I know, I know. You read the headline and saw “Honda Pilot,” “Capable,” and “Muddy” and couldn’t not click on the link. As with many other manufacturers, the 2023 Honda Pilot TrailSport is here to cash in on the post-COVID notion that Americans want to be outdoors more than ever and need a more rugged variant of their de facto unibody crossover in which to go exploring. I took a Pilot TrailSport to Summit Point Motorsports Park to support our second rallycross of the season and managed to put it to the test – a bit more than I planned initially.
Our rallycrosses take place on packed, graded dirt courses that have been cut into fields at Summit Point. You can run almost anything on these courses, including most sedans with average ground clearance and normal suspension. The Pilot’s initial purpose was to serve as a support vehicle for the event, moving people and things around as needed and potentially using its recovery points to rescue any stuck or broken-down cars on the course.
Weather made this all go a bit sideways, and in the process, I got to get the Pilot TrailSport plenty muddy. It was hilarious, far more capable than I thought it’d be, and pretty endearing in the end.
What Is the Honda Pilot TrailSport?
Honda’s not like all those other moms. They took the idea of building a silly overlanding cosplay machine and got a bit more serious.
The Pilot TrailSport rides an inch higher than other Pilots, with revised spring rates and damper tuning. Approach (19.8°) and breakover (19.6°) angles are improved over a regular Pilot, and Honda says unique sway bars allow for more articulation, too.
Steel skid plates protect the oil pan, transmission, and gas tank, rated to support the entire weight of the Pilot slamming down on them. Honda added recovery points at the front and says the trailer hitch may be used as such out back, all of which are rated at twice the Pilot’s 6,195-pound GVWR. Unique 18” wheels are wrapped in Continental all-terrain tires.
All-wheel drive is standard, and while there’s no low range, Honda says their latest i-VTM4 system is pretty great. Up to 70% of engine torque can be sent to the rear axle, all of which can then flow to the left or right wheel. Trail Torque Logic will optimize that power flow even more if one of the two wheels per axle is in the air or on a loose surface.
Every Pilot is powered by the first naturally-aspirated DOHC V6 Honda’s made since the original NSX – it’s a new J35 variant, displacing 3.5L and making 285 HP and 262 lb-ft. There’s no VTEC, y0, as they use continuously-variable cam phasers to change timing now. Power flows through a 10-speed Honda automatic.
I’m most impressed here by the skid plates and recovery points being so useful. While it’s a bummer to lose VTEC and its engagement feeling, the updated J-series builds power steadily and sounds fantastic doing so.
Street Driving the Pilot TrailSport
My route to Summit Point takes about an hour and involves a mix of highway driving and winding back roads. The Pilot TrailSport is plenty comfortable, soaking up bumps and highway imperfections with a bit more skill than a regular Pilot, thanks to the softer suspension and bigger tire sidewalls over, say, a Pilot Elite.
Back roads were not the TrailSport’s favorite spot to play, although it was composed enough for what it is. Steering is pretty light and it’s here where you notice just how huge the Pilot has become. The third row is useful for adults, but in passing a Chevy Tahoe, I didn’t feel much smaller either.
The engine and 10-speed played nicely together, even as I got into the mountains a bit. While there are paddle shifters on the wheel, leaving the Pilot in Drive (or Sport, if ya’ nasty) was all I bothered to do, as the transmission did a great job picking the right ratios as needed. The downside, as with every 10-speed, is that it’s busy all the time – but it shifted unobtrusively enough that I didn’t notice in daily driving.
Generally, the Pilot feels like a huge Accord inside, which is not a bad thing at all. The seats are comfortable enough, the sound system is good, and everything is easy to manage on the move. There are enough buttons for frequently-used controls, so your attention isn’t taken away from the road with touch-controlled everything.
Testing the Trail and Sport
It had rained earlier in the week, prior to our event, and a few “recon laps” of the various dirt circuits were in order when my friend Jon and I arrived to set up for the weekend. I clicked the Pilot to Trail mode and we set off exploring. At low speeds, crawling around in dirt and some mud, the Pilot TrailSport was as happy as ever. Grip was abundant with the Contis and as I carefully nosed the Pilot around, Honda’s newest i-VTM4 all-wheel drive did just fine moving power around.
Some downsides became apparent the more we explored. Despite improved approach and breakover angles compared to a “regular” Pilot, the TrailSport still has a pretty long nose that hinders how you can approach some steeper terrain. Breakover was less of a problem, though I did hear a skid plate or two scrape ever so slightly at points.
As we explored, Jon and I concluded that our Saturday course would have to be on asphalt, a surprise autocross of sorts. The dirt courses were all impassable, with the “dirt” turning to a clay-based mud that was too deep or rutted at points for most of our attendees to plow through. We hoped good weather would stick around and let things continue to dry, allowing Sunday’s runs to take place on dirt as planned.
Naturally, it rained some more. A lot more.
Saturday saw rain that didn’t let up until lunchtime, flooding the courses even more. I once again went on some recon runs in the Pilot to see what was what. Knowing the courses were at least free of rocks and other damage-causing debris, I figured I could have some fun. And oh, did I. This thing (relatively) rips.
“It’s already dirty, I’m going to have to visit a carwash, let’s get on it some more,” was my entire thought process approaching the first course. Trail mode allows more wheelspin and boy did I use it. The more throttle I gave the TrailSport, the more rear-biased the all-wheel drive felt. It let me hang the rear out just enough to feel silly while still in control. Mud was slapping the fender liners and flinging up on to the hood as I fed a bit of steering and throttle in to point the nose straight ahead.
Looking straight ahead, I saw the small mud pit had become a medium mud pit. More throttle. Go. Splash. Brake. Be glad the windows were up.
I was not expecting to find the Pilot TrailSport so amusing in mud. Frankly, I had Jon ready to pull me out with his Tundra because I thought I’d get stuck. Despite the all-terrains quickly filling their tread with mud (yay, racing slicks!) the Pilot kept clawing its way forward and providing some tail-out fun in the process.
And this all happened at roughly seven miles per hour. Maybe ten.
Thoughts From The Pay-and-Spray Carwash
As our weekend wrapped up, I broke off from the group to spray the Pilot down at a do-it-yourself carwash. Don’t worry Honda, I didn’t use that brush full of rocks, I just wanted the pressure washer. I started spraying every nook and cranny of the beefed-up Pilot and reflected on how I’d driven it to get it just so dirty.
Nothing I did in the TrailSport was super heroic; I’d guess that most of these overland-ish crossovers could have handled what I asked of the Pilot to some degree. Where I found the Pilot TrailSport to be so endearing was in its handling. The all-wheel drive’s ability to send so much power rearward made my wheel time fun, and it shifted between axles seamlessly, whether I was crawling through a drainage ditch or powering out of a muddy corner.
I never want to use a skid plate, but knowing that the ones on the Pilot were rated for so much weight gave me plenty of confidence as a “just in case” sort of feeling. Same for the recovery hooks. We never once dragged anything around with the Pilot, but I’d have done it without a second thought.
Ground clearance was sufficient, angles were just okay. I appreciated the boxiness as it was easy to see the Pilot’s corners on a tight trail, though the long nose did require use of the front-facing camera at times.
Heading home, I realized the Pilot TrailSport had endeared itself to me over the weekend. It’s not sporty or fun in the traditional sense, but it’s pretty good at its mission of doing more than a regular Pilot. The gear isn’t just for looks, it’s all functional and the package comes together well.