2023 Honda Pilot First Drive Review: Family Hauler Extraordinaire

Twenty years after the first Pilot hit the market, the all-new SUV wows with fresh styling, a modern interior, and new features destined to be a hit with families.

byJerry Perez|
2023 Honda Pilot First Drive Review: Family Hauler Extraordinaire
Jerry Perez.
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Imagine critiquing Thomas Keller on the art of French food or Alessandro Palazzi on pouring the perfect martini. No way, kemosabe. These two are masters of their trade and they stick to what they do best. It’s not often that a vehicle is so good that you start looking too closely at everything around you in order to find a flaw—and even then, any critique borderlines on nitpicking. Driving the 2023 Honda Pilot is a little bit like that.

Honda is, of course, a massive automaker rather than a superstar chef or bartender, but my analogy stands. Think about it this way, Honda’s had 20 years of Pilot sales to learn from in order to fine-tune and improve its recipe for building the ideal family SUV. And as someone who grew up with several Accords, Pilots, and Odysseys in his family, I’ve witnessed firsthand the progression that began in 2003 with the first-gen Pilot.

That journey—so far—culminates in the all-new, fourth-generation Honda Pilot. It’s longer, wider, taller, more spacious, and more powerful than ever. It also looks radically different. Of course, it’s also more expensive. But, no matter how good Honda’s recipe for three-row SUVs is by now, no car is ever perfect. The new Pilot not only has to outshine the previous Pilot, but it must outshine its rivals in the ultra-competitive midsize SUV segment.

Jerry Perez

2023 Honda Pilot Elite AWD Review Specs

  • Base price (as tested): $53,375 ($53,375)
  • Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 | 10-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 285 @ 6,100 rpm
  • Torque: 262 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
  • Curb weight: 4,660 pounds
  • Towing Capacity: 5,000 pounds
  • Cargo volume: 60.1 cubic feet behind second row | 22.4 cubit feet behind third row | 114.3 cubic feet all rear seats folded (plus 3.4 cubit feet under floor storage)
  • EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city | 25 mpg highway | 21 mpg combined
  • Quick take: Honda doesn't reinvent the Pilot for its fourth generation—it innovates it—making it a must-have for active families.
  • Score: 9/10

Pilot 101

After looking more or less the same for six years, the Pilot has finally been completely redesigned inside and out for 2023. In fact, even the platform it rides on is brand new. The design language is similar to that of the new Honda CR-V that launched last year, with a towering hood, large grille, sleek headlights, and a stronger beltline that gives the Pilot a more powerful stance. Overall, the three-row SUV is much more athletic-looking than its rounder predecessor. It’s also 3.4 inches longer, over an inch wider, and an inch taller.

Inside is where you’ll really feel the difference, however. The dated-looking interior of the third-gen is gone and the Pilot now steps into 2023 with fresh lines, new tech, and a more thoughtful and family-friendly cabin. Yes, like with most cars nowadays, there are larger, better, sharper screens, more buttons for more features, and a digital gauge cluster than can show you a gazillion bits of information. But that’s not really what matters here.

What truly matters is the redesigned seating for eight, nifty door cards with floating armrests that allow for more and bigger cupholders (there are 14 of them!), a console tray that can hold two smartphones, the easily accessible charging outlets, and, my favorite, the removable second-row middle seat. Weighing around 25 pounds, it can be removed and stashed in the underfloor of the trunk so it’s ready to be re-installed at a moment’s notice—no more having to leave it back home in the garage. It’s almost as convenient as Chrysler’s Stow ‘N Go.

New for 2023 is also a Trailsport trim, which unlike before, packs much more than just visual enhancements. The new Pilot Trailsport features a one-inch suspension lift, off-road-tuned stabilizer bars, all-terrain tires, heavy-duty skid plates, additional camera views, and off-road-specific driving modes in addition to trim-specific paint colors and body styling. We've reviewed the Trailsport separately and you can read about it here.

Driving the Honda Pilot

Previous Pilots have always driven fine. Not quite refined enough to feel like an entry-level luxury car, but not too basic that it felt like an economy car. Most importantly, the 3.5-liter V6 has always been solid. The 2023 is more or less the same. It doesn’t quite ride like an Acura MDX, but it is much more refined than its predecessor. It’s considerably quieter, softer at the wheel, and behaves with more composure through city streets and highways. The suspension tuning makes a big difference in the new model, absorbing big potholes without sending a shudder through the cabin despite the 20-inch wheels.

The steering, I gotta say, is fantastic. The amount of feedback it provides to the driver is slightly more than you’d expect in a three-row SUV, but it’s not so much that it becomes tiring. It’s not as sporty as that of a Mazda CX-9, but lightyears ahead of what you’d find in a Ford Explorer or Toyota Highlander. Driving through mountain roads around Sedona, Arizona can be intimidating, especially after an overnight snowfall made roads slippery in the early hours of my test drive. The Pilot kept its composure as it made its way through tight bends and mud-splashed roads. The newly-tuned i-VTM4 all-wheel-drive system can send up to 70% of the torque to the rear, and 100% of that to either the right or left wheel. It can also do so 30% faster than the outgoing Pilot. I could certainly feel it working overtime to make sure I stayed planted on the road and off the sticky red mud the area is famous for.

Brake rotors have grown in size, too—by a not-insignificant 1.2 inches—now measuring 13.8 inches up front and 13 inches in the rear. Honda claims this has improved braking performance by 25%, and while I can’t really measure whether that’s true or not, I do know that braking felt solid and stable despite the cold, drizzly conditions. The new 10-speed automatic transmission was perhaps the only aspect of the Pilot that I want to get to know more about. It didn’t immediately stand out as anything special, but perhaps that’s a positive. I’d rather experience it in daily traffic or while backing in and out of grocery store parking lots than on mountain switchbacks before passing judgment.

As you’d expect in a Pilot by now, the cabin is ergonomic and easy to use, with buttons positioned in places where they make sense. And unlike the Hyundai Tucson I recently tested, this one has an actual volume knob built into its infotainment setup. Hallelujah! The redesigned front seats are phenomenally comfortable, though lack the kind of lateral support that keeps the torso from swaying from side to side on twisty backroads.

How It Stacks Against the Competition

Like with most cars, features and equipment can vary drastically from one Pilot trim to another. The model I drove was the range-topping Elite model, meaning it came equipped with every option Honda offers. A configurable 10.2-inch display, color head-up display, a multi-view camera, heated seats, heated steering wheel, three-row panoramic sunroof, removable second-row middle seat, a nine-inch infotainment touchscreen, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a 12-speaker Bose sound system, just to give you some highlights. 

Key standard features across the entire Pilot lineup include a seven-inch touchscreen (nine on Touring and Elite), new-generation front airbags, new side airbags, Honda Sensing with wide-view camera and radar, hill descent control, blind-spot monitoring with increased range (82 feet), traffic jam assist, sign recognition and a rear seat reminder that warns drivers that they may be about to leave precious passengers or cargo in the rear seats.

The Toyota Highlander is one of the Pilot’s biggest competitors, right up there with the Kia Telluride, Chevrolet Traverse, Hyundai Palisade, and Subaru Ascent. All of these offer third-row seating and start in the mid-$30,000s and can hit $50,000 when fully loaded. 

Jerry Perez

Need More Time, But So Far So Good

Less than 100 miles over a couple of hours isn’t nearly enough to fully evaluate a car like the 2023 Honda Pilot, but it is enough to get a good sense of what this all-new model brings to the table. Based on my limited seat time, it appears Honda has stuck with what it does best and masterfully tweaked its recipe for a fantastic three-row SUV. It didn’t need to reinvent the wheel—or all four wheels for that matter—but simply bring the Pilot into modern times and make it even more family-friendly and comfortable to drive.

An eventual full test will put all of the Pilot’s characteristics through the wringer, as well as gauge its ability to be a kid-shuttling, dog-transporting, suitcase-carrying daily warrior. But so far, so very good.

Email the author at jerry@thedrive.com