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2019 Honda Pilot: First Drive Review

For the 2019 Honda Pilot, there wasn’t exactly a lot of heavy lifting to do. As we discovered during our year-long test of the Pilot following its redesign three years ago, it’s a supremely capable and practical family hauler with few detriments. Those included a wonky transmission on upper trim levels and a touchscreen interface that could make you pull your hair out at times. And, if we’re to be perfectly honest, its styling was a bit too minivan-ish for a segment that pretty much exists for people who have zero interest in a minivan. Really, none were deal breakers.

Nevertheless, all of the issues have been addressed for 2019, with varying degrees of success, while the Pilot’s feature content has been bolstered. The result is a 3-row crossover that packs more value than before and has fewer nits to pick.

Which Features Were Added?

Despite the Pilot being one of the most overtly family-oriented vehicles in Honda’s lineup, surprisingly few left dealer lots equipped with the Honda Sensing suite of accident avoidance tech. Most drivers don’t think they need them, or at least don’t want to pay extra for them … even if they have the potential to save lives and prevent injuries and costly repairs.

To force their hands, Honda has joined other manufacturers in making forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist standard on every trim level. The Pilot joins the CR-V, Accord and Odyssey in coming standard with these Honda Sensing features, in the process raising the base price $550. Also included is adaptive cruise control, which uses radar-like sensors to detect slower-moving vehicles ahead and reduce speed to match. The Pilot’s system isn’t as seamless and natural in its behavior as rival versions, but it still reduces driver fatigue and frustration (especially on 2-lane highways).

Blind spot monitoring and a rear cross-traffic warning system are also now standard on all but the base LX trim level (chosen by a mere 3 percent of buyers), meaning Honda’s LaneWatch blind spot camera is no longer available. It won’t be missed.

Other updates include features that have dropped down the trim level ladder or migrated from more recently redesigned Honda models. The most significant of which is the updated touchscreen interface standard on all but the LX. The old unit was slow to respond, confusing when going between menus and lacked physical controls. The touch-sensitive volume control in particular drew ire for being significantly worse at its job than an old-fashioned knob.

Well, Honda listened, and the Pilot now has a volume knob. Sadly, the Odyssey and Accord’s other physical menu and secondary control buttons didn’t make it over, but their touchscreen software did. With improved graphics, quicker responses and an overall interface that more closely mirrors a smartphone, this is a big-time improvement.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto continue to be included with the touchscreen on all so-equipped trim levels, while the Blu-Ray rear entertainment system (RES) and integrated navigation system are now available as options on the best-selling EX-L trim level. So too is the Odyssey’s CabinTalk feature, which allows the driver to project their voice into the back row speakers and override the RES wireless headphones, much as an airline pilot can. No longer can the kids pretend to not hear you threaten to "turn this car around."

Newly available features on the two upper trims include in-car WiFi, heated second-row seats, a hands-free power liftgate and a wireless smartphone charging pad. You can also get the Elite’s standard second-row captain’s chairs as an option on the Touring. These are popular, but the standard tray placed between them makes it difficult to climb into the third row, and lacks the storage and general usefulness of a full console. What’s the point?

What’s New Under the Hood

Not the engine, it’s still a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. That’s quite competitive for the segment, especially since the Pilot weighs less than most. Typically for Honda, this is a smooth engine with a pleasing mechanical soundtrack. There’s nothing to really complain about.

The base 6-speed automatic also remains the same, but the 9-speed automatic found in the top Touring and Elite trim levels has been revised. Its rough and poorly timed shifts were a constant source of frustration with our long-term Pilot test vehicle, but during our initial drive in the 2019 Pilot, we’re happy to report these bad habits didn’t rear their ugly head. We’ll need a more extensive test to know for sure, though, and honestly, we still wouldn’t say the 9-speed is much of an upgrade over the base 6-speed. Sure, the Environmental Protection Agency says it’ll get one mile-per-gallon better, but that’s obviously not much of a difference, and real-world fuel economy proved to be an even smaller difference in the past. Again, what’s the point?

Really, unless you’re considering one of those top trim levels, it’s entirely a moot point. The LX, EX and EX-L are pretty much exactly the same to drive, and that’s no bad thing. The Pilot won’t be threatening the Mazda CX-9 for fun-to-drive honors, but it retains a generally smaller, more maneuverable feel than most competitors. Its steering in particular is more precise and responsive than what you’ll find in a Subaru Ascent, GMC Acadia or Toyota Highlander.

We should also mention its all-wheel drive system, which, for all intents and purposes, is the same as Acura’s advanced Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive. Though Honda calls it i-VTM4 and not quite the latest version, the Pilot’s system nevertheless similarly sends power as needed between the left and right rear wheels in a process known as torque vectoring. This is not only helpful when in low-traction scenarios where one wheel may have more grip than the other, but it also aids dry-road handling by rotating the outside rear wheel quicker and therefore increasing cornering ability. Competitor systems can only send power front and rear, and perhaps use the brakes to create a sort of quasi-torque vectoring that quite simply isn’t as good.

All-wheel-drive Pilots, minus the LX, also get special off-road modes that set the throttle, transmission and i-VTM4 to best tackle sand or mud. This is not dissimilar to those settings found in most Jeeps. Every Pilot gets a Snow mode. This is all impressive equipment, although with 7.3 inches of ground clearance, it’s still 1.4 inches lower than the Ascent. Perhaps that’s not important, but a difference nevertheless.

Does It Look Different?

Well, that really depends on how closely you look at the 2019 Honda Pilot and last year’s model. It’s the same body style and they definitely didn’t make major changes, but there were tweaks here and there. The front end adopts a thicker chrome bar encapsulating the H badge, which is similar to what you’ll find on more recently redesigned Hondas. The headlights are also now LED, which not only look a bit cooler, but shine a broad beam of bright white light upon the road ahead. The lower bumper portion, especially where the foglights are located, has been altered as well.

Around the back, the reverse lights have been relocated from down low in the bumper up to the taillight cluster, which now features larger LED taillight elements. The lower bumper trim has also been altered a bit, but again, blink and you’ll miss the changes. If you thought the Pilot was a tad frumpy before, you’ll probably still think that. Although Honda wanted to make the Pilot look a bit more rugged for 2019, we can’t say it succeeded.

Inside, the design is pretty much identical apart from a new steering wheel, that new volume knob and a redesigned instrument cluster that features a larger central display screen. Really, that’s just fine, as the Pilot’s interior is why you should strongly consider one. Its storage up front is ample and clever, especially the deep center bin between the front seats that should fit all but the most jumbo purses. There are five cupholders up front, another six in the second row and four in the third. True, that grand total of 15 trails the Subaru Ascent’s 19, but geez, how much are you drinking?

Cargo space remains excellent as well, as it essentially matches top rivals despite being smaller on the outside. Third-row passenger room is also excellent, as even a tall adult can fit back there without much complaint. A Subaru Ascent or Chevrolet Traverse are roomier and more comfortable back there, but that’s about it.

All of this adds up to a 3-row crossover that adds just enough for 2019 to keep up with those newer competitors. There certainly aren’t any ground-breaking or game-changing updates, but then, none were really needed.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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