If you're shopping for a light, efficient and reliable family car, Honda can bring 30 years of experience to the table. But for a heavier-duty, off-road-capable SUV, even Honda shops somewhere else. And that's how the Passport came to be.
Passport is engineered and built by truck-specialist Isuzu; it is essentially an Isuzu Rodeo with Honda badges. And that, in no way, is a bad thing. The Rodeo/Passport is a true, versatile, dual-purpose SUV, one that can cruise the highway in comfort and style, while its dependable 4WD system and rigid truck frame let it tackle rough terrain and rural tracks as well as some of those tougher-looking SUVs.
Are you surprised that Honda would go out and find a vehicle that could do all that, and still offer quietly handsome styling and downright luxurious appointments? No? Of course not. You knew Honda would take care of you, one way or another. And owning a Passport means you own a passport to Honda's service facilities.
2WD LX ($23,300) (9B21422B); 4WD LX ($26,450) (9B31524B); 2WD EX ($27,100) (9B22622E); 4WD EX ($29,550) (9B32624E); 2WD EX-Luxury ($28,450) (9B22722L); 4WD EX-Luxury ($30,900) (9B32724L)
Passport's styling was last freshened for the year 2000, with new front and rear bumper facias, plus flush-mounted headlight assemblies. Its looks haven't changed since then.
Passport's dependable four-wheel drive system allows shift-on-the-fly engagement at speeds up to 60 mph: Simply push a button to grab 4WD-High. To drop into 4WD-Low you need to stop and shift a floor-mounted lever.
The 4-speed automatic transmission offers a winter mode. When it's engaged, the transmission starts out in third gear to prevent wheelspin on icy or snowy surfaces. The transmission also has a power mode that gives better acceleration by raising up-shift points. Buttons in the center console controls both functions.
Passport consistently delivers responsive handling and a stable ride. It owes its solid feel to a ladder frame with eight crossmembers and box-section side rails. Steel tubes in the doors contribute to a rigid feel, as well as passenger protection.
Two-wheel-drive LX models ride on 225/75R16 tires; all other Passports use 245/70R16s. All come with a full-size spare, which on LX models is mounted on a rack on the rear tailgate. On EX and EX-Luxury models the spare is under the rear cargo area. Moving the tire down there does give the Passport a cleaner look, but it also means that the spare tends to drag on the ground as you start up a steep grade.
Passports are available in six colors: Alpine White, Canal Blue, Ebony Black, Palazzo Red, Bright Silver, and Huntman Green.
Passport's buttons and switches are well-placed and easy to operate. One exception is the windshield wiper control located on a post on the right side of the steering column; it can be confusing if you don't take the time to figure it out. Fortunately, we had driven an Isuzu Rodeo a few weeks before the Passport, and the foibles of the wiper control were still fresh in our minds on a rainy afternoon near downtown Los Angeles.
The moonroof (standard on EX) reduces front-seat headroom from 38.9 inches to 37.8. While that 1.1-inch might not sound like a lot, it does make a difference to taller people. Honda's smaller, unit-body SUV, the CR-V, offers more headroom at 40.5 inches, and comparable legroom, at 41.5.
While some might find the passenger space limited, there is plenty of cargo room. The Passport has 81.1 cu. ft. of empty space with the rear seat folded down. That compares favorably with other mid-sized SUVs. The Nissan Xterra has only 65.6 cu. ft. of hauling space. The Toyota 4-Runner comes close with 79.8 cu. ft., although the Dodge Durango and the all-new Ford Explorer have them all beat, with 88.0 cu. ft. each.
In our review of a 1999 Isuzu Rodeo, we lamented that the seats weren't very comfortable. We must not have been alone in that opinion, and somebody must have been listening. The front and back seats were redesigned for the 2000 models. Without having old and new seats side by side, it isn't possible to pinpoint exactly how the new ones are enhanced, but at the very least the seat bottoms seem bigger and deeper. Whatever the changes, they are definitely for the better.
Our Passport EX-Luxury proved nimble and responsive as we traveled around Los Angeles. It had enough power to move in and out of traffic with ease. On the freeway, the ride was smooth and sure. Our Passport handled the open road well, too. The 3.2-liter V6 is a little hummer, and it will tackle most highway grades without faltering. Regardless of the conditions, the steering was precise.
Leaving urban Southern California behind, we headed north to the Owens Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We spent the week with our Passport exploring the Owens River and poking around the foothills at the base of the Coyote Mountains. It rained much of the week we spent there, and the Passport handled muddy dirt roads as effortlessly as it handled the mean streets of Los Angeles.
The Passport did well on the dirt tracks at the base of the Coyotes, too. Shifting into 4WD High is effortless when the going gets rough. And the 16-inch tires and 8.5 inches of ground clearance gave us ample undercarriage room to explore some fairly rocky roads.
We also had a chance to try out the transmission's Winter mode on a side trip to the nearby Mammoth Mountain ski resort. The tires couldn't get a bite on the icy surface until we engaged the Winter mode. Then the Passport literally walked out of its parking space.
Back on paved (and ice-free) mountain roads, the Passport was agile and sure. In radical transient maneuvers the rear end loses traction before the front end, just as you might expect. The four-wheel ABS system keeps the vehicle straight and true in emergency stops. In fact, Passport's ABS even works well on rough dirt roads, where other systems are lacking.
The Honda Passport is a stable, solidly built, and versatile SUV that can hold its own against some other more expensive Utes. While some plus-sized passengers (or drivers) might find some interior dimensions lacking, the Passport offers an outstanding balance of value and performance.