The engineer who went off-roading to help build Honda’s most rugged vehicle

Liz Long, a chassis reliability test engineer at the Honda Auto Development Center in Ohio, started working for the company a decade ago. In 2018, Long was invited to collaborate on a Honda vehicle designated for an eight-day off-roading competition in California. In the process, she started dreaming about hitting the trails herself.  

That collaboration led to the Honda Pilot TrailSport that debuted in 2022 for the 2023 model year. Fortified with skid plates to protect the underbelly, tow hooks for recovery on the trails, and a suspension tuned for bumpy roads, it was the most rugged vehicle Honda had ever produced. Last year, Long co-piloted a TrailSport in the Rebelle Rally, and the SUV emerged victorious, a little bruised by punishing terrain and scrub but decidedly unbroken.

This is the story of how Long lent her engineering expertise to transform the family-friendly Pilot into something tougher, with the ability to not just withstand rocky trails and slippery sand but emerge from the desert victorious.

During testing at off-road sites all over America, Long and the Honda team honed the features the TrailSport would need to work well for buyers and for competition. Image: Paolo Baraldi Paolo Baraldi Photographer

How the TrailSport was created

Every Honda Pilot is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine making 285 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard except on the TrailSport and Elite trims, which are automatically equipped with all-wheel drive. Where the TrailSport stands apart is in its dirt-ready features, plus the TrailSport also has an inch more ground clearance than the other trims.

Even before the TrailSport became a reality, Long started thinking about it. In 2019, the team was considering TrailSport as a concept, and she incorporated their ideas into an outline. Steel skid plate and tow hook placement were part of the conversation, and Long designed those features that eventually became part of the production version of the TrailSport.

She recognizes that it’s difficult–and potentially dangerous–to integrate a tow hook into a skid plate with aftermarket parts, so she figured out how to make that work with the Pilot chassis. Even designing the skid places was challenging, Long says, because they must cover the entire oil pan–one of the most vulnerable parts of the underbody. Protecting critical parts was extremely important, and that required increasing the strength of the body to accommodate the additional steel armor. 

On the current Trailsport model, the front recovery point is on the skid plate, Long explains. It’s a closed system (versus an open system, which is what you’d think of when you look at an open-ended Jeep hook; the Pilot TrailSport uses a closed loop), which Long says is very safe for the people using it.

Once the Pilot TrailSport test models were built Long was part of the testing team both in and out of the design studio. They subjected the TrailSport to extreme conditions near the plant in Ohio as well as rocky terrain in Sedona, Arizona and Moab, Utah. 

“We did a lot of evaluation about what the customer needs would be,” Long says. “There were component level tests and an on-car test that was repeatable, driving over an obstacle again and again. Then we did off-road driving all across the US with the goal of protecting the customer and their safety.”

The next step was to convince other departments that the TrailSport was ready for wider production, getting buy-in for the standard. Some design changes were required to make the parts more robust, Long says, using learnings gleaned from thousands of miles of experimentation and durability testing. 

suv driving in desert
The Pilot TrailSport includes skid plates and an integrated tow hook for recovery. Image: Nicole Dreon

Putting experience to the test in the real world 

Even before the TrailSport became a reality, Long and her teammate earned a Rookie of the Year award in 2019 in a modified Honda Ridgeline. As she logged hours off road, she put her experience to work to create a better machine. 

“When the Pilot TrailSport came out, it was the first model with a skid plate and integrated tow hooks,” Long explains. “That car was super cool because I had worked on the development of the skid plate and ensured it would last off road.”

After the rally, Long and the team put the competition cars on a lift and look at everything underneath. They evaluate how it looks and if parts were damaged, making notes about potential design changes. Honestly, Long says, they never had any problems with breakages on the trail or with any of the systems. And that’s saying something about both the Pilot and her team’s driving skills, as many vehicles limp into base camp with CV boot rips (I know that one from experience myself), tie rod breaks, and at the very least, flat tires.  

What’s next for Long and Honda’s off-road future? Honda hasn’t made any announcements yet, but chances are high that we’ll see one of their vehicles kicking up dirt and tackling gravel and rock with no problems at all.