2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Off-Road Review: More Capable Than It Needs to Be

A sharp, comfortable, and highly practical SUV Monday through Friday. A fun, rugged, and trail-capable SUV on the weekends.

byJerry Perez| PUBLISHED Jan 24, 2023 9:01 AM
2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Off-Road Review: More Capable Than It Needs to Be
Jerry Perez
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Something astonishing has happened over the last few years: Everyone wants an off-road vehicle. Tax Attorney Guy who’s never gone camping suddenly needs a lifted crossover with trail-rated tires, even if his miserable work commute doesn’t ever veer off the highway. And Suburbian Dad (also salesperson of the month at his company) has decided to attach an expensive roof tent to his SUV because, hey, Mother Nature’s calling—even though he’s never actually answered her call. The 2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport is for these folks. And a few million others who might actually see some dirt on the weekends.

Honda has identified a growing market and rolled out a new product that speaks to it—though off-road-inspired SUVs are nothing new. Other automakers including Honda have been doing this for a while. A Trailsport trim was already offered for the outgoing Pilot (and for the current Passport, too), but consisted of nothing more than visual enhancements. This time it’s for real. The rugged trim doesn’t just talk the talk, it actually walks the walk. And in the snowy, muddy trails I drove it on, it walked a surprisingly confident walk. 

2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Review Specs

  • Base price (as tested): $49,695 ($50,150)
  • Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 | 10-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 285 @ 6,100 rpm
  • Torque: 262 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
  • Off-road angles: 19.8° approach | 19° departure
  • Ground clearance: 8.3 inches
  • Curb weight: 4,685 pounds
  • EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city | 23 highway | 20 combined
  • Quick take: While most owners will never explore the Trailsport's limits off the pavement, it's reassuring to know just how capable it really is. However, it sacrifices handling and refinement for its off-road chops.
  • Score: 8/10

The 2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport packs a small repertoire of hardware and software to make it capable of traversing trails with a “Moderate” rating, which according to Honda makes up more than half of all U.S. public land trails. The most obvious of the enhancements is a one-inch suspension lift over the stock Pilot, which gives the Trailsport 8.3 inches of ground clearance. That’s more than a Ford Explorer Timberline and just 0.2 inches shy of a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Suspension performance is also revised for Trailsport, featuring specific shock and stabilizer bar tuning to maximize traction when venturing off the pavement. Continental 265/60 All-Terrain tires wrap around trim-specific 18-inch wheels with flared spokes. Two heavy-duty skid plates—one for the engine and one for the fuel tank—were designed with the help of Honda Powersport engineers. These can reportedly withstand the full weight of the vehicle crashing down on the plate without causing any damage. Lastly, a high-strength steel rear hitch with built-in recovery points is standard, and it can sustain two times the Pilot’s weight.

Tech enhancements include a new Trail driving mode, which allows the Pilot’s newly-tuned i-VTM4 all-wheel-drive system to send the majority of the torque to the wheel with the most traction. The rear differential is also more powerful than in the regular Pilot, boasting 3,000 Nm of torque compared to 2,500. A Hill Descent system is also new, but more helpful during my off-roading expedition was Honda’s new Trailwatch System. It employs the Pilot’s front, rear, and side cameras to provide various angles to aid in maneuvering through tight spots, or when approaching hills, steep drop-offs, etc.

With the exception of the chonk wheels and tires, the new Trailsport isn’t too much different visually from the Pilot Elite, per se. Though if you want that cool light blue color—dubbed Diffused Sky Pearl—you oughta get the Trailsport. It’s not available in other trims.

Off-Road Chops

It’s not that you expect a Honda SUV to be bad at something, but you don’t really expect a Pilot to excel at off-roading. For three generations over the course of 23 years, the Pilot’s been the ride of choice for countless families, the majority of whom spend all of their time on paved roads. Admittedly, it was hard for me (and likely you) to even picture one on an off-road trail, which is why Honda set up an expedition on the outskirts of Sedona, Arizona to change my mind.

With temperatures hovering in the low 40s and snow on the ground from an overnight frost, conditions weren’t exactly in the Pilot’s favor. It would take all of its electronic gizmos and Continental tires to keep the family hauler hooked on the slippery ground. The bright red mud was especially sticky, too, adhering to the tires (and my boots) like clay ready for the kiln.

I made my way through narrow trails as I felt the SUV sink in the soft mud. With the Trail drive mode engaged, the all-wheel-drive system was able to distribute traction where it was needed most. It can send up to 70% of the torque to the rear, and 100% of that to either the right or left wheel. This came in especially handy on our first major obstacle, where the Pilot Trailsport had to maneuver a steep climb while turning slightly right.

The tires chirped as they fought for traction, all while the computer sent most of the power to the rear axle—where there was the most grip. The Trailwatch system allowed me to keep an eye on the large rock in front of me to my left, something which I couldn’t see with my own eyes as the hood was pointing straight into the sky. After a bit of finagling with the wheel to find a dry spot on the slick red boulder, the tires hooked up enough to push the Pilot over the hill and onto flat ground.

Rated as “Moderate,” that specific trail isn’t the kind of terrain that Jeep owners dream of wheeling. It ain’t easy, but it ain’t exactly challenging for jacked-up suspensions and 35-inch tires. The Pilot Trailsport has none of that, however, and having completed that first obstacle relatively easily had really shown me just how feisty the three-row family SUV truly was. But there was more to conquer.

The next few obstacles delivered a beating to the skid plates, especially the front one. For every uphill obstacle, there was a downhill one first. The front end would have to drag through the mud and rock before the trail pointed up. The grinding noise heard inside the cabin was awful and made me feel truly bad about doing that to a brand-new car, but that was the whole point—to see just how much of a beating the Trailsport could take without breaking a thing. Should Suburbian Dad ever decide to venture off-road, he won’t be left stranded when his oil pan shatters the first time he snags a rock.

I could see a Jeep coming toward me down a big hill, making me wonder if we were actually meant to climb up that same hill. Turns out we were. After slipping and sliding through the mud to move over and let some traffic go by, I and a few other Pilots drove to the base of the hill and examined some possible driving lines.

We might as well have not done any of that, because no matter which way we took up the cascading rock wall, we bottomed out several times and spun the tires 50% of the time. But boy, it was fun. It was evident that the Pilot was now on another level in terms of ruggedness—it reminded me of that Aha! moment I once had with a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. It’s so much more capable than its looks lead you to believe.

Use your index finger to double-tap the tip of the windshield wiper stalk, and the Trailwatch system cycles through various camera views that can come in handy while off-roading. I had opted for the side-camera split view, so I could make sure I didn’t get too close to the trees during a very narrow part of the trail. This, along with the hood camera, was my favorite view to confidently maneuver about the trail. They helped me make sure I didn’t pop a tire, rip off a bumper, or worse, fall off a cliff.

And man, there were cliffs. When an automaker organizes an off-road drive, there’s always a sense of added security. It’s like—you know they wouldn’t let things get too dangerous because legal would lose it if something ever happened to anyone. But let me tell you, there were a few moments where placing either tire on the wrong spot could’ve led to a major accident… of the rollover kind.

About an hour later (which felt like four hours because of the low-speed driving and managing of the obstacles), we made it to the trail’s summit. The scenery was just stunning, with massive boulders protruding into the horizon like the set of Pixar’s Cars. I may not have driven fast up the trail, but Lightning McQueen would’ve been proud of my precision driving. Or so I hope.

It was then time to head back down the trail and do it all over again, but this time in the opposite direction. This called for Hill Descent control a couple of times, though it never truly needed it—it was mostly just to see how well it worked. Push the button, set a downhill speed between 2 and 12 mph, and let go of the brake pedal. If the decline is 7% or more, the Pilot can make its way downhill without brake or throttle inputs. All the driver has to do is maneuver the wheel and watch for obstacles.

The Early Verdict

I have to admit it, there’s very little to dislike about the Pilot Trailsport. On the road it’s not as sharp nor as quiet as the Pilot Elite, but that’s to be expected due to the lifted suspension and all-terrain tires. However, it’s much more capable off-road than I ever imagined. I’d dare say that it’s more capable than it actually needs to be. I can’t fathom a private owner willingly taking their $50,000 Pilot Trailsport on a trail like this, but it’s certainly capable should they desire so.

Honda may not be able to force Tax Attorney Guy and Suburbian Dad to stop posing and actually hit some trails, but it can provide them with a comfortable, practical, and handsome SUV that’s capable of doing so whenever they’re ready. Likewise, to the legions of outdoor enthusiasts who have kids, dogs, and the need for a reliable three-row SUV Monday through Friday, Honda’s delivered a vehicle that can off-road on the weekends with very little compromise.

The 2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport can handle trails, even if you can’t—or don’t want to.

Email the author at jerry@thedrive.com