It's possible to divide my opinion of the 2019 Honda Pilot into two distinctive eras. My time with Honda's three-row hauler was split right down the middle by a ferocious snowstorm, one that would eventually combine with a freezing blast of Arctic air to mark the calendar with Montreal's coldest blizzard of the past 100 years.
It was an excruciating experience, to be sure, but also one that played to the Pilot's strengths in a way that saved it from the much milder impression it had left with me in more hospitable climes. It may be too much to say that the Honda's was saved by the fury of Mother Nature, but it certainly highlighted aspects of the SUV that fair-weather daily driving had left hidden.
In The Pack
Why the stark difference between pre-snowpocalypse Pilot and the frost-covered beast that emerged, blinking and triumphant, once the snowplows had restored some semblance of order to the city streets?
It's simple, really. The Honda Pilot belongs to that growing cohort of difficult-to-differentiate midsize crossovers that have had their respective personalities obliterated by their stated mission of having to be everything to everyone. When versatility becomes the name of the game, standing out in any one area is much less likely, which in turn makes it hard to pinpoint why a vehicle like the Pilot is worth buying over similarly-oriented rivals like the Subaru Ascent, Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Highlander.
That's not to say that the Pilot is in any way deficient where it counts. Large inside (with a child-friendly third row), relatively comfortable in daily driving and sufficiently powerful thanks to its standard 280-hp 3.5L V6, the vehicle ticks all of the boxes most families are looking for. If you can see past its hefty price tag (starting at $43,000 and topping out at $44,900), plain switchgear and occasionally frustrating infotainment system, you'll take home a brood-friendly commuter packed with safety gear that you'll never think about twice as you rack up the kilometres, crumbs and occasional oil changes.
My hesitance in recommending the Honda over any of its peers is simply due to its conform-at-all-costs design. If the anodyne security and familiarity of suburbia could be boiled down into vehicular form, it would be the Pilot. Indeed, my first few days with the vehicle passed in an uneventful blur, and while this may indeed be the uniform some drivers are seeking, it's not the most gushing of endorsements.
Winter's maelstrom reveals a hero
And then, la tempête. One unsuspecting afternoon the clouds opened up overhead and dumped 35 cm of ice pellets and frozen gloom in the space of 24 hours, placing the city knee-deep in chaos and despair. Raging winds further sharpened the misery of -25 Celsius, and I stared with growing concern at the alley behind my home, where drifting snow had already built a wall in front of my parking spot where the Pilot slept.
Much as I wanted to wait out the storm, duty called: I trudged out to the Honda and began to brush off the still-accumulating flakes that had transformed it from SUV to 'can't see me' in a matter of hours. Our local snow removal service was MIA, overwhelmed by the momentousness of the occasion, and I had no choice but to cross my fingers and hope that the Pilot's four-wheel-drive system would rise above the bell curve that defined the rest of its features.
My first step was to turn off traction control, a feat that was accompanied by a dashboard message reading 'Stuck vehicle recovery mode engaged.' Next, I toggled through the Pilot's drive modes until I found 'Snow,' which promised a more even division of power front and rear, and perhaps a small chance of fording through what lay before it.
Lo and behold, the Honda began to crawl, inch by inch, from its barricaded prison of precipitation into the alley, requiring only a few gentle forward/backward rockings along the way before it had gathered the momentum required to skid down to the street and breach the ice dam locking it away from the road. Crystals crunching underneath its tires, I switched the transmission to 'Sport' mode to take advantage of the additional throttle and transmission response and was rewarded with a respectable amount of throttle steer, which proved useful time and again in manoeuvring around stuck cars and popsicle pedestrians testing their luck in a world gone white.
It was an impressive initial performance that only grew more so as the day went on. Try as I might, the Honda Pilot refused to get stuck, slide out of control or bury itself in a snowbank despite the extreme cold and ravaged highways and surface roads standing in for Montreal's storm-battered infrastructure. The vehicle's relentless winter competence stood in stark contrast to its milquetoast initial presentation.
Is the 2019 Honda Pilot's incredible winter acumen enough to paper over its less-intriguing characteristics? Perhaps not - but it's certainly a strong mark in the model's favour as compared to several of its similarly-sized competitors, several of which offer all-wheel-drive systems designed to handle only the occasional slippery surface, not necessarily a paralyzing blizzard. The Pilot does everything you need it to do, and then a fair bit more in the worst possible driving situations, which makes it worth a look if the plough occasionally forgets your street, too.
It's also an important reminder to someone like myself not to dismiss a vehicle without first experiencing it at the limits of its design brief. No matter how many miles might be behind me, there are occasions where I am still surprised by the unexpected when I turn the key - or rather, push the start button.