Westlake Village, CA
It's not very often that Honda puts on a full blown media event for a mid-cycle model change, but they wanted the opportunity to reintroduce the refreshed Honda Pilot – the country's best-selling SUV*. With the automotive market continuing its shift towards favoring light trucks over passenger cars, it's no surprise that Honda would hope to keep the Pilot in the limelight. Even though passenger cars still account for nearly half of their annual business, Honda sees more growth potential going forward in the various light truck segments.
* Honda claims that the Pilot is the best-selling SUV at the retail sales level (in other words, excluding fleet sales)
Given the Pilot's success in the marketplace, Honda seems to have taken the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. The updates for 2019 are all geared to enhance the existing core competencies of the Pilot, further enhancing its value proposition. What this means is that there are very mild styling updates to the exterior and interior, the running hardware is essentially unchanged (though it does benefit from continued calibration refinements), while safety and convenience items are enhanced.
To the casual observer, it might be difficult to spot all of the 2019 Pilot's styling changes. While the styling of the Pilot hasn't changed in a material sense, a closer look reveals new LED headlights, new taillights, an updated grille, and revised bumpers front and rear, as well as new wheel designs. The stated intent of these styling updates is to rev up the Pilot's sense of rugged adventure, and to remind people of its "SUV capabilities". This twist is a little bit interesting to us, because we clearly remember Honda emphasizing the upscale, refined side of the Pilot when the 3rd generation model launched.
Inside the Pilot, the instrument panel, navi/infotainment system, and rear entertainment systems have all been upgraded with Honda's latest tech, and if you've been inside a 2018 Honda Odyssey, these items will feel very familiar.
The 2019 Pilot's gauge cluster has been reconfigured and now the primary gauges are served by a 7" TFT LCD display, set between traditional analog coolant temperature and fuel gauges. The 2016-2018 Pilot had a digital speedometer and used analog gauges for the tachometer, fuel and water temp readings, with a 4.2" LCD Multi-Information-Display set in between. The new setup has a more refined and upscale look and feel.
The 2019 Pilot's Display Audio system (standard on EX-up trims) has been updated to the latest Honda spec, with the same 720P display, user interface, and physical volume knob that's found in the 2018 Honda Odyssey. This means it's both prettier and quicker to use, and yes, it features standard support for both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. For trim levels offering the Rear Entertainment System, you'll see that this too borrows heavily from the Blu-ray™
based system that debuted in the 2018 Honda Odyssey. The ceiling mounted fold down screen features a 10.2-inch WSVGA (1024x600) LCD. On Touring and Elite trims, the Rear Entertainment system includes an integrated AT&T 4G LTE system offering Wi-Fi access for up to 7 devices, access to streaming services, as well as advanced telematic capabilities (via Honda's smartphone app).
Hands-free access power tailgate
New for 2019 is the addition of the "kick to open" system for the power tailgate on Touring and Elite trims. There are sensors underneath the rear corners of the Pilot, and the idea is that you can walk up with an arm full of groceries/beer/luggage and with a kicking motion underneath the vehicle, the tailgate will magically lift. In theory, at least. It takes a little bit of practice for some folks to remember the correct location, and also to remember to actually KICK rather than wave your foot underneath the spot.
The Running Gear
For 2019, the Pilot's powertrain is unchanged. A smooth and torquey 280hp 3.5L SOHC VTEC V6 engine is standard on all trim levels. A 6-speed automatic transmission is standard on LX through EX-L trim levels, while a ZF 9-speed automatic is included with Touring and Elite trims. All trim levels except the Elite are equipped with front-wheel-drive. A sophisticated torque-vectoring i-VTM4 AWD system is available on all trims for a $1900 premium. AWD is included on all Elite trims. The Pilot offers an Intelligent Traction Management system which optimizes the vehicle for various modes including Snow, Sand, Normal, and Mud for AWD models. FWD models only get Snow and Normal modes.
Honda has been using the 9-speed automatic (9AT) since the Acura TLX hit the streets in 2014. It was first introduced to the Pilot with the debut of the 3rd generation 2016 Pilot, and it seems like Honda has continued to refine the programming every year since then. For 2019, there are some pretty significant refinements in store for the 9AT. In normal driving circumstances, the transmission will now start out in 2nd gear. This is a good thing, because 1st gear is quite steep in the 9AT, and while it launches rather smartly, in everyday driving using 1st gear starts it can tend to lurch a bit too much. If you NEED 1st gear, it's always there, but most of the time, it will now start out in 2nd. Idle stop is one of the things that is made possible with the ZF 9AT, and the logic for that too has been refined for 2019. The idea is to make it less intrusive and less annoying. You can always disable it at the touch of a button (and we usually do), but if you sit in a lot of stop and go traffic it can improve fuel economy considerably. Finally, Honda has fixed the weird behavior where the engine would re-fire from Idle Stop after shifting the transmission into Park. It was really annoying pulling into a parking space, having the engine shut off just as you stop, and then having it restart as you shift it into "P". Now it stays off for a more "intuitive driving experience".
The Pilot has always been quite satisfying to drive for such a large vehicle. Honda has orchestrated an impressive balance of ride quality, comfort, quietness, and respectable handling, while the powertrains provide plenty of motive force when you need it. In this sense, very little has changed with the 2019 Pilot – it's still wonderful. We did notice the improvements to the 9AT, however, and this is a good thing. In the past, the 9AT has been a bit of a mixed bag for us – we love the added performance and potential for fuel savings, but the 6AT's overall operation has always been preferable to us. Now, the 9AT seems to have closed much of that gap. Shift quality is definitely improved, and the logic seems to be more in line with our driving style as well. The paddle shifters are a nice touch, but in some situations they still tend to reveal some of the limitations of the 9AT. We won't get into all of the technical reasons for that but suffice it to say that they don't always deliver exactly what the driver requests in a timely manner, particularly when calling for certain downshifts.
The 280hp 3.5L V6 is capable of moving the Pilot swiftly when the time comes, just watch the fuel consumption, because it quickly turns thirsty with a heavy foot. On the other hand, if you drive the Pilot in a more relaxed manner, it can deliver quite impressive fuel economy figures for a 7/8 passenger vehicle. Speaking of that, the Pilot's standard seating configuration is for 8 passengers. The Elite comes with captains chairs in the second row, and this is an optional configuration for the Touring trim as well.
Towing and Off-Road. You know, SUV stuff!
As mentioned earlier, Honda wanted to remind folks that the Pilot is much more than a butched up minivan. It really is capable of towing a good sized trailer, and as we discovered, it can negotiate some fairly serious offroad terrain.
We mostly spend our time enjoying on-road driving experiences, but much like a track day, we'll never turn down the chance to go off-roading. To demonstrate the Pilot's capabilities, Honda set up a temporary track in a field adjacent to a ranch estate not far from Westlake Village. This track included a steep hill ascent with a dramatic breakover, some crazy articulating mounds, a sand pit, several rock crawl areas, a log crawl, and a frame twister (see the photo gallery on the next page). The most amazing thing about the Pilot is how easily it dispatched this course, and while driving it, even though the chassis was being tortured (there was frequently one or even two wheels several feet off the ground), you never heard a single creak or untoward thump inside the cabin. The various Intelligent Traction Modes made it very easy to negotiate the course without getting stuck, and the Pilot's active torque vectoring played a big part in that as well. I thought for sure the low profile 20" tires would be shredded by the large rocks in the rock crawl area, but amazingly they survived dozens of laps around this course.
Honda also gave us the opportunity to check the Pilot's towing capabilities. For that, they had a nice rig featuring a dual axle aluminum car trailer carrying a 10th gen Civic Si race car. We were told the total weight was right around 4000lbs. We had a short drive loop in which we could get a feel for how it towed, and overall it was pretty impressive. We were somewhat surprised at how the Pilot seemed to shrug off the extra 2 tons of baggage when it came to acceleration. We weren't testing at WOT because that would be foolish, but even at normal part throttle applications, the Pilot felt like it was barely even burdened. The trailer had a braking system and Honda installed an aftermarket brake controller on this Pilot, so stopping was no issue either. The one thing that served as a key reminder that you were towing something was the sound of the trailer knocking around on the hitch, but other than that, the experience was very smooth and uneventful. You can tow up to 3500lbs with the standard FWD Pilot. The AWD Pilot is rated at 5000lbs.
The 2019 Pilot brings a lot to the table, and the best news is that even though Honda Sensing is now standard across the board (it was a $1000 option on available trims for 2018), some trims are actually cheaper for 2019.
Here's the breakdown: (includes $995 destination charge. Add $1900 for AWD, except Elite)
- LX – $32,445 (+$550 vs 2018)
- EX – $35,325 (same price as 2018)
- EX-L – $38,755 (same price as 2018)
- EX-L Navi/Res – $39,760 (no comparable 2018 trim)
- Touring – $42,520 (+$550 vs 2018)
- Touring 7P – $42,820 (no comparable 2018 trim)
- Elite (AWD Standard) – $48,020 (+$550 vs 2018)