2019 Honda Pilot First Drive — A Great Buy That May Be Hard to Come By

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth
2019 honda pilot first drive 8212 a great buy that may be hard to come by

From 2009-2012, I spent some of the most frustrating days of my life behind the wheel of a Honda Pilot. My good friend Marc and I traveled the entire eastern half of this great nation in a Pilot with a 2008 Honda S2000 Club Racer in tow—literally—as we competed on the SCCA national Solo and Pro Solo circuit. If you haven’t done autocross at the highest level, you don’t know the frustration of having driven 12 hours each way for six minutes of total seat time over two days, only to lose a spot on the podium by less than a tenth of a second. My favorite memory is the time when Marc was so frustrated by the combination of a loss and being lost that he put his fist directly through his windshield-mounted Garmin GPS system.

The point of this opening paragraph is to let you know that I am one of the extremely few people who’ve actually done anything truck-related with a Honda Pilot besides taking it to Home Depot and Bed Bath and Beyond for a pretty nice little Saturday. The folks at Honda want to change this perception of the Pilot for 2019, and thus I was flown out to SoCal for two days to spend some time getting dirty with Honda’s three-row “light truck” SUV.

(Full disclosure: Honda provided airfare, two nights at a super nice golf resort, and some pizza served under a heat lamp as well as other food)

Not that Honda needs my help selling Pilots, you understand. They literally sell all that they can make, with days-on-hand supply hovering around 15 days at any given point. If you want a Pilot, you are limited to one or two options at your local dealer. I have a friend who found it nearly impossible to buy a Pilot Elite last year—there simply wasn’t one to be had. For the first time in the company’s history, Honda is on pace to sell more light trucks than passenger cars in 2018.

Nevertheless, if you’ve spent any time around the fine folks from Honda’s PR team, you know that they’re rarely satisfied with anything other than perfection. So for 2019, the Pilot has seen some mild, yet significant changes. Honda Sensing, the wonderful driving assistance package that I enjoyed so much in the Honda Odyssey in my drive from Lexington to Orlando last year (the review on that is coming, like, any day now), is now standard across all trims of Pilot.

They’ve also taken the fantastic, intuitive entertainment system from the Oddy and put it in the Pilot, as well, including the useful CabinTalk system that lets your children watch the Blu-Ray of their choice in the rear while you speak to them through their wireless headphones. Best of all, it has an actual physical volume knob. Additional gizmos like wireless charging and hands-free power liftgates can be had on the Touring and Elite top trim levels.

As I mention in the kickoff, the Pilot has always been a capable workhorse, as well, with significant towing and off-roading capabilities, but the appearance of the last generation of Pilot was always more minivan than truck. Therefore, the 2019 Honda Pilot has been butched the F up, with fewer round edges and more square ones. This first drive was focused largely around those capabilities, with Honda building a rather impressive off-roading course for writers to experience (all with somebody in a blue shirt in the passenger seat, lest a lifestyle “journalist” put the thing on its roof). You can see me taking the whole thing very seriously above.

The verdict is that the Pilot is a capable, if not entirely comfortable, off-roader. Actually, strike that—it’s a bit too comfortable. There’s something a bit bizarre about getting a Honda SUV this dirty, for no other reason than perception. So while the Pilot can go over rocks, plow through snow, and claw through sand with the best of them, thanks to its four drive modes and torque vectoring all-wheel-drive, the Pilot still looks more minivan than Grand Cherokee, no doubt the result of some compromise made in the product-planning department.

So it’s on the road that the Pilot must be most competent. Fortunately, it is. Driving the three-row monster on the curved roads of SoCal is effortless. Handling is much more secure than what you’ll find in the Explorer or Highlander, and the Pilot’s available nine-speed transmission never seems to be in the wrong gear on either ascent or descent. The 280 horsepower provided by Honda’s omnipresent V6 is more than sufficient to motivate the significant bulk of the Pilot—while I wouldn’t call it sporty, it’s capable. Start-stop driving around town is made more pleasant by the fact that the 9AT will start in second gear under light acceleration, which makes for a smoother launch off the line. However, when you need to drop the hammer on some fool at the stoplight, a strong punch of the throttle will still lead to a robust takeoff.

The interior is a pleasant place to spend time, as well. Passenger volume is 152.9 cubic feet, slightly more than the competition from Toyota and Ford, but more to the point, it’s well-organized. There’s no sense that you’ve been confined to the front-left corner of the car, like you are in the Explorer. Visibility is good in all directions from the driver’s chair, which has three-way power adjustability. The aforementioned entertainment system is quite possibly my favorite in any vehicle for sale today—it just works, and the sound quality coming from my Spotify via Apple CarPlay was more than adequately projected by the 10-speaker audio system. Road noise is kept to a minimum, and the cabin feels appropriately isolated from the world around you.

But my true Pilot road test was yet to come.

Of course I had to see if it could tow. While there’s no such thing as a 2019 Honda S2000 (sad sad sad HONDA FIX THIS), they provided me with the next best thing—a trailer with a race-trim Honda Civic Si loaded up. While tow packages are no longer available from the factory on the Pilot, Honda estimates that 10-15 percent of Pilot buyers will opt for the dealer-installed towing package, which is a little bit under a grand all in.

Towing with the Pilot isn’t exactly like it is with something like an F-150—you’re aware that the trailer is back there, at least most of the time. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a capable tow vehicle. In fact, one could make a very good argument that the covered storage capacity and additional passenger space of the Pilot make it superior to any traditional pickup. Pulling the race car and trailer up and down the surrounding hills was a breeze.

Of course, just like all of the competitors in this space, the Pilot isn’t cheap, and Honda isn’t particularly interested in being the cheapest. The best value might be the not-quite Ace of Base special EX, which starts at $35,325, because buyers will still get Honda Sensing, entertainment with CarPlay and Android Auto, heated front seats, and one-touch folding second row. The Elite that I tested? A whopping $49,015. And unlike other OEMs, don’t expect much of a discount here—Honda has the highest transaction price and fewest incentives on their light trucks of any manufacturer.

For my money, I’d buy the Odyssey. I like the transmission better, the passenger space is better, and I even personally find it more attractive. But on Planet Earth, where the SUV is King, the 2019 Honda Pilot is the best option in the segment. You’d be crazy to buy a Highlander, Explorer, or even Grand Cherokee when the Pilot exists.

Of course, you’ve got to find one first. Good luck.

[Images: © 2018 Mark “Bark M.” Baruth/TTAC]

Join the conversation
2 of 134 comments
  • Cimarron typeR Cimarron typeR on Aug 22, 2018

    Way back , we owned a gen 1 MDX, without any issues,and traded it in on an Enclave after 6yrs of trouble free ownership, not that we really needed a new car or more spacious car, but I was enamored with a larger 3rd row and had more than my share of guilt over the recession of 08/09. It wasn't a bad experience but 14-15mpg and the goofy trans. tuning made it easy to transition into a Sienna ,especially when dealers were begging us for the business amidst the suddent accelerating Lexus fiasco at the time in 2011. Honestly that Gen 1 was one of the best family haulers we've owned. My brother bought a used Gen 1 Pilot with 160k miles on it for the sole purpose of being the mountain vehicle for family ski trips (they live in Denver). To date its over 215k miles without any major issues. I sat in one and test drove the current MDX recently and have to admit that the Korean marks aren't really that far off. I rode in a taxi Hyundai Sonata,that had 200k miles on it in Montreal, that was pretty tight sounding given its current existence.

  • Deanst Deanst on Aug 29, 2018

    “And unlike other OEMs, don’t expect much of a discount here—Honda has the highest transaction price and fewest incentives on their light trucks of any manufacturer.” Honda is offering $4,000 discounts in Canada on Pilots.

  • KevinB Starbucks for a doppio espresso and gruyere and bacon egg bites in the morning, and a salt caramel cold brew in the afternoon, because I am eating and drinking myself silly at my destination.
  • MaintenanceCosts The previous generation is one of the best ways in the last 20 years to enjoy flagship-level luxury in complete anonymity.This generation is all tacky ostentation and I'd feel embarrassed to be seen in one.
  • Gene I agree that sedans sell well. Kia, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti, etc. I was very disappointed when Ford and Lincoln dropped Sedans and coupes (other than the Mustang that I have for summer weekends). I don't know where I'm going to buy my next "car". Sorry, no pick-up, suv, cuv , pms or xyz's for me. Gone thru that already.
  • Inside Looking Out "it's a Bolt that has Ampera badging and the Ampera grille." EVs do not have grills.
  • Inside Looking Out "Dmitry Medvedev recently took a trip to China and praised the country’s cars as being on par with Mercedes-Benz."That's all you need to know about Medvedev. He is not trustworthy because it is lie.