If someone asked me what first comes to mind about the Honda Pilot I’d say the following; excellent value, legendary reliability, bankable resale numbers, sand-dunes capable, uh, wait a second, sand dunes? The Honda Pilot? Are you sure?

Absolutely. In fact, Honda was so sure of it, they entered the all-new 2019 Pilot in the Rebelle Rally, a 7-day, 2000-kilometer off-road rally that traverses other-worldly terrain from Goldmine, Nev., over rocks and mountains in Johnson Valley, Calif. This desert panorama stretches past the horizon, across dry lake beds turned to mud in recent rains and finally ending in the threatening mountains of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area about 150 miles east of San Diego.

Piloting the Pilot were two of Honda’s own product designers and engineers, Ariel Jen, Product Planner for Research and Development, and Melanie Morimoto, Fabrication Tech, both of whom live in Southern California. What better proving ground than a navigation rally where teams can only use a map and compass to get them across some of California’s most rugged geography? Zero GPS allowed. 

First all-women rally in U.S.

This first all-women’s off-road rally of its kind in the United States, the Rebelle Rally is open to novice and professional competitors alike, and Rebelle creator and off-road expert Emily Miller encourages car companies to test their vehicles on the Rebelle’s world class course.

“There is no better unbiased proving ground than the Rebelle Rally for car makers to test their vehicles. This competition is a true test for manufacturers to showcase their products. There’s no faking it out here. But you don’t have to have any modifications to perform and isn’t it great for buyers to know exactly what their car can do?” says Miller.

For 2019, Honda has revised the Pilot and addressed its few sticking points, including a hesitant 9-speed transmission on higher trims and the lack of a volume knob. This new Pilot also gets a freshened exterior design, newly standard safety systems, and revised technology.

Thanks to its multi-mode terrain system (snow, mud, sand) it can send up to 70 percent of power to the rear wheels. Jen and Morimoto bounded over rocks, crawled up dirt and loose shale mountains intimidating as the dark elevations of Mordor, before finding themselves in California’s version of the Sahara Desert. If you ever want to play out your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies, head west, young woman. The Pilot’s all-wheel-drive system uses a sophisticated torque-vectoring system, similar to that of models in Honda’s luxury brand, Acura. This enables the Pilot to vary the power output going to each rear wheel, giving priority to the one with the most grip. Drivers can switch between terrain modes, but the Pilot is smart enough to do the rest. 

Plenty of power

The Pilot’s 3.5-liter V6 that makes 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque proved to be plenty enough to get Team #208 over the rough stuff.  “The Pilot was solid in the washes and tight areas. Really maneuverable even for such a long car,” Jen said. “[We] could have used better ground clearance and shorter overhangs for better breakover, the types of things you’d find in a more serious off-road vehicle, but we got over everything we wanted to. It surprised even us,” Jen continued. “The whompy washes and dry lake beds were no problem for the Pilot.”

A special vehicle class designation in the Rebelle is the bone stock category, reserved for vehicles with no modifications save for different tires. Outfitting the Pilot with BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain rubber was a no brainer. However, the Pilot didn’t qualify as bone stock because of the aftermarket skid plates they had installed as well as the lighting package provided by Baja Designs for better visibility. The extra armor was added because of the limited 7.3-inches of ground clearance. The team from Honda didn’t want to rip open the oil pan or worse, putting Team Desert Dreamers out of competition before seeing what the midsize crossover more commonly found in the supermarket parking lot could do.

In order to carry all their gear, they also gutted the interior, making room for recovery equipment, tools, food, water and other essential items to help them get from basecamp to basecamp, but also to survive on their own should they have needed it.

Zip ties, duct tape to the rescue

By the time Team #208 made it to the dunes where the Mexico, California and Arizona borders meet, the Pilot looked a bit beaten up, but hardly defeated. The front bumper had been reattached with zip ties and duct tape, looking exactly as a rally car should. Honda proudly displayed Team Desert Dreamer’s Pilot at SEMA, the automotive aftermarket convention that takes place annually in Las Vegas at the end of October.

“This is the best product testing you can do,” Chris Woo, Technical Director for the Rebelle says. In spite of their best efforts in the unforgiving shifting mountains, the Honda Pilot ventured into sand softer and less agreeable than anticipated and needed the assistance of MaxTrax, which wedge underneath tire treads, so drivers can shift into their lowest gear and slowly accelerate out of what they’ve dug themselves into. By day seven, the final day of the competition, the all-wheel-drive system wasn’t cooperating, but Jen admits she’s pushed it passed its limit. “Even though the only sand or rocks it may find its way on is the beach, the Pilot is more capable than you’d think,” she said.

So, when considering which SUV to purchase, which has to be reliable to get you through grinding commute, to help your sister move into her dorm, or to hit the pavement for the holidays, know that should you want to roam off-road the Pilot can do that, too, and the people at Honda know because they’ve already made sure it could pass the ultimate test. 

Learn more about the 2019 Honda Pilot

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