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First drive: 2019 Honda Passport [Video review]

by Drew Johnson

The 2019 Honda Passport is a jack of all trades.

Loading videoIn the mid-1990s, Honda sold just one SUV in the United States. It was called the Passport, and it was a two-row, mid-size SUV based on the Isuzu Rodeo.

Fast-forward to modern day and Honda sells three SUVs in the United States, none of which compete in the mid-size, two-row category. But history has a funny way of repeating itself.

For 2019 Honda is bringing back the Passport to fill the mid-size gap in the heart of its SUV lineup. And Honda is so confident in its new Passport that they invited us to the rugged outdoors of Moab, Utah, to try it out.

The basics

Like the original Passport, the 2019 version is based on an existing vehicle, but this time it's Honda's own Pilot. That means the Passport has the exact same 111-inch wheelbase as the Pilot, along with the same 3.5L V6 and available torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system.

But there have been a few key changes in the Pilot-to-Passport transition process. Since the Passport lacks the Pilot's third-row seats, Honda was able to lop off 6.2-inches from the mid-size SUV's rear end. That not only makes the Passport a little easier to park, but also gives the SUV a better departure angle, but more on that in a second.

Honda has also raised the suspension of Passport all-wheel drive models by nearly an inch. That modification improves ground clearance and the vehicle's breakover and approach angles. Terms like 'departure angle' and 'ground clearance' aren't generally the kind of things you'd expect to see in a brochure for a mid-size family SUV, but Honda is positioning the Passport as a "dual adventure” vehicle -- an SUV that's just as home on an off-road trail as it is in a city environment. Put another way, Honda wants the Passport to be a happy medium between vehicles like the on-road-focused Nissan Murano and the rough-and-rugged Toyota 4Runner.

Off the beaten path

In order to prove its merits as an off-road vehicle, Honda planned a route that wound through Utah's Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. During our miles-long adventure we encountered plenty of muddy stretches, rocky passes and steep climbs. Admittedly, none of it was Moab's toughest, but it was the kind of terrain that most SUV owners wouldn't dare to traverse.

The Passport handled everything we threw at it with varying levels of happiness. In sand and mud, the Passport felt perfectly at home, with its torque-vectoring system working constantly to keep everything moving forward. When things got a little rockier, so did the Passport's ride -- thanks to standard 20-inch wheels -- but it kept plugging right along. When the going got really tough, the Passport still handled it, but not quite with the same aplomb. You could sense the vehicle searching for grip and we had to take extra care not to damage the low profile tires. A less street-focused tire with a bigger sidewall might have eliminated those problems but, again, the only way to buy a Passport is with 20-inch wheels.

On the beaten path

Of course those street-focus tires performed much better on pavement. Like the Pilot, the Passport's ride is smooth and comfortable. And despite its one-inch lift, the Passport doesn't feel more susceptible to body roll through corners. Steering doesn't provide much feedback, but it is direct with decent weight.

The Passport's 280-horsepower 3.5L V6 provides plenty of grunt for around town driving, while still returning a decent 21mpg in mixed driving (front-wheel drive models are rated at a slightly better 22mpg). However, the nine-speed automatic is the weak link in the Passport's powertrain. Under normal driving it behaves just fine, but it's oddly reluctant to downshift when more power is required, such as passing on a two-lane road. A faster kick down would be a welcomed improvement.

There's little room for improvement when it comes to the Passport's autonomous tech, however. Every Passport model comes standard with the Honda Sensing safety suite that includes things like adaptive cruise control and land keep assist. There are a couple of omissions, though -- the Passport's adaptive cruise control doesn't have a stop and go function and there's no 360-degree reverse camera.

Passport to comfort

The Passport's interior is lifted straight from the Pilot, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Because it's based on a larger family SUV, the Passport has loads of interior space and some nice creature comforts. For example, the Passport's second-row is actually wide enough for three adults, and front seat occupants are treated to a digital gauge display and a high-definition touchscreen audio system that runs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

And without a third-row getting in the way, the Passport offers a massive cargo area with an in-floor storage compartment that adds another 2.5 cubic feet of storage space.

Familiar looks

The Passport's interior layout isn't the only thing borrowed from the Pilot. Both SUVs look nearly identical from the outside, although Honda has treated the Passport to a blacked out grille and an altered lower bumper. At the back, the Passport receives unique taillights and a full-width accent bar on its tailgate.

Overall the Passport isn't a bad looking vehicle, but we wish Honda would have given it its own unique personality instead of just using the same general face you can get on a Pilot or even the Ridgeline pickup.

Pricing

Prices for the entry-level Passport Sport will start from $31,900. Stepping up to the volume EX-L adds niceties like leather seats and a sunroof and bumps the price to $36,410. From there you can move up to the $39,280 Passport Touring, or the fully-loaded Passport Elite for $43,680. All prices exclude destination.

Leftlane's bottom line

Honda estimates that 35,000 customers leave the brand each year in search of a mid-size SUV, but the all-new 2019 Passport should go a long way in stemming that tide. And for good reason -- the Passport is capable, well-equipped and incredibly roomy.

The Passport should also lure new buyers to the Honda brand thanks to its wide-spread appeal. Unlike the CR-V and Pilot, the Passport doesn't have the stigma of being a family SUV, so it should have a better chance at luring empty nesters. But even though it's not necessarily a family SUV, the Passport should also appeal to small families that don't need a third row but want something a little bit bigger and a little more capable than a CR-V.

The 2019 Honda Passport is an extremely solid all-rounder, and we suspect it won't be long until you see them all over.

Photos courtesy of Honda.

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