2023 Honda Pilot Test Drive and Review

Honda's family-friendly SUV charts a new, more rugged course.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Diffused Sky Blue Front QuarterChristian Wardlaw

Article QuickTakes:

Midsize, three-row crossover SUVs are essentially minivans that swap sheer practicality for available all-wheel drive (AWD), some extra ground clearance, and outdoorsy design cues reflecting a so-called "active lifestyle."

Nevertheless, you might still be surprised that the previous-generation Honda Pilot SUV shared its fundamental underpinnings with the Honda Odyssey minivan. Also, the outgoing 2022 Pilot resembled a minivan thanks to its short and sloping hood, interior layout, and feel from behind the wheel.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Diffused Sky Blue Pearl Rear Quarter LeftChristian Wardlaw

The redesigned, fourth-generation 2023 Honda Pilot solves that stylistic faux pas. The 2023 Pilot looks more like a traditional SUV now, and the Trailsport trim level gets a handful of legit off-roading upgrades that make it more capable off the pavement. Honda also claims the new Pilot is larger inside for passengers and cargo, offers an improved drivetrain with more towing capacity, and is safer than before.

Does it still share parts with the Odyssey? Not at the moment, but that aging minivan is due for a redesign, and it's an honest bet it will land on the Pilot's platform.

Considering the 2023 Pilot competes in one of the most popular SUV segments, a thorough examination was in order. And what better way to evaluate this new family hauler than with a road trip? So I borrowed a 2023 Pilot Trailsport from Honda to explore Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park, the Salton Sea region, and the San Diego area with my kids, putting nearly 865 miles on the SUV.

In addition to the Trailsport, the 2023 Honda Pilot comes in Sport, EX-L, Touring, and Elite trim levels. Base prices range from the low $40,000s to the mid-$50,000s, including the destination charge to ship the SUV from the Lincoln, Alabama factory that builds it to your local dealership. For this Pilot review, my Trailsport test vehicle came with extra-cost Diffused Sky Blue Pearl paint, bringing the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) to $50,150, including the $1,345 destination charge.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Interior DashboardChristian Wardlaw

2023 Honda Pilot Review: The Design

Thanks to its blunt nose, upright grille, long hood, flared fenders, and kinked rear windows, the new 2023 Pilot now looks more like an SUV than a minivan. In addition, it is 3.4 inches longer than the old Pilot and features a lengthier wheelbase and a wider track. All Pilots get standard 20-inch wheels, too, except for the EX-L and the Trailsport. The result is a more substantial appearance.

My blue Pilot Trailsport test vehicle drew plenty of attention during our road trip, partly because the 2023 models had recently gone on sale, so few were on the road. Some people were seeing the fourth-generation Pilot for the first time. Also, the attention-grabbing Diffused Sky Blue paint elicited favorable comments. But I suspect the Trailsport's more rugged appearance also caught the eye of more than one adventurer at Joshua Tree National Park, thanks to its robust roof rack, all-terrain tires, raised suspension, and blacked-out trim.

Open the driver's door, and you'll find an interior inspired by the latest Honda Civic and CR-V models, with clearly defined upper and lower dashboard portions separated by air vents and a helpful storage shelf in place of the metal mesh in those two smaller vehicles. A traditional center console splits the front seats with a padded armrest covering a large and deep storage bin.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Infotainment System Home ScreenChristian Wardlaw

Available digital instrumentation and a standard tablet-style infotainment system dominate the upper half of the dashboard, which features a smooth and nearly seamless surface to reduce glare in the windshield. The lower portion has a traditional climate control panel with large knobs and, in the Trailsport, soft material with orange contrast stitching. While there is plenty of hard plastic in the new Pilot, it is mainly confined to the lower portions of the cabin and, in my experience, makes cleaning the interior of dust and mud easier.

Overall, the Pilot's clean, uncluttered, simple layout with traditional knobs and buttons for commonly used functions is a blessing. However, the glossy black finish on the climate control panel is a mistake. It suffers from reflections and collects dust, making these controls harder to see and use. A matte-black finish would be better, similar to what Honda uses for the Pilot's steering wheel controls.

Honda debuts new Body Stabilizing Seats in the 2023 Pilot. They aim to offer more comfort on longer trips and they achieve that goal. In addition, softly padded front upper door panels and armrests make long-distance driving more comfortable. All Pilots have heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel is available. However, you must choose the Pilot Elite if you want ventilated front and heated rear seats.

Better yet, unlike the previous-generation Pilot, the view from the front seats isn't like a minivan because you can see the Pilot's hood, and the front quarter windows are gone. Plus, now that Honda has ditched the inboard seat armrests and low-mounted center console, the new Pilot also feels like an SUV instead of a minivan from the driver's seat.

A panoramic sunroof bathed my Trailsport's black interior with natural light. It proved perfect for passengers to witness a glorious desert sunset, bask in the remote emptiness of the Salton Sea area, and sense the vibe of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. Black leather with orange stitching is the only color and material available for the Pilot Trailsport. Other Pilots offer a light-gray interior hue.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Second Row SeatChristian Wardlaw

Honda says the new Pilot offers up to eight-occupant capacity while providing more legroom in the second- and third-row seats, and the SUV does feel roomier inside than before. With the second-row bench seat, the Pilot features a removable center seat section if you decide a pass-through is preferable. My Trailsport test vehicle had second-row captain's chairs, rear air conditioning vents, rear climate system controls, and rear-side window sunshades.

If occupants in the second row are willing to slide forward a bit, the Pilot's third-row seat can hold adults. Unfortunately, the seat cushion is flat and lacks leg support, which means grown-ups can get uncomfortable after a short while. Smaller kids will probably be happier for longer periods.

Throughout the Pilot, storage space is plentiful, and we had no trouble finding spots to stash the stuff that tends to accumulate on a road trip. Everyone had places to store their devices: between the wireless charging pad, the shelf on the dashboard, and the dedicated smartphone storage pockets on the front seatbacks. In addition, my kids' large water bottles fit into the holders on the door panels. The only complaint pertains to the tray on the floor between the second-row captain's chairs, which doesn't have a grippy surface and allows items placed there to slide off easily. It needs a rubberized coating, or it needs to be deeper.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Cargo SpaceChristian Wardlaw

Cargo space is generous, too. According to SAE J1100 measurement standards, it measures 18.6 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, and a large storage area is under the load floor. Fold the third-row seats down, and the Pilot swallows 48.5 cu-ft of cargo. Maximum volume measures 87 cu-ft.

My family started our road trip with the third-row seats folded down, but the luggage for our short, three-day excursion moved around too much. So, we put the third-row seat up and fit two roll-aboard suitcases, a couple of backpacks, a duffel bag, and winter coats behind it without any trouble. That change in how we packed the Pilot kept everything secure.

Note, however, that Honda uses Velcro straps that attach to the seatback to assist in raising the third-row seat. Unfortunately, that is not an ideal solution because the straps invariably wind up out of reach. So you need to open a rear door, locate the strap, and flip it up into the cargo area so you can use it. Or, you need to crawl in to grab it. Instead, Honda should offer a lever in the cargo area and a strut-assist seatback-return system to solve this challenge.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Surround View CameraChristian Wardlaw

2023 Honda Pilot Review: The Technology

Honda simultaneously improves the Pilot's onboard technology while falling short of its best-in-class rivals. If you're familiar with the old Pilot, you'll be happy with Honda's new tech. If you're not, you might find yourself underwhelmed after shopping this Honda against the competition.

In all Pilots except the Elite, you get an analog speedometer paired with a 7-inch driver information display. Only the Pilot Elite supplies a 10.2-inch digital instrumentation panel. Separately, the base Pilot Sport has a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system, while all other trims get a more sophisticated 9-inch touchscreen display. All of these screen sizes are small by modern standards.

Though they look plain, the setups work well and make finding and referencing information simple, which is ideal. Plus, the controls that operate them are straightforward, though I'd prefer a radio tuning knob to the tuning buttons Honda provides with the 9-inch infotainment system.

Every 2023 Pilot has Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and four USB ports. The larger infotainment system offers a quicker response to inputs, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, wireless charging, extra USB ports in the third row, SiriusXM satellite radio, and nine stereo speakers.

Upgrade to the Touring or Elite, and the Pilot provides a navigation system with voice recognition technology, HondaLink subscription services, including access to a Wi-Fi hotspot, and a 12-speaker Bose premium sound system. In addition, the Pilot Elite has a head-up display.

The Trailsport's mid-level infotainment system just passes muster. For a completely redesigned SUV that can cost upward of $50,000, it ought to be more sophisticated than it is. In addition, the screen is smaller than expected in such a large vehicle. Furthermore, omitting an embedded navigation system from the Trailsport, a vehicle designed for off-road exploration in regions that may not have cell service, is an interesting decision.

That problem did not arise during our road trip as the wireless Apple CarPlay connection provided continuous directions. Streaming music proved effortless, too, and while the Trailsport's sound system is decent, it would be nice if Honda offered the Bose system as an upgrade.

There were a couple of tech-related issues. First, the smartphone charger was fussy about juicing my iPhone 13 Pro. Second, I tried using the Pilot's Cabin Talk system to communicate with third-row passengers, and they claimed they couldn't hear me. Either they were punking their father, or I didn't use the system correctly, or it simply could not overcome the road noise that is sometimes an issue in the Pilot. Regardless, I ended up simply yelling from the driver's seat.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Safety Features Honda SensingChristian Wardlaw

As it should with a vehicle designed to carry families, Honda emphasizes safety in the new 2023 Pilot. It has a next-generation Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) architecture designed for improved crash compatibility with vehicles of all sizes, new knee airbags, and a frontal-impact front-passenger airbag crafted to reduce brain injuries in certain kinds of collisions.

In addition, new cameras and sensors power the standard Honda Sensing collection of advanced driving assistance systems. This package includes the driving assistance and collision avoidance features you've come to expect in a modern vehicle and is standard on all Pilots. Plus, Honda adds a new rear-seat reminder system, a seatbelt reminder system, traffic sign recognition technology, and Traffic Jam Assist to all 2023 Pilots. In addition, all but the Pilot Sport and XL include front and rear parking sensors and low-speed automatic braking, and the Trailsport and Elite feature surround-view cameras and a TrailWatch front-view camera.

Overall, the Honda Sensing technologies perform effectively, and compared with the previous-generation Pilot, they operate with newfound accuracy and refinement. The surround-view camera proved especially helpful during our road trip, so it's a shame you can only get it with Trailsport and Elite trim.

As is typical during my vehicle evaluations, the lane-keeping assist features caused the most confusion and aggravation. For example, when driving in the right lane of a freeway with the adaptive cruise control and lane-centering systems active, the Pilot frequently wavers and seems unsure of its path when traveling past exit and entrance ramps where the right lane line widens and disappears from view. In addition, the lane-centering assist can momentarily suspend operation for whatever reason. If the driver isn't paying attention, the Pilot can drift too close or over the lane markings.

Because the 2023 Pilot is all-new, crash-test ratings are pending. So check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) websites for updates.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Diffused Sky Blue Side ViewChristian Wardlaw

2023 Honda Pilot Review: The Drive

Hondas are typically rewarding to drive, and the 2023 Pilot is no exception. However, a more fuel-efficient version of this new SUV would be welcome because I averaged only 20.1 mpg over more than 860 miles of driving. While that almost matches the Trailsport's official Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy rating of 20 mpg in combined driving, Honda's failure to offer an electrified version of the Pilot could prove problematic for some buyers. For comparison, my family's 2020 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid consistently returns fuel economy in the mid-20s, so Honda had this kind of technology in its engineering arsenal for the U.S. market until recently.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport EngineChristian Wardlaw

According to Honda, 2023 Pilot models have a new 3.5-liter V6 engine that makes 285 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. The six-cylinder pairs with a 10-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. In addition, a next-generation torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive (AWD) system is available for the Sport, EX-L, and Touring and comes standard with Trailsport and Elite trim. In most Pilots, it can put 70% of the power to a single rear wheel when necessary. That increases to 75% in the Pilot Trailsport, which also features Trail torque logic technology for improved off-roading capability. The 2023 Honda Pilot offers 5,000 pounds of towing capacity when properly equipped.

In addition, Honda says the new 2023 Pilot has revised variable steering, larger front brakes, improved brake pedal feel and performance, and a standard hill descent control system. Except for the Pilot EX-L and Trailsport trims, 20-inch wheels are standard equipment.

The Trailsport versions add 18-inch wheels wrapped in 265/60 Continental Terrain Contact tires, steel skid plates, and recovery hooks. In addition, an off-road suspension with greater articulation and a 1-inch lift gives the Trailsport increased approach and breakover angles combined with more ground clearance. The latter rises an inch to 8.3 inches (compared with 7.3 inches for other Pilots). Meanwhile, the Trailsport's approach angle is 19.8 degrees (vs. 18.3), and the breakover angle is 19.6 degrees (vs. 16). Oddly, the Trailsport's departure angle is shallower at 19 degrees compared with 21.1 for the Pilot Sport and 20.3 for other trims.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Diffused Sky Blue Rear Quarter RightChristian Wardlaw

Unfortunately, California's recent record-breaking winter weather prevented off-road exploration, as many roads and trails were closed due to mud. (Joshua Tree had just re-opened before our visit.) So, aside from a gravel road with a washboard surface and some light trail running with the occasional puddle of muck to splash through, I did not get an opportunity to sample the Trailsport's enhanced off-roading capabilities or its Trail and Sand driving modes.

No doubt, due in part to the thick tire sidewalls, the Pilot Trailsport offers a soft and compliant ride, which is nice. The SUV also rolls more in curves and corners than is preferable, such as when rounding freeway ramps, but does not do so excessively. Generally speaking, the handling is relatively athletic for this type of vehicle. Still, Honda could better isolate the occasional suspension clunks and bangs while traveling over broken paved and uneven dirt surfaces.

The Pilot's steering is light, effortless, and precise, and the brake pedal feels good underfoot. However, with all three rows of seats loaded with passengers, and despite Honda adding larger front discs for 2023, the brakes began to pulse and vibrate during a long downhill descent from the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains to the beach. (Kanan Road, if you're wondering.) With a lighter load of passengers and in different driving environments, this issue did not arise.

The new V6 engine supplies just enough power that you won't complain about acceleration or passing ability. It is a smooth revver and sounds good when doing so. In addition, while the electronic transmission controls aren't my favorite design, the 10-speed automatic is well-behaved. Few situations called for the torque-vectoring AWD system to demonstrate its talents, but experience in the similar 2022 Acura MDX suggests it offers handling benefits on the pavement combined with good traction off-road.

With few exceptions, the Honda Pilot is a rewarding-to-drive midsize, three-row SUV. However, a more fuel-efficient electrified powertrain option is likely necessary to attract customers seeking to reduce fuel expenses and expand their driving range.

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Diffused Sky Blue Front Quarter RightChristian Wardlaw

Is the 2023 Honda Pilot a Good SUV?

The last time Honda redesigned the Pilot was for the 2014 model year. So, the all-new 2023 Pilot represents a dramatic, across-the-board improvement concerning driving dynamics, comfort, utility, technology, and safety. In my opinion, it is one of the better choices in the midsize family SUV segment. However, it is not the only choice.

Some rivals, like the Ford Explorer, offer an electrified powertrain and variants designed for driving enthusiasts traveling on or off the pavement (the ST and Timberline, respectively). Others, like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, provide substantially better fuel economy. Still others, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee L and Subaru Ascent, give more ground clearance and off-roading capability. Finally, the Volkswagen Atlas is a good choice for those seeking a comfortable third-row seat and cavernous cargo area.

Don't forget about the Hyundai Palisade and its generous warranty, complimentary scheduled maintenance, and trial subscriptions to connected service plans. The Kia Telluride is another worthy alternative to the Pilot and comes in a new X-Pro trim similar to the Honda's Trailsport treatment. Both the Hyundai and Kia offer superior tech and a more opulent sense of luxury in the top trim levels.

As you can see, there are many worthy SUVs in this segment. Among them, the redesigned 2023 Honda Pilot is substantially improved over the previous model and is appealing. That said, it may be ideal to keep your options open.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
Christian Wardlaw
My first word was “car.” That’s what I’m told, anyway. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with them. The design. The engineering. The performance. And the purpose. I’m a car enthusiast who loves to drive, but I’m also most interested in the cars, trucks, and SUVs that people actually buy. Anybody can tell you that a sports car is fast. What you need to know is whether or not you should buy that new SUV, and why. My life purpose is to help you make that decision.