When Honda launched the third-generation Pilot for the 2016 model year, it wasn't long before we declared it one of our favorite three-row SUVs. We quickly added a Pilot Elite to our long-term test fleet. For a full year, we praised its smooth ride quality, thoughtful cargo configurations and adult-friendly third-row seating. If you followed along, you probably got tired of how frequently we extolled its virtues.
2019 Honda Pilot First Drive
Revised Transmission, New Infotainment for Refreshed Pilot
But as much as we loved our fully loaded people-mover, there were a few aspects that we weren't as fond of. The infotainment system was often distracting to use, and we criticized our Pilot Elite's nine-speed automatic transmission for its unrefined and clunky shifting. Thankfully, the refreshed 2019 Honda Pilot seeks to rectify these mistakes with revised transmission tuning and a new user interface. Other changes include updated front and rear styling and a smattering of new features. We got behind the wheel of the 2019 Pilot to see if Honda corrected its most egregious faults.
We derided the Pilot's previous infotainment system for its confusing menu structure, cluttered user interface, oddly shaped virtual buttons and slow response times. It didn't have a volume knob either, and the substitute digital volume slider was difficult to operate. Since this system was standard on every trim except the LX, owners had to live with it if they wanted a Pilot with a broader array of features.
The 2019 Honda Pilot's touchscreen system now features the user interface from the new Accord, Odyssey and Insight. This system uses smartphonelike tiles — rather than horizontally oriented rectangles — and virtual buttons that are spaced farther apart. As such, you don't have to be as precise when pressing buttons, which reduces the amount of time spent looking at the screen to hit what you're aiming at.
There's also a physical volume knob in place of the digital volume slider. Although it sticks out from the screen rather inelegantly, the knob is considerably easier to use. Some menu screens are still cluttered, however. Choosing the audio source, for example, requires pressing a small button on the audio submenu that isn't clearly labeled. Overall, though, Honda's new system is a welcome upgrade. As with last year's Pilot, the 8-inch infotainment screen comes standard on the EX trim and above and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Revisiting the Nine-Speed
The other major sore spot was the occasionally rough and befuddled shifting coming from the nine-speed automatic. Ever since the 2016 debut year, we've been recommending Pilot shoppers avoid the expensive Touring and Elite trims and get an LX or EX with the more satisfying six-speed automatic.
We'll have to revisit our recommendation in light of the 2019 Pilot's new transmission shift programming. The Pilot now leaves from a stop in second gear, which bypasses the sometimes harsh 1-2 shift. (You can still get first gear by pressing the S button on the shifter or pull the steering wheel paddles to select gears manually.) The result is smoother shifting and better responsiveness to your gas pedal inputs. Since it's still not perfect, we advise conducting back-to-back test drives between models equipped with the six-speed to make sure you're comfortable with its behavior.
New Features, Standard Safety Tech
Honda's updates to the 2019 Pilot extend beyond the new infotainment interface and nine-speed modifications. Every Pilot receives new styling for the front and rear fascias, LED headlights, taillights and grille. There's also a digital instrument panel and a new steering wheel. The Honda Sensing suite of advanced safety features — which includes adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and intervention, and forward collision warning with automatic braking — is now standard as well. These features weren't even optional on the base LX model last year, and now they are included with its $32,445 MSRP (including destination).
The Pilot's meat-and-potatoes EX trim ($35,325) also gets more features. Its revised touchscreen and LED foglights are new to the Pilot, while heated front seats, a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, HD radio, and the easy-access third-row feature are new to the EX. The EX-L ($38,755) is now bolstered with driver-seat memory settings and second-row sunshades, and the available rear entertainment system has a larger display screen.
The Touring model ($43,515) now features a hands-free tailgate, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and a more powerful audio system; these are new features for the Pilot. It also gets ambient lighting and the option for second-row captain's chairs. At the top of the Pilot trim structure is the Elite ($49,015), which now offers multi-element LED headlights (similar to the headlights you see on Acuras), a wireless charging pad, and power-folding and auto-dimming mirrors.
Even with the additional features at every trim level, prices haven't changed much. LX, Touring and Elite models cost $550 more than a comparable 2018 version. EX and EX-L models cost $1,000 more, though the price differential is the same if the 2018 model was equipped with the Honda Sensing package.
The Bottom Line
There are a lot of great choices available for a three-row midsize SUV, and we think it's wise to cross-shop the Pilot with its primary competition, which includes the Chevrolet Traverse, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander and Volkswagen Atlas. Overall, though, the improvements for 2019 make the Pilot even easier to recommend.