2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Prototype Off-Road Review: Respectably Rugged

Honda’s stepping up its efforts in off-road performance with this upcoming Trailsport variant of its three-row family SUV. We spent a day wheeling a prototype.

byAndrew P. Collins| PUBLISHED Sep 28, 2022 9:00 AM
2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport Prototype Off-Road Review: Respectably Rugged
Andrew P. Collins
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The upcoming 2023 Honda Pilot will mark the three-row SUV's fourth generation. Honda's making us wait until later this year to fully see the new design and details, but in the meantime, I did get to sample a prototype of the Pilot's most intriguing new family member: the off-road variant called the Honda Pilot Trailsport. No specs or pricing information were provided for this prototype review, but I can tell you the Trailsport isn't just an appearance package anymore. The next-gen Pilot Trailsport has some well-executed new features and legitimately decent chops over rough terrain.

Honda introduced the Trailsport branding in 2020 as a trim level on the Pilot and Passport SUVs. Priced in the middle of both vehicles' respective ranges, the first iteration of Trailsport was a pretty simple package of all-terrain tires, all-wheel drive, black trim pieces, and some neat orange stitching in the interior. Not bad, not necessarily exceptional—that was more or less the takeaway of our 2022 Passport Trailsport review.

A wet ascent. Andrew P. Collins

The next Passport Trailsport is still more than 12 months out at least, but the 2023 Pilot Trailsport is supposed to be available by the end of this year. And in addition to the previously mentioned decorative elements, the new Trailsport will have unique, off-road optimized suspension (with a modest lift), engineered skid plates, and of course, Honda's Trail Mode to help you get more out of its traction management system over unmaintained surfaces.

While this setup is not going to provide the off-road performance of something like a Jeep Wrangler or Ford Bronco, the thoughtful application of a few key features gives the Pilot a significant step up in capability—which translates to real confidence when driving it on rugged tracks.

After a day on Colorado's Middle Fork Swan River trail in a prototype 2023 Pilot Trailsport, I think I like this thing. It bodes well for what's to come.

An Engineering Passion Project

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Some of the Pilot's engineers and architects rode with me and a few other test drivers on our shakedown cruise up and down a trail that was about as bumpy as a riverbed. They told us that they'd been campaigning to their bosses for something like the Trailsport since 2018. Apparently, it was a field demo of third-gen Pilots running knobby tires and skid plates that finally sold Honda's execs on the idea of an off-roady version of this vehicle.

I'm sure it didn't hurt that off-road and adventure, in general, is super hot in pop culture right now, let alone car design.

But the vehicle we'll ultimately get in the new Trailsport is positioned to be actually a pretty cool proposition, even in a crowded market of capable-but-comfortable SUVs. It's basically got just enough legit off-road equipment to make light- to light-medium terrain more fun and easy than they'd be in a base-level crossover, while still being user-friendly and theoretically value-oriented. I also think there's a somewhat intangible but amicable energy that draws people to Hondas, which is present here. But I'll try to keep this post more grounded in specs than vibes.

Tough Hardware, Smart Software

Andrew P. Collins

Here's the noteworthy equipment you get with the Trailsport and my evaluation of it.

Skid Plates 

The underbody armor treatment Honda's given this thing is a work of art. First of all, it's strong. Honda's people told me you could rest the whole car on one and not kill it. It's also very nearly tucked into the vehicle's underside. I landed our Trailsport prototype's underbelly on a few very loud rocks—for science—but we didn't incur visible damage.

Up front, the engine and transmission are protected by a 4mm-thick steel piece. It's shaped and designed to keep rocks out while still letting air in for aero and cooling. Another steel plate, 2.8-mm thick, guards the fuel tank.

Honda provided a spec of 590 MPa as the strength of the skid plate material. Strength, in this context, refers to how much force it could absorb without deforming. The measurement MPa stands for megapascals, which are units of pressure. Cursory research indicates that glass has a nominal strength of 70 MPa, while titanium alloys can be as strong as 1,260 MPa. Do you have any practical use for that information? No, but I hope you found it interesting. That 590 MPa seems reasonably strong, at least.

Suspension

The Pilot Trailsport gets a one-inch lift thanks to springs and shocks unique to this model. In addition to the extra ground clearance, that suspension is designed to give you a little more cushion while you're lumbering over rocks without detracting from on-road drivability too noticeably. I can tell you I had no complaints about jounce or bounce, but I also drive at sloth speed when I'm wheeling. As you should in such a vehicle and conditions, frankly.

A softer sway bar allows for a little more flex, letting the wheels droop deeper through articulation and keeping all four paws on the ground in more situations.

I think we'll have to see how it rides on-road to really rate the value of the suspension setup, but I had no issues with the trail ride quality over the course of a long day.

Jack/Recovery Points

Andrew P. Collins

The Pilot has four easy-to-see standard jack points, on the inside of each wheel, which will come in handy for any servicing or tire changes. The skid plates are also jack points, which should give you some helpful flexibility if you get stuck somewhere and need to get creative with lifting the vehicle's body.

The rear trailer receiver and chain loops next to it are viable recovery points. But the most elegant one is right at the front of the engine skid plate. It's recessed pretty far, so you'll probably be doing some digging any time you actually need to use it. But that positioning gives it a minimal aero penalty and reduces the factor of injury should someone, unfortunately, get hit by the front of this car.

The recovery point itself is nice and smooth, so you could throw a strap around it with confidence and not worry about it fraying. You might want to wear gloves, though. It soaks up a decent amount of engine heat when you're wheeling.

Traction Control

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Honda's Trail Mode is more than just a configuration for traction control, though that aspect of it seamlessly distributes traction to the wheels with grip over inconsistent terrain. It also increases the initiative of the power steering system, making the steering wheel feel very light in your hands. That makes low-speed driving easier. The throttle response is also dampened, effectively making the gas pedal more precise. You have to put your foot down harder to motivate the machine, which helps control your speed when you're dealing with slippery surfaces.

All-wheel drive is always engaged and fully automatic. The only way you'll know which wheels are being driven is if you open the wheel-torque display gauge. Or, I guess, if you've got a really well-calibrated butt. One of Honda's engineers explained that his team got some validation for that throttle-dampening idea by trying the economy mode in an off-road situation on an early test rig, which I thought was neat.

Trail Cam

The Pilot is mercifully easy to see out of; not always the case with trucks and SUVs this size. But even so, it's not tiny, and so a suite of cameras lets you see what's immediately around the vehicle from a few different angles. If you want to access the cameras quickly, you can just tap the single-function button on the end of a stalk to bring it up.

Tires

The Trailsport has a unique wheel, which will look like this shape but be finished in a different color. Andrew P. Collins

The Trailsport's OEM tire is a Continental TerrainContact A/T, an all-terrain tire that's 3-Peak rated (OK for cold-weather driving), and sized 265/60R18. No shame if you can't instantly translate tire sizes to actual inches—I always have to look it up, too. The overall diameter of these tires is 30.5 inches, which is small for an overland vehicle, but not too small to be viable. Tread width is 9.1 inches. The Coopers I run on my Montero are only about an inch taller, but I consider my setup fairly conservative.

Tire diameter is important because it's the main thing that dictates ground clearance. The only way to lift the entirety of a vehicle is to run a bigger tire, after all! Durability and weight are also important tire factors you should consider in both overland builds and suburban street dwellers. The TerrainContact A/Ts on the Trailsport prototypes were six-ply, essentially referring to the thickness of the tread. That's perfect for this kind of machine—six-ply is strong enough to withstand higher-than-average roughness but without being excessively heavy. I went for a six-ply tire on my Montero for this reason, too, and I've done various Baja trips, multiple cross-country drives, and many off-road runs without a flat. For comparison, the popular BF Goodrich KO2 all-terrain tire is 10-ply, giving it a very tough tread, but also making it heavier.

According to TireRack, the TerrainContact A/T weighs 39 pounds in this size, while a comparable KO2 is 50 pounds. That extra rotational mass will decrease your SUV's acceleration, braking, handling, and fuel economy—potentially in a big way, especially if you don't have much horsepower.

Finally, a good thing to know about these tires is that they're sold through mainstream tire retailers, so you can theoretically stick with the OEM tire easily without having to visit a dealership if you don't want to. And the spare is full-sized. It's tucked up into the body below the cargo bay and lowered with a control inside the car.

Off-Road Driving Impressions

You basically got the rundown as told through one component at a time, but I'll share some remaining high-level thoughts about the whole package.

Honda didn't provide a specific water-fording depth, but company reps said "up to the axles" is acceptable. Andrew P. Collins

The Pilot Trailsport passed my essential test for meaningful capability: It did things and scaled obstacles (easily) that would have made me (a little) nervous if I'd been out on the trail solo. The trail we hit was a couple of notches more technical than a quintessential Southwestern fire road—most of the mileage was rocky but easily cruised over if you kept your speed down, while a few sections called for decent ground clearance and thoughtful tire placement.

I drove the Pilot conservatively but confidently. The vehicle was able to provide a decent ride at a reasonable pace for rough conditions. The Trail Mode settings definitely were able to cover up the sins of some sloppy driving, but it's not an invincibility button. I found I was able to improve low-speed traction even more by dragging the brakes manually just a touch (the type of left-foot braking that's common in off-road driving). This technique is kind of a poor man's torque vectoring; the resistance of a tactical brake application tends to force a little more traction.

I don't think you could out-wheel a Land Rover Discovery in this thing, but you'd probably be able to keep up with one on most trails if you're a decent driver.

Prototype Verdict

Honda's not redefining the 4x4 segment here—the 2023 Pilot Trailsport's loadout as I described it is a pretty familiar formula for increasing the capability of an SUV. Jeep's Trailhawk program, Subaru's Wilderness vehicles, Toyota's TRD Sport trim, Ford's FX4, Chevy's Z71, and others employ similar treatments with the same basic objective: Make a mass-market people mover cool enough to catch people's attention and legit enough to catch their money, without detracting from daily drivability or costing too much to build.

Andrew P. Collins

Pricing is still TBD, though based on the cost of the outgoing 2022 Pilot Trailsport and the fact that this has a more robust feature set, I bet the base 2023 Pilot Trailsport will be right around $50,000.

If you're thinking you could get a more off-road capable seven-seat SUV for that much money, you're right—slap big tires on a decade-old Tahoe and you could hit the same trails. But what you're paying for with the Pilot Trailsport is the execution—it's a nice and comfy family car designed from the factory for off-road adventures. And of course, the advantage of an OEM package over something created with aftermarket parts is that you've got the factory designing every element to work together and you can generally expect smooth operation and maintenance.

After 2,000 words of consideration, comparisons coming to my mind are, "it's like if Honda made a Land Rover," and "it kind of splits the difference between a Subaru Outback and a Toyota 4Runner." The 2023 Pilot Trailsport is a classy and reasonably capable SUV. As long as it looks decent and gets OK fuel economy, it'd make a solid adventure craft and maybe even encourage would-be wheelers to expand their off-road comfort zone.

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