ATV Honda Pilot
Many a good adventure begins with a harebrained idea. Mine was to jump a $47, 000 Honda crossover.
The notion surfaced when a Honda rep bragged how the 2016 Pilot, a glorified minivan without sliding doors, could handle the Rubicon Trail. I’ve banged over the 20-mile-long High Sierra spine-scrambler and assured him, no, it could not. In fairness, the conversation took place as we trundled a Pilot up a steep dirt mound in a demonstration of the crossover’s Intelligent Traction Management system. I couldn’t imagine a Ford Windstar clearing the grade.
With traction control set to Sand, we crested the rise as Honda’s man told me some of the development work on the multiterrain system occurred in Dubai. I eyed the hump and imagined taking it much, much faster. Had anyone tried to jump a Pilot, Baja style? Now that might prove how tough the crossover really is.
Weeks later, Honda delivered a Pilot Elite, having replaced the 20-inch citified rubber with 18-inch Pirelli Scorpions, a tire with more all-terrain bite. I headed west from New York toward the wilds of Pennsylvania and the Poconos.
The Pilot got its first taste of black-veined dirt in the former coal fields of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area. The pay-to-play site, 6, 000 acres in Coal Township, is some 60 miles north of Hershey. The Keystone State is laced with dedicated off-road sites, some operated with official hours and welcome centers, such as Anthracite, and others by seasonal permits. Anthracite opened in 2014 and has a spiderweb of trails that range from mud bogging to rock crawling. It is economical too: An annual pass starts at $120.
In the quest to see if Honda can hang a macho mustache on the Pilot—it shares its platform with the Odyssey minivan and the Accord—some extra fun came along too. The company makes everything from lawn mowers (including the world’s fastest, a 109-hp monster capable of 116 mph) to weed trimmers. So a Rancher ATV and a side-by-side Pioneer UTV joined the fray. While Honda builds neither expressly to jump, I was reasonably sure they could—though probably not by me.
I needed seasoned operators in the form of genuine off-roading Pennsylvanians Dale Esbin and his 15-year-old son, Jake. Dale is an old-school dirt hound and all-around outdoorsman, and Jake possesses natural talent, having ridden four-wheelers since he was 5. The Esbins would be good judges of the Honda’s outdoor, mud-splashing, boulder-grinding worthiness.
They had their doubts about the Pilot. After all, it had shiny green metallic paint, a standard panoramic glass roof, second-row heated captain’s chairs, and room for seven. The Pilot’s subtext is almost-luxury, the owner a comfortable dad whose likeliest foray off-piste is into the bunker at his favorite nine.
Before we found out, Dave Porzi, Anthracite’s director of operations, led us on a recce around the property. “I grew up riding around these mountains, but it got to the point where I wouldn’t come out here anymore, with all the shooting and boozing and druggin’ going on, ” he said. “But the county commissioners had the idea of turning this former coal land into an economic engine for the area, where we could sponsor responsible recreation and conservation.”
Mining has gone on here since at least the 1930s. The county hauled away heaps of tires and trash and filled in open pits and mine shafts. “The land was abused for so many years with illegal activity, ” he explained, “we were told that anything we do would be an improvement.”
I expected black, dead land filled with tailings but instead found lush hills and thick copses of trees turning gold and red, with large birds cartwheeling overhead. Porzi nodded at a massive black pipe sticking out of the ground, indicating a bat cave deep below. “If you knew what was underneath us, you probably wouldn’t drive over it, ” he said with a laugh. “There are 800-foot shafts which lead to gangways that lead to even deeper shafts. They open up sometimes. … ”
The guide and I were in his side-by-side UTV as Dale Esbin followed in the Pilot, avoiding deep, black mud pits lacing the roads. That wouldn’t do at all, so we moved on, me in the side-by-side. Utility task vehicles, or UTVs, handily outsell motorcycles these days. The Pioneer has a 475cc, four-stroke engine and a five-speed dual-clutch transmission operated by paddles. Its short 102.5-inch wheelbase allows you to turn in early, simultaneously downshifting and allowing the body to pivot around obstacles. Good fun, as it weighs a mere 1, 010 pounds. (Prices start around $9, 000.) Nonetheless, compare it to a sport UTV such as the turbocharged Polaris RZR XP 4—a 144-hp mini-Baja-buggy badass—and the Pioneer looks as milquetoast as the Pilot.
The Pioneer was soon on two wheels—the two on the driver’s side. Turns out the rollbar is necessary, as it is easy to tip the Pioneer. Dale jumped the weighty FourTrax Rancher ATV, a feat I would not have attempted, as the Pilot made easy work of the terrain. We avoided big boulder piles and too-narrow trails, looking for fast pebble-coated sweepers and speedy paths with midsized rocks. The Pilot’s front-strut, rear coilover-damper suspension and AWD torque vectoring made the 4, 317-pound CUV look positively lithe. I rammed it over rocks and coaxed it into sideways semi-slides.
Vehicle sensors knew all four wheels were off the ground, and perhaps there was enough roll to indicate a flip was imminent, triggering the explosive seat belt.
The i-VTM4 system distributes torque between front and rear axles and allows a surprising amount of slip when set to Mud or Sand. The Honda Pilot works much like the Range Rover Evoque, forgoing a real off-roader’s twin differentials for a traction-based system that modulates throttle mapping, rear-torque bias, and slip.
Go ahead, crash the Pilot through those deep, black mud pits at 15 mph—or even more than 35 mph. Damn the rocks and plastic fascia. It makes a great splash and gets anybody riding right behind you—particularly if that person’s in an open-air vehicle such as the Pioneer and Rancher—tremendously muddy.