First drive: 2019 Honda Pilot [Video review]

The Pilot gets its first major update since 2016.

The current-generation Honda Pilot has officially reached middle age, which means its time for a facelift. And while the Pilot was under the knife, Honda decided to make a few other enhancements to the family SUV for the 2019 model year, like more standard safety tech and added convenience features. Curious to see the results of all that work, we flew to Los Angeles to pull off the bandages.

Charting the changes

One of Honda's major goals for the Pilot's 2019 update was to make it look tougher. The current Pilot actually has some off-roading chops, but Honda felt the SUV's styling didn't accurately reflect its go-anywhere abilities. So, for 2019, Honda redesigned the Pilot's front bumper to have a more aggressive look, complete with a set of sharply angled vents at each corner. And to really sell the whole off-road thing, the lower center portion of the Pilot's new bumper has been fitted with a "skid garnish,” which is little more than an aesthetic piece that doesn't actually offer any additional undercarriage protection.

The overall shape of the Pilot's headlights remain the same for 2019, but Honda has added standard LED low-beams. Only top-spec Pilot models receive LED high-beams. A new grille that can be had in chrome or dark chrome round out the changes on the nose of the Pilot.

Around back the Pilot now sports LED taillights complete with integrated LED reverse lights -- previously, the Pilot's back up lights were located on the bumper. Curiously, Honda stuck with incandescent bulbs for the Pilot's turn signals. Like the front, the Pilot's new rear bumper include a faux skid plate.

New wheels are also part of the Pilot's 2019 update; lower-spec models get 18s while higher-end trim levels receive 20-inchers.

On the inside, the Pilot's biggest improvement is actually quite small. After fielding complaints from owners and journalists alike, Honda finally relented and switched out the Pilot's radio volume slider, which had the accuracy of a drunk chimpanzee playing darts, for an easy-to-tune volume knob. That noise you hear is the heavens rejoicing.

Other physical changes to the Pilot's interior are limited to a new LCD screen in the gauge cluster for all models; captain's chairs and additional ambient lighting for Touring models; and a wireless charging pad for Elite models. But Honda has done some work behind the scenes.

The Honda Sensing safety suite is now standard across all Pilot trims and includes technology like adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist. Automatic high-beams are also now standard from the base LX trim on up.

New features for the step up Pilot EX include a blind spot indicator with cross-traffic detection, heated front-row seats, one-touch sliding second-row seats, HD radio and CabinControl. That latter feature is new to Pilot and borrowed from the latest Honda Odyssey minivan. CabinControl is an app-based system that allows rear seat passengers to control things like the radio and climate control via a smartphone. Smartly, Honda gives the driver the ability to override any CabinControl suggestions.

The volume EX-L trim, which accounts for more than half of all Pilot sales, gains a memory driver's seat, second-row sunshades and a Blu-Ray rear entertainment system for 2019. Honda has also included CabinTalk as standard on the Pilot EX-L.

Like CabinControl, Honda lifted the CabinTalk feature from the Odyssey. The system uses the Pilot's embedded microphone to boom the driver's voice through the car's audio speakers, making it easier to communicate with second- and third-row passengers.

The 2019 Pilot Touring gains HondaLink telematics, a foot-activated power tailgate, heated second-row seats and LED high beams. New standard features for the top-spec Pilot Elite are limited to power-folding and auto dimming side mirrors, and the previously mentioned wireless charging pad in the center console.

Overall the Pilot's interior remains a nice place to spend a roadtrip, but it's starting to show its age in some places. The design could be more modern and we'd like to see better materials in upper-end trims that can hit nearly $50,000. But there's far more good than bad, and the Pilot remains a great family vehicle if you can't fathom driving a minivan.

Powertrains carryover largely unchanged. All Pilots are motivated by a 3.5L V6 with 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. As with the previous model, Pilot LX, EX and EX-L trims use a six-speed automatic transmission while Touring and Elite trims get a nine-speed auto. Front-wheel drive is standard on all but the most expensive Elite trim.

The only drivetrain tweaks to note are a smoother auto start/stop system and a re-tuning of the nine-speed auto. Despite the transmission's update, fuel economy figures are unchanged at 22mpg in mixed driving for front-wheel drive models and 21mpg for AWD variants.

On the road

Honda didn't change any of the Pilot's hardware for 2019, so the driving experience hasn't changed, either. But that's not a bad thing in the case of the Pilot. That's because Honda's family SUV is actually quite nice to drive with a comfortable suspension, light and accurate steering, and plenty of power from the 3.5L V6. Models fitted with all-wheel drive also benefit from a torque vectoring system that improves handling.

We couldn't detect any improved smoothness from the Pilot's new start/stop system, but the re-tuned nine-speed was a little more apparent. The unit seemed to shift earlier and be less willing to kick-down than the last Pilot we drove with the nine-speed automatic. Shifts were at least fast and smooth, though.

In addition to on-road driving, Honda also let us loose on an off-road course with the 2019 Pilot. Though not a hard-core off-roader like the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota 4Runner, the Pilot is surprisingly capable off the beaten path. The Pilot's all-wheel drive system can "lock” the front and rear axles via a twin-clutch system, ensuring maximum traction. The system also continually monitors wheel slippage and sends power to the wheels with the most grip, so the Pilot can keep moving even with a wheel (or two) off the ground.

Honda freely admits that few Pilot owners will ever go off-roading, but the company says the image of capability is important to SUV buyers. We give Honda props for making an SUV that can actually backup its image.

Leftlane's bottom line

It may have a new exterior design, but the beauty of the 2019 Pilot is more than skin-deep. With the Pilot's 2019 redesign, Honda managed to turn an already appealing three-row SUV into an even more desirable family hauler thanks to new standard safety tech like Honda Sensing and convenience features like CabinTalk. Competitors like the all-new Subaru Ascent are starting to erode Honda's lead in the family SUV segment, but the 2019 Pilot is still one of the best minivan alternatives on the market today.

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