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2019 Honda Pilot first drive review: Sugar, spice, nice

Yesterday’s cutting-edge tech is today’s obsolescence, and automakers are under more pressure than ever to keep their vehicles relevant now that cabin and safety technology are two of the top priorities of the ownership experience.

When it comes to the tech modern car buyers demand, the 2019 Honda Pilot SUV now rises to the occasion. A healthy update for 2019 involves some visual updates, but focuses mostly on updated gadgetry, and that’s really all it needed.

When the third-gen Pilot came out in 2016, it was a star player in the three-row, midsize crossover segment. The 2019 model year’s tech transfusion breathes new life into an SUV that, even last year, still felt fresh and near the top of its class.

Smart crossover

As soon as you sit inside the refreshed 2019 Honda Pilot, you can tell this SUV is with the times when it comes to tech. With the exception of the bargain $31,450 Pilot LX, all trims above that (EX, EX-L, Touring and our loaded $48,020 Pilot Elite test vehicle) come with an all-new 8-inch touchscreen that includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and — thankfully — a real volume knob.

The Pilot offered Apple CarPlay and Android Auto last year, but Honda has upgraded its infotainment interface to better mirror the functionality of those smartphone-based systems. The result is a display that is incredibly sharp and easy to use. This year, you can reorganize system icons to your liking just like you can on your smartphone and because Honda’s operating system is Android-based, its overall feel is familiar.

Even more fitting with the times, Honda’s new infotainment system can receive over-the-air updates just like a Tesla — as long as you’ve got one of the top two trims that come with an embedded 4G LTE connection.

The party piece of the 2019 Pilot’s tech transfusion comes in the form of this new touchscreen, which mimics the feel of your smartphone.


Sam Bendall/Roadshow

4G LTE is also new to the Lincoln, Alabama-built Pilot. With data services provided by AT&T, the Pilot can become a rolling Wi-Fi hotspot for up to seven devices. In addition, Pilots equipped with an available rear entertainment system can stream data directly from the SUV’s built-in Wi-Fi connection.

In front of the driver is a new 7-inch TFT instrument display that replaces last year’s 4.2-inch unit. The new screen integrates speed and RPM data with phone, music, trip or (on the top three trims) navigation info. All of that is controlled by an updated steering wheel with a simplified set of buttons I found easy to get used to.

Other new tech features on the 2019 Honda Pilot include CabinTalk — a feature already found in the Honda Odyssey minivan. Available on the Pilot’s top three trims, CabinTalk uses the SUV’s Bluetooth microphone to amplify your voice through the cabin’s second- and third-row speakers so you won’t lose your voice when incessantly commanding little Billy to stop slapping his sister upside the head.

The updated Pilot (again on the top three trims) also features Honda’s “How Much Farther” app, which is integrated into the rear entertainment system. Essentially, it keeps your kids from asking the world’s most irritating question: “Are we there yet?” In fact, that question is one of the few things more annoying than the lack of a volume knob.

Rounding out the Pilot’s new tech conveniences is wireless smartphone charging, which is standard on the top-spec Pilot Elite, but can be dealer-installed on lower trims except for the base LX.

All these advancements are packed into a wrapper that’s received a few visual tweaks for 2019. The front end gets an updated fascia along with standard LED low beams and more aggressive-looking fog light housings. Out back, there’s a new bumper and tail lamps with integrated LED back-up lights. All the aesthetic upgrades help to butch up an already handsome (if somewhat bland) exterior design.

Inside, the more modern-looking touchscreen, as well as the TFT driver’s display and updated steering wheel complement a high-quality cabin that was already well-built, comfortable and spacious, offering 150-plus cubic feet of space for up to eight passengers.

A kick-to-open power liftgate is available on the Pilot’s top two trims, but we found it to be finicky.


Sam Bendall/Roadshow

More safety and convenience, with one catch in the hatch

Even if you decide to go with a bare-bones Pilot LX, you’ll still have a pretty well-equipped crossover. Honda’s Sensing suite of advanced driver assist systems, which includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, road departure mitigation, forward-collision warning and collision-mitigation braking, are standard across the board, but you’ll need to upgrade to EX trims and above in order to get standard blind-spot monitoring.

Rear cross-traffic monitoring, which last year was equipped with the top two trims, is now offered on all Pilots except the base model. All Pilots now come with automatic high beams standard.

The Pilot’s top two trims come with a hands-free kick-to-open liftgate, but it proved to be problematic. From the driver’s seat, with the vehicle in park either running or with the engine off and the ignition switched on, my pressing the rear hatch button would not open the liftgate.

From outside, if you try to pull the hatch open, the liftgate’s motor will fight you instead of somewhat yielding like with competitors’ hatches. That might impact your ability to quickly load groceries or luggage into the vehicle.

Honda says 65 percent of Pilot’s buyers will opt for the bottom three trims, which means a majority of owners will be spared frustrations similar to ours when accessing this SUV’s 80-plus cubic feet of max cargo capacity.

For a three-row SUV, the 2019 Honda Pilot corners with a surprisingly minimal amount of body roll.


Sam Bendall/Roadshow

Piloting the Pilot

When it comes to the stuff that makes the Pilot move, not much is new aside from some updated software programming for the nine-speed automatic transmission (on the top two trims) and some quickening of the auto-stop system.

The pre-refresh Pilot was derided for the nine-speed’s tendency to hunt for gears. For 2019, though, it seems that’s been fixed. For the most part, the updated nine-speed fades into the background. Only once did the transmission seem sluggish, taking about a second to activate kickdown during freeway cruising, but attempts to repeat that sluggishness proved futile. For the rest of my day of testing, the transmission was always prepared to drop a few gears, allowing all of the 3.5-liter V6 engine’s 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque to pound its way to all four wheels.

The stop-start system hiccuped on me once as well. Proceeding from a stop sign on a hill, the Pilot took about a second to start after I lifted my foot off the brake and hit the accelerator. During that second, the Pilot rolled back for what felt like a foot before proceeding forward. In that instance, the stop-start feature felt more like a stall-start system, but aside from that one misstep, for the rest of my day with the Pilot, the setup performed on par with other such systems.

With available torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, the Honda Pilot makes sharp management of its 4,319 pounds.


Sam Bendall/Roadshow

Aside from those one-time issues, the Pilot delivered an impressive driving experience during my test. I’m unsure how Honda did it, but somehow it figured out a way to make a 4,319-pound SUV corner with minimum body roll. That level cornering pairs well with the Pilot’s optional torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, which can visually relay its power apportionment in real time to the vehicle’s TFT instrument cluster… a cool touch, indeed.

The Pilot could use a quicker steering ratio with more feel through the wheel, though. As a result, it still feels like a heavy SUV, but it manages its weight well with decent brakes, incredibly composed, yet still-comfortable suspension and chassis-tucking torque vectoring, all of which contribute to a confident driving experience.

That’s appreciated when you’re driving the Pilot in a hurry, but even when you’re taking it easy, the Pilot offers a level of cabin comfort, solitude and sophistication that’s above average in a class populated with rivals such as the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander.

Also, according to EPA estimates, taking it easy will net you anywhere between 21 and 23 miles per gallon combined depending on trim, transmission and drive configuration.

The Honda Pilot is poised to remain on the three-row crossover-buyer’s short list for years to come.


Sam Bendall/Roadshow

A better best-buy

The third-generation Honda Pilot has always been a home run in the three-row, midsize crossover class, and the updates it gets for 2019 only solidify that footing. The refreshed Pilot is great where you expect it to be, with its ample roominess, comfort and tech, but it’s also surprisingly polished where you least expect it to be, with its flat cornering behavior and dexterous torque-vectoring character.

Family haulers can easily fall into the basic-transportation/appliance rut, but with the Pilot, Honda has built something the entire band can get excited about. This SUV, which is on sale now, does pretty much everything well: It looks good inside and out, it drives well — and when the going gets quick, it even handles better than it’s supposed to. Overall, the updated 2019 Honda Pilot is big on utility and small on annoyances. It’s just the right blend of sugar, spice and everything nice that midsize crossover shoppers want.


Editors’ note: Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it’s far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow’s editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.


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