First Drive – 2019 Honda Passport
Honda Goodness in a Slightly Sportier Package
It’s not an original statement to say that crossovers are here for good, gradually killing off both passenger cars and body-on-frame SUVs, merging the strengths of both with a few tradeoffs. And in spite of Honda remaining committed to passenger cars—the company said it sold more conventional cars in 2018 than any other brand, and more first-time buyers choose a Honda than anything else—the big H is nonetheless doubling down on midsize SUVs.
Reviving a name last used in 2002 on a body-on-frame SUV that was a badge-engineered Isuzu Rodeo, the new-for-2019 Honda Passport is a unibody proposition, based on the same light-truck platform as the Pilot and Ridgeline. The Passport makes use of its siblings’ 3.5L Earth Dreams V-6, mated to a standard nine-speed automatic (the nine-speed is optional on the Pilot, while the Ridgeline makes do with a six-speeder). The Passport also rides on the same wheelbase as the Pilot, but with 4 inches lopped off the tail for sportier proportions and a dedicated five-seat interior. Sized like the two-row Nissan Murano and Ford Edge midsize SUVs, Honda says the Passport is designed to offer those vehicles’ fine on-road dynamics, but with a more rugged demeanor when the road gets rough (or disappears entirely).
To that end, the Passport boasts a slightly higher ride height compared to the Pilot thanks to model-specific springs, improving approach and breakover angles and compounding the shorter rear end’s improved departure angle. In fact, the front-wheel-drive Passport gets 0.2 inch more ground clearance than the Pilot, while the all-wheel-drive Passport boasts 0.8 inch more. Small increases, maybe, but given how impressively capable the Pilot already is off-road, we expected good things of the Passport.
To test our aspirations, Honda invited us out to gorgeous Moab, Utah, to sample the Passport on a variety of road surfaces, including two dedicated off-road trails more difficult than anything the average Honda driver would tackle. Our test vehicle was a top-spec Passport Elite, which comes with the i-VTM4 all-wheel-drive system that’s optional on the Passport’s other trim levels (Sport, EX-L, and Touring). As we learned in our recent drive of the 2019 Honda Pilot, i-VTM4 is capable of true torque vectoring, shuffling up to 70 percent of the engine’s power to the rear axle and up to 100 percent of that portion to either the right or the left rear tires. While we didn’t experience any traction surfaces that severely taxed the system’s capability, we did notice that any time we lifted a wheel into the air over an obstacle, that wheel would stop spinning, proving the system is capable of avoiding slip by transferring power to a grippier surface.
Our timing in Moab was good or bad, depending on your point of view, as the region had recently been hit with some precipitation that turned our dirt roads into rust-colored mud. That allowed us to get the Passport really dirty, practically repainting it brick red. And if the SUV struggled for traction, we couldn’t tell—even shod with highway-biased all-terrain tires, the midsize Honda seemed to scramble up each trail with aplomb. And while we didn’t subject the Passport to truly brutal rock crawling or deep sand, it did better than we would have expected of a carlike unibody chassis with a single-speed transfer case.
Once off the muddy trail and back on the pavement, the Passport did a very good Pilot impression, offering a comfortable and well-controlled ride, supportive front and rear seats, and much-improved infotainment ergonomics compared to earlier iterations of Honda’s Display Audio System. There are a few differences compared to the Pilot, however. The brake pedal has been redesigned with a shorter stroke, resulting in firmer and sportier responses when decelerating. The Passport’s steering ratio is 10 percent quicker than the Pilot, and the column itself is located by a new magnesium hanger.
Taken in tandem, the more responsive steering and brakes yield a palpably sportier driving experience—though it won’t be confused for anything wearing Honda’s Type R badge, the Passport is nonetheless pretty fun to drive on twisty roads. The V-6’s 280 hp and 262 lb-ft give it reasonable off-the-line and midrange punch, and Honda made revisions to the ZF nine-speed automatic to give it smoother performance, particularly on downshifts. The gear selector’s D/S button allows the driver to select sportier shift mapping, improving gearbox response in aggressive driving and cuing up engine braking for long descents, and paddle shifters allow the driver to call for specific gear changes.
Styling-wise, the Passport looks very much like its Ridgeline and Pilot siblings, although Honda has given it unique front and rear bodywork to differentiate it. Blacked-out front end graphics and standard LED low-beam headlights (with full LED lighting on the Elite and Touring) give the new Honda a slightly more sinister glower, and the chopped-off tail is capped with an aggressive roof spoiler and faux skid plates. All Passports come standard with 20-inch wheels, and Elite and Touring trims get 265-series tires compared to the Sport and EX-L models’ 245-series rollers. Overall, the appearance backs up the driving experience: slightly more aggressive than the competent and sedate Pilot and more fun than expected, but in no danger of changing Honda’s reputation for user-friendly appliances.
The interior is likewise unlikely to tarnish the company’s image, with plenty of space for even five adults and excellent materials choices in the passenger cabin. In addition, the cargo area offers a best-in-class 41.2 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up and 77.9 cubes with them folded. The slightly shallow cargo area is offset somewhat by 2.5 cubic feet of under-floor storage that shares the “cargo basement” with the temporary spare tire. The hidden cubby is divided into two washable, removable compartments that can be customized with cargo and trailering gear storage accessories. We’d prefer an under-vehicle spare tire and a deeper cargo area sans the hidden storage, but some folks might disagree.
Unlike the Pilot, the Passport will not be available in a base LX trim. Honda sees the Passport as a lifestyle vehicle unlikely to attract folks concerned only with a low base price, and as such, the cheapest Passport is the stylish Sport trim level. Equipped with Honda Sensing advanced safety features, standard adaptive cruise control, and automatic climate control, the Sport is generously equipped, befitting its $33,035 starting price with $1,045 destination. The base Sport (and all two-wheel-drive Passports) will achieve 20 city/25 highway/22 mixed mpg in EPA testing.
Moving into the EX-L will cost $37,455, bringing key upgrades like leather upholstery, blind-spot monitoring, a power liftgate, a moonroof, and heated front seats along for the ride. The Passport Touring will start at $40,325 with destination, adding luxury features like heated rear seats, a premium audio system, navigation, front and rear parking sensors, and roof rails. Adding i-VTM4 all-wheel drive to the Sport, EX-L, or Touring will require an additional $1,900.
Going whole-hog at the Honda dealer will result in the $44,725 Passport Elite AWD (front-wheel drive is not available on the Elite). For that coin, buyers can expect rain-sensing windshield wipers, auto-dimming sideview mirrors, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and a wireless charging pad in the center console. The Elite and all other all-wheel-drive Passports achieved 19 city/24 highway/21 combined mpg in EPA testing—we saw about 20 mpg in our 150 miles of on- and off-road driving.
That sub–45 grand price cap allows the Passport to slot in under the Chevrolet Blazer Premier AWD ($46,795 with destination), Toyota 4Runner Limited 4WD ($46,355), and Nissan Murano Platinum AWD ($46,175), although it’s a bit more expensive than the luxurious Ford Edge Titanium ($41,850).
Nevertheless, our time behind the wheel reminded us of the basic virtues of Honda’s light-truck platform—reasonable fuel economy, competent driving dynamics, and plenty of space for all passengers—while convincing us of the Passport’s specific positives. With unimpeachable on-road performance and a surprising amount of off-road verve, the Passport is yet another in a long list of pleasant Honda products, and we won’t be surprised if it becomes one of the bestselling SUVs on the market.