2019 Honda Passport First Drive - Passport to Sales

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Honda really wants to prove that its 2019 Passport five-seat crossover has off-road chops.

To that end, it’s possible I had more wheel time on washboard-surfaced gravelly roads than I did on paved surfaces during my day with the newest trucklet on the block. Some of this was by my choice – I chose to get more time off-road for the sake of photos. Still, Honda definitely wanted to show that the Passport is capable off-road.

Which it was, at least on the route we drove. Frankly, most crossovers with decent ground clearance would’ve survived our trek through the cold and sunny high desert, although two of the Passport’s benchmarked competitors, the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano, might not be included in that “most.” More on that in a bit.

Thing is, and this refrain dates back to the earliest days of the SUV – few buyers will ever take the Passport off-road. Few buyers of any vehicle in this class take their rigs off-road. Only the owners of the highly capable Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner are likely to, and even then, I’d bet the percentage who actually do is small.

Why all the hullabaloo from Honda about off-roading, then? Is the Passport truly on par with the JGC and the ‘Yota when out in the sticks? Is the Passport so bad on-road that Honda emphasized off-road driving? Or did someone on Honda’s PR team just really want to see southern Utah?

I don’t know the answer to the last of those three questions, but the answers to the middle two are “not quite” and “no, definitely not.”

(Full disclosure: Honda flew me out to a resort near Moab, fed me, housed me, and offered me booze and many laps in a racing simulator. They left us snacks in the room (which I ate), and a hat, (which I left.)

Honda unveiled its reborn Passport a few months ago in Los Angeles, specifically, at an off-site event during the auto show. The Passport is essentially a truncated Pilot – it only seats five and it’s more than six inches shorter. It also gains a little less than an inch of ride height when equipped with the available all-wheel drive (Honda expects a 70 percent take rate for AWD, especially since the top trim is AWD-only).

It shares the Pilot’s 111-inch wheelbase and it is essentially a Pilot beneath its skin from the second seating row forward. The biggest visual differences are a steeper rear window angle and more aggressive styling for the grille and front end. Twenty-inch wheels come standard.

Like the Pilot, the Passport is also on the company’s global light truck platform, which uses unibody construction with a fully boxed floor. Honda claims to have made the brakes more responsive, while giving the pedal shorter travel. Its suspension is tuned differently than on the Pilot, presumably to be more “sporty,” and the steering ratio is quicker, also in the name of sport.

You can have any engine you like as long as it’s a 3.5-liter V6 making 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. This ubiquitous mill pairs with the much-reviled nine-speed automatic transmission supplied by ZF. Yes, the same transmission that tainted countless Honda/Acura/Fiat Chrysler/Jaguar Land Rover products is the lone choice here. Honda promised us improvements but, as we’ll see, improvement is in the eye of the beholder.

Front-wheel drive is standard, with all-wheel drive that has torque vectoring available as an option. This system sends up to 70 percent of the torque to the rear wheels and 100 percent to either the left or right side. It can also overdrive the outside rear wheel while cornering.

Honda sent us out in Elite-trimmed models with AWD. On-road behavior was initially disappointing, as the steering felt sloppy on-center in a manner that’s uncharacteristic of Honda. I did warm up to it eventually, but it was a little too light and displayed too much play for my tastes.

Curves were gentle at best, and the Passport never seemed to sweat in even the few tight corners. A trace of body roll and understeer were evident the one time I came in a little too hot, but nothing that would be out of place for this class.

The V6 sounds great, and it felt like it should provide stout acceleration, but the ZF has the same aversion to work as a teenager behind the fast-food counter. It doesn’t like downshifting unless it’s really, really forced into it. Zed F strikes again. At least there’s flappy paddles to prod things along.

Snow, Sand, and Mud drive modes are available for off-pavement excursions, but the trails were mostly tranquil enough that we never needed anything but the Normal drive mode. There’s no Sport mode for on-road driving, but there is an Eco mode.

Southeastern Utah’s paved roads were mostly smooth as glass, and the Passport provided a compliant yet not soft ride that showed its cruising chops. I’m curious how it handles potholed Midwestern roads, but if the pavement isn’t pockmarked, this is a good road-trip truck. Outside noise held to a minimum, and both the front and rear seats provided plenty of comfort.

Honda gets a demerit for continuing to use a push-button shifter in the center-console area – I miss the floor shifter. But hey, at least there’s a volume knob! And the infotainment system does nicely integrate into the center stack. Speaking of, the smartphone-like “tiles” setup for said system is pretty easy to use.

The lower center-stack area includes user-friendly HVAC controls, a storage area with available wireless charger for cell phones, the shifter, cupholders, and a deep storage well. It all looks good, but some hard plastics that felt out of place in a $40K+ crossover put a damper on the festivities. These plastics are more prevalent in the rear seating area. At least the 41.2-inch (seats up) cargo area swallowed three journalists’ gear, including cameras and related hardware, with ease. There’s some hidden storage there, too, which we did not use.

The Passport can tow up to 5,000 pounds — a rating trumped only by the V6 Jeep, at least among the competitive set.

Count me a fan of the Passport’s sportier look as compared to the Pilot, although I could live without the black body cladding up front. The Passport at least looks the part.

Honda’s made four trims available: base Sport ($31,990, $33,890 with AWD), EX-L (expected to be the volume seller at around 50 percent), Touring, and top-trim Elite.

Standard features include the Honda Sensing safety package (collision mitigation braking with forward-collision warning, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning with road-departure mitigation, adaptive cruise control), 20-inch wheels, auto stop/start, LED headlights/taillights/fog lights/DRLS, dual exhaust, remote start, keyless starting and entry, tri-zone climate control, eight-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar, six-speaker audio, rearview camera, and two USB ports.

The EX-L ($36,410, $38,310 with AWD) adds leather seats and steering wheel, sunroof, power tailgate, blind-spot warning, driver memory seat and mirrors, four-way power passenger seat, heated front seats, display audio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a third USB port, satellite radio, HD radio, HomeLink, auto-dimming for the rearview mirror, second-row sunshade, and heated mirrors.

Stepping up to Touring ($39,280, $41,180 with AWD) gets you navigation, HondaLink, hands-free power tailgate, front and rear parking sensors, LED inline headlights, turn-signal mirrors, roof rails, 10-speaker premium audio, heated rear seats, power-folding side mirrors, ambient lighting, and tires that are 20 millimeters wider with a half-inch wider wheel.

The Elite ($43,680) adds AWD as standard, along with cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, wireless phone charger, rain-sensing wipers, and auto-dimming side mirrors. As per usual with Honda, there’s also a few dealer-installed packages available.

The above listed prices do not include destination and delivery fees, which are $1,045 across the board. Fuel economy numbers clock in at 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway/22 mpg combined with front-wheel drive and 19/24/21 with AWD.

Honda PR told me they see the competitive set for the Passport as the Chevrolet Blazer, Edge, Murano, Grand Cherokee, and, to a lesser extent, the 4Runner. On-road, the Passport feels nimbler than the Edge and more engaging than the Murano, and I’m not sure either would have felt as at ease on the desert dirt trails as the Passport. It’s been a while since I’ve driven the Grand Cherokee, but I remember its on-road manners being excellent. Not to mention that the Grand Cherokee is a wizard off pavement. Given the 4Runner’s off-road focus, the Passport feels most on par with the Jeep (a V6 Limited is pretty close in price, too, depending on how you option it out). Of course, we haven’t yet driven the Blazer – we didn’t get invited to its launch, occuring at the same time.

It’s a neat trick performed by Honda: Build a Passport that shows some mild flaws but is still good enough to jump to the top of the class right from launch, thanks to competing vehicles that set a low bar. Doesn’t hurt that the Pilot, which I’ve yet to drive, is considerably well-reviewed.

Tweak the steering a bit and address the transmission’s recalcitrance to behave as asked by the driver, and you’d have perhaps the best five-seat mid-size crossover in the class. As it stands now, you have a vehicle that is on par with the aging Jeep for top honors.

That may not represent a “passport to adventure” (seriously, that’s the tagline Honda slapped on its media materials) but it will be a passport to sales for the brand’s dealers. Like most Hondas, the Passport is well-rounded enough that buyers will likely forgive its flaws. I may personally want sportier steering and a transmission that’s awake, but Joe Car Shopper will overlook those issues.

Be prepared to see many of these on the road starting in February. I’m sure Honda dealers are already toasting as we speak.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Wodehouse Wodehouse on Feb 04, 2019

    Very smart move from Honda this new Passport. I saw this thing at the LAAS and I found it to look a generic, by-the-numbers crossover design, yet, I have repeatedly heard and read about its "sporty" looks. So, out of honest curiosity (no sarcasm nor criticism meant) what makes this a "sporty" looking design? I can barely tell the difference between this and the Edge, CR-V and several others.

  • Johnitahoe Johnitahoe on Feb 12, 2019

    Disappointing like most US Honda’s that failed to offer advanced safety features in anything but the top models which force you to get a sun roof. Does anyone really want a sun roof anyway? Wouldn’t you rather have more headroom. Honda Ridgeline would be cool too but once again Honda fails to allow advanced safety features in anything but the top models! Honda needs to rethink their packages to increase their sales!

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.