2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport: A better everyday 4Runner
This new Pilot Trailsport isn’t what I expected. For worse, but also better
2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Honda is in the middle of a complete relaunch, with nearly every single mainstream model being refreshed in the past two years now. First came the Civic, setting the stage for a new design direction, followed by the Accord, HR-V, CR-V, and now the big Pilot, Honda’s flagship vehicle for the brand (unless you count the NSX, badged as a Honda in other countries). I loved the new Civic and Accord, so I had big hopes for the Pilot, and what I found subverted expectations in both good and bad ways. While I hoped for a more upscale and efficient SUV than its immediate predecessor, this Trailsport edition comes across more as an improved everyday 4Runner. For most people, the Trailsport edition of the Pilot is indeed the superior 4Runner.
With the 4Runner firmly stuck in an era that predates social media even, Honda is smart to exploit the growing lack of innovation in that revered model line by creating the modern, utilitarian SUV Toyota needs to reinvent. Is this going to replace a 4Runner TRD Pro or those that pour big money into their Rubicon-ready rigs? No, but those wanting some mild, yet real off-ride chops in a modern and huge package for the same fifty grand, the Pilot Trailsport is a winner and the right choice.
What’s it do better than the run-of-the-mill 4Runner SR5 or Limited model? Lots. The interior is about three generations newer and nicer, with materials that feel luxury by comparison and with scarce use of torrid, shiny plastics. The electronics are modern with a an easy touchscreen system that, if anything, is oddly undersized in this application. Better yet, the Pilot drives like a modern vehicle thanks to a unibody construction that bestows accurate and direct steering that can be appreciated on the daily. Suspension is supple over bumps, owing to its ability off-road with some extra travel and ride height, yet doesn’t fall apart in the handling department when you approach and engage corners. There’s body roll, but the handling flat out nukes that of a 4Runner.
The 3.5L V6 sinks the boat anchor of a four-liter that inhabits the 4Runner, churning out a smooth 290 horsepower from the V-TEC-enabled six-cylinder. Add in a transmission with literally twice as many gears (that’s 10 here) as the Toyota, operation is fluid and immediate. Not as responsive I would like, but one that significantly dates its Japanese compatriot. 0-60 MPH takes seven seconds flat, easily besting the 4Runner, and my average MPG of 20 also represents an increase of about three over past tested 4Runners. So, more power all the time, and while using less fuel; that’s a win-win.
Comprehensively stronger in all the areas that matter, the Trailsport is entering a niche basically exclusively vacated by 4Runners. It’s not the absolute rugged, roll-it-off-the-showroom-and straight-into-Baja kind of vehicle like top-tier 4Runners, but considering most end up never seeing dirt or trails ever and are bought primarily based on coolness, the Pilot Trailsport represents a large leap forward with some real off-road abilities of its own that should not be discounted (there are a few terrain controls to access as well). Compared to standard Pilots, there’s a two-inch lift with a suspension tuned for the grit, along with tires that look the business. On curb appeal alone, the Pilot Trailsport nails the appearance brief, and the fact it's a Pilot, meaning three rows of seats with an abundance of space, just sweetens the deal. With what the average SUV and even 4Runner owner would ever feel comfortable tackling, the Pilot Trailsport can do just about all the same things in greater comfort and refinement.
I haven’t had the chance to drive a standard Pilot, like a Limited model directly aimed at the mainstream Highlander and Telluride crowd, but this utilitarian version offers something that they cannot in the form of a legitimate alternative to the venerable 4Runner in ability. However, it is when you compare it against more conventional, crossover SUVs that the Pilot Trailsport disappoints. For nearly $50,000 I did expect more from the interior in terms of quality. It’s definitely a step-up from its prior iteration, but against key rivals I am left a little disappointed with its lack of luxury. You’re left with a vehicle that isn’t necessarily any nicer than an Accord or Civic Limited, and the small 9" screen here does look laughable given the vast dash it lives on. A mighty leap over a 4Runner, but the Mazda CX-9s and Tellurides of the world have a distinct edge. Maybe the top-shelf, more luxury-oriented Pilots will change my mind, but this is still an almost-50-grand large car, and I just hoped for better at this price from Honda. Put it this way, I thought this car cost maybe $45,000 at absolute most before checking the window sticker.
Another drawback is the 10 speed automatic I previously praised, but isolated on its own, the shifts could be smoother and faster. Downshifts, especially when controlled manually, are executed with a lackadaisical approach and provides next to zero engine braking, making it difficult to use the transmission to help control your speed. Transitions in traffic from coasting/braking down to five MPH or less (and not stopping) before easing onto the throttle again can result in lag and some jolts from lazy throttle response.
I do really like this Pilot Trailsport because of what it offers over a 4Runner. And because most are not tackling tricky terrain every day in their crossovers or SUVs, there’s little in the real world that a 4Runner can do than this Trailsport cannot. The real off-roaders wouldn’t consider one anyways as they’ll be swayed more to a Jeep Wrangler, Bronco, or an intense 4Runner build or TRD Pro. However, to those that want a large SUV to drive day-in and day-out, a vehicle with some visual cred and attitude, the Pilot Trailsport hits the mark head-on and makes the current 4Runner kind of obsolete in the process.
2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport
As-tested price: $50,150
Pros: Rugged looks, Decent off-road, way more civilized than 4Runner
Cons: Lacks finishing and luxury of other $50,000 competitors