The 2019 Honda Pi­lot Elite pushes all the right but­tons to keep pace with the new­com­ers in a seg­ment that is rarely ex­cit­ing, says Robert Duf­fer

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The good news about the re­freshed 2019 Honda Pi­lot Elite is the nine­speed trans­mis­sion op­er­ates with­out a hitch. The bad news is the top trim level costs over $48,000. What’s worse is that price is about av­er­age for a well-equipped three-row mid­size SUV. A ba­sic Acura MDX with the same pow­er­train costs less, but doesn’t have all the dings, zings and things. Com­pared to the top two con­tenders in the class, Pi­lot Elite is about $4,000 more than the top Subaru As­cent and a cou­ple hun­dred less than the top Volk­swa­gen At­las.

These are the two new­est of­fer­ings for Amer­ica’s favourite fam­ily hauler, and they are ar­guably the best. The only knock against the Pi­lot has been fixed for the mid­cy­cle re­fresh and it once again should be con­sid­ered in the top three.

All three do the same things and serve the same needs, so the dif­fer­ences come down to per­son­al­ity. It’s what makes a Pi­lot a Honda and an As­cent a Subaru. Dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties ap­peal to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, that’s why most

peo­ple who read car re­views (bless you) mostly want val­i­da­tion of that most un­quan­ti­iable thing: a feel.

The feel of the At­las is con­ser­va­tive but hand­some styling with a pow­er­ful pow­er­train and tech­nol­ogy that is more lay­ered than in­tu­itive, with more op­tions than you can count.

The feel of the As­cent is un­der­stated, with stan­dard AWD safety and ca­pa­bil­ity a pri­or­ity over power, and with tech­nol­ogy that is more com­part­men­tal­ized than stream­lined. It’s eas­ier to un­der­stand but kind of all over the place. Yet it has one of the nicest in­te­ri­ors, which is un­usual for Subaru.

De­spite a re­vised fas­cia in­tended to be more ag­gres­sive, the Pi­lot blends into the mid­size SUV space with bland styling and big over­hangs. On old dirt roads strewn with rocks in the Colorado Rock­ies at 11,000 feet, the Pi­lot’s torque vec­tor­ing AWD sys­tem was sur­pris­ingly ca­pa­ble. It pro­vided the kind of conidence needed for mod­est off-road­ing or short-cut­ting on ques­tion­able ac­cess roads.

On the in­side it feels the roomi­est. Yet the lighter weight Pi­lot doesn’t drive like the largest; in AWD it gets 2 mpg bet­ter in the city, and 3 mpg bet­ter high­way than the At­las, which is a big deal. As­cent is about the same as Pi­lot, and they both come with three seats in the third row, whereas the At­las only has two. All claim to have a tow­ing ca­pac­ity of 5,000 pounds.

A closer look at the specs re­veals that feel is not the same as fact; At­las has the most cargo and pas­sen­ger room. But the Pi­lot feels roomier. Go ig­ure.

Given that both the As­cent and the Pi­lot come stan­dard with the suite of ad­vanced driver as­sis­tance sys­tems that in­clude emer­gency brak­ing and adap­tive cruise con­trol, the Subaru As­cent is the best value of the three, and also the pok­i­est.

The Pi­lot has solid ac­cel­er­a­tion and pass­ing power from its 280-horse­power V-6 en­gine. Shifts are smooth and pre­dictable from the nine-speed trans­mis­sion, in­clud­ing start up in sec­ond gear for a lurch­less launch. The start/ stop sys­tem has been re­vised to in­clude fewer restarts when the a/c is on, though we didn’t test this be­cause, well, Novem­ber.

It does feel quicker to startup off the brake pedal, how­ever. I don’t think it’s enough to per­suade start/ stop haters, but it makes the tech more liv­able and less no­tice­able.

On the in­side, the Elite trim doesn’t have that same pre­mium feel as the sur­pris­ing As­cent. It has leather trimmed seats, heated leather-wrapped steer­ing wheel and mid-row cap­tain’s chairs, but the con­trol in­ter­face and dash and door pan­els feel like mas­saged plas­tic, not un­like the At­las.

Could a $48,000 pur­chase come down to the all-im­por­tant third row? Tak­ing a page from the Odyssey mini­van and the Acura MDX three-row crossover, the seat fold­ing, shift­ing and conig­ur­ing is about the eas­i­est in the class with­out power but­tons.

Third row seats are easy to col­lapse from the rear with pull straps that col­lapse the head­rests; As­cent re­quires man­ual low­er­ing of head­rests to col­lapse the third row. Mid-row seats are as easy to move for­ward as the push of a but­ton.

As­cent uses a slider but claims to have a larger door open­ing; At­las uses a more tra­di­tional latch that re­quires a bit more strength than a seven or eight year old. Pi­lot is eas­ier over­all. Adding to the ease is a mo­tion ac­ti­vated lift­gate new for 2019.

Up front the steer­ing wheel con­trols are sim­pli­fied but still busy; once you get the feel for how to nav­i­gate through the re­vised in­stru­ment clus­ter, you don’t re­ally need the eight-inch touch screen.

That screen uses swipe and pinch func­tions, and has a swipe right or left fea­ture to ac­cess sub­se­quent menu pages. The main menu icons are large and the sys­tem easy to use. When in nav­i­ga­tion, for in­stance, there are tiny icons on the top bar to switch to the au­dio page. Eas­ier and safer to use the in­stru­ment clus­ter con­trols. And there is a vol­ume knob. Voice recog­ni­tion is very good.

The re­freshed Pi­lot pushes all the right but­tons to keep pace with the new­com­ers in a seg­ment that is rarely ex­cit­ing but gives own­ers the kind of ver­sa­til­ity, prac­ti­cal­ity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion they pre­fer. When it comes down to which one is best, it’ll be the one that feels the best.

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