pretty much the size of an airplane.
But generally speaking, there’s not a lot to complain about here as long as you’re using the Honda Pilot for its intended purpose of long and short-range family haulage.
I think I’d rather road trip in a Honda Pilot than a Chevy Tahoe or a Ford Expedition. While those stronger, taller and more traditionally-assembled SUVs can tow a lot more, they also tend to be a lot more expensive and use way more fuel. At the same time, I’m pretty sure the Pilot has better usable cargo space and it’s definitely more stable on a twisty road.
As for the Pilot’s more direct rivals, the Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer, Subaru Ascent and VW Atlas, I’d need a lot more wheel time in all of them to pass judgement but I have a feeling picking a winner is going to come down to which dealerships are most motivated.
But generally, Honda’s biggest SUV is a pleasant people-moving pod and seems like a great execution of the large family transporter, with ample headroom for growing families and actual headroom for your head.