There is a certain stigma surrounding popular family haulers like minivans and three-row SUVs. Most people justify their purchase as simply a necessity. They bite the bullet, if you will, as a means to an end. That "end" being the ability to lug around a gaggle of kids, their soccer team and maybe a few kids of the furry, four-legged variety. It's not often that when asked how they like their family car, new owners exclaim, "it's really fun!" This made us ponder - is a fun family vehicle an oxymoron?

Honda Pilot at Dream Home
Honda brought us out to Montana to test out the 2019 Pilot and get a tour of HGTV's Dream Home.

Luckily, we were about to get our answer. In partnership with HGTV's Dream Home, Honda invited us to Whitefish, Montana (the ultimate playground for the outdoor adventurer) to take the Pilot out for a spin and tour HGTV's Dream Home. We were eager to get out to the mountains and find out if the refreshed 2019 Honda Pilot can keep up with free spirits and soccer moms alike. These are our first-hand impressions of the updates to the Pilot's design, performance and tech features. 

A More Aggressive Exterior 

2019 Honda Pilot Exterior

We were formally introduced to the newly refreshed 2019 Pilot when we arrived in picturesque Whitefish and got a download of all the updates to the model straight from its Chief Engineer, Lara Harrington. Exterior updates to the Pilot were a focus for the refresh. Honda wanted the new exterior to show off the SUV's rugged capability, thus making the Pilot stand apart from the Odyssey minivan which it was getting compared to all too often. Honda's vision for the Pilot's new exterior was athletic, aggressive and rugged. How did this vision come to life?

Honda Pilot Front grille

To differentiate the new Honda Pilot from its minivan sibling, the company went for a tougher aesthetic with a new grille and the appearance of skid plates on the bumper covers. A squared off front fascia along with a thick bar added between the headlights make the Pilot appear a touch more masculine. The rear fascia also got an update, though it's not as dramatic as the front. The rear bumper cover gets a silver painted bar and the reverse lights are moved up into the taillights. Both headlights and taillights get updated with new, brighter LED lights on every Pilot trim including the base LX. 

Though the improvements are relatively minor and the Pilot won't be mistaken for a Jeep Wrangler anytime soon, this family vehicle does appear slightly more rugged and aggressive post refresh. This adds appeal for the adventurers who need passenger space but wouldn't dare be seen driving a minivan or anything closely resembling one. 

Performance On (and Off) Snowy Roads

2019 Honda Pilot

From Honda's presentation, we learned about the Torque-vectoring i-VTM4 (Intelligent Variable Torque Management) AWD that comes standard in the 2019 Pilot Elite. We discovered our drive route would take us through Glacier National Park and would include an off-road area so we could test out the Pilot's multi-modal traction management in tough winter conditions. Armed with the information of all that is new and improved for the mid-cycle refresh of the 2019 Pilot, we took to the mountains to see how Honda's showcased features perform in the wild.

Powertrain

The Pilot's 280 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine returns unchanged for 2018. The biggest update to the powertrain will be seen in the top two trims including the Elite and the Touring which are graced with a new 9-speed automatic transmission. The updates to the transmission did not go unnoticed during our drive. Acceleration for highway driving was smooth and we were especially grateful for the new transmission when passing numerous log trucks that, for a large part of our drive, outnumbered all other vehicles on the road. The Pilot's start-stop system was responsive and took only a fraction of a second to start up from being stopped at a light.

i-VTM4 AWD 

Standard on the Pilot Elite and optional on the lower trims, the i-VTM4 AWD uses active torque distribution to send engine torque to the wheels that need it most for varied driving conditions. For straight line driving such as the highways that took us most of the way to Glacier National Park, the engine torque goes to the wheels with the most traction. We felt confident going around corners, thanks to the active torque distribution that goes to the outside wheel reducing understeering.

For the first half of the drive, the snow was just starting to fall, and we didn't reach a fully snow-covered road until we entered Glacier National Park where we switched to snow mode to test out the Pilot's Intelligent Traction Management system. Up until this point in our trip, the Pilot was confident and capable driving on slightly slick roads. However, the question we set out to answer is "can the family-friendly Pilot also be fun?" Little did we know we would have to leave the roads to experience its fun side. 

Honda Pilot Off Road Course

Intelligent Traction Management

Complementing the i-VTM4 is Honda's Intelligent Traction Management system offering four modes (Normal, Snow, Mud and Sand) that can be selected with a touch of a button. These modes cover nearly all driving conditions both on-road and off. Normal and snow modes are designed for normal everyday driving while mud and sand modes are optimal for off-road adventures. 

As we approached the off-road section of our drive in the afternoon, conditions were more typical for Montana, meaning a couple inches of snow on the ground resulting in slippery terrain. The packed snow on the hill of our off-road course resulted in a slicker than anticipated ascent. Honda's team told us to play around with the modes to see which would get us up the hill most efficiently. It turned out that snow mode wasn't the top choice for the task at hand since it slowed the wheels down instead of loosening them up as mud or sand modes do. Once we switched to mud mode and applied some throttle, we made it up the hill without a struggle. 

Practical Interior and New Technology

Honda Pilot infotainment

Fortunately, the 2019 Pilot's fun attributes don't end with the off-road-friendly Intelligent Traction Management. There are plenty of features (both new and carried over) inside the cabin of the Honda Pilot that make it enjoyable for drivers and passengers alike. While passenger entertainment needs are addressed, safety remains at the forefront. At the end of the day, the Pilot is still a family hauler. For 2019, Honda has added their Honda Sensing safety package to every trim starting with the LX. The package includes adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, lane keeping assist, and road departure mitigation.

Interior

Our first impression inside the Pilot Elite was positive thanks to the high-quality leather trim, a leather-wrapped heated steering wheel as well as heated and ventilated front seats and heated second-row seats. While the interior didn't immediately strike us as extravagant, it is sophisticated and simultaneously low maintenance for the unavoidable spills that occur in a family SUV.

Honda Pilot Elite Interior
Inside the Pilot Elite, you'll find high quality, low maintenance materials, and plentiful legroom.

We later noticed how spacious both the Pilot's second and third-rows are. Many three-row SUVs feel cramped in the last row to the point where only a small child can fit, but the Pilot's third row fits full-size adults. The Pilot can seat between 7 and 8 passengers depending on if you get captain's chairs or bench seats for the second row. To make access to the third row less painful, the Pilot has a power slide button for the second row. A feature we liked for driving through Montana (AKA "Big Sky Country") was the panoramic sunroof that lets the second and third row passengers enjoy the views of nature or tall buildings depending on your locale. 

Technology

Keeping everyone entertained on long trips can be a challenge and the Pilot Elite's creature comforts don't stop with the driver and front passenger seats. Wireless charging is newly added for 2019 and even second-row passengers will find access to USB ports to keep batteries from meeting their untimely death. The infotainment screen has improved in responsiveness and displays large icons that can be moved around like a smartphone. Another addition for 2019 is the return of the volume knob which Honda brought back after fielding one too many complaints about the finicky touch screen volume slider.

Honda Pilot Rear Seat Entertainment
If "are we there yet?!" is the extent of your kids' vocabulary, check out the How Much Farther app.

New toys in the 2019 Pilot Elite include the CabinTalk PA system and a Rear Entertainment System app. CabinTalk works through a built-in microphone that allows the driver to talk to the rear seat passengers via the vehicle's speaker system or by taking over the headphones that are plugged into the entertainment system. If your childhood dream was to pilot an aircraft, this may be the closest you'll get - enjoy it. The rear entertainment system comes with a Blueray and DVD player as well as a "How Much Farther" app that lets kids see a real-time view of the car's location and how much of the drive is left on the entertainment screen.

Our experience driving the refreshed Honda Pilot can be summed up as enjoyable, comfortable and yes - fun (thanks to the off-roading experience). While it likely won't keep the hardcore off-roaders happy, for the active family who enjoys fun in the great outdoors in all weather, it's the dream SUV. The 2019 Pilot is in dealerships now with prices ranging from $31,450 for the base LX trim to $48,020 MSRP for the top Elite trim with all the fixin's

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