Utah is an improbable moonscape of impossible beauty.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6
Output: 280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
U.S. FWD Fuel Economy (MPG): 20 city, 25 highway, 22 combined
U.S. AWD Fuel Economy (MPG): 19 city, 24 highway, 21 combined
CAN AWD Fuel Economy (L/100 km): 12.5 city, 9.8 highway, 11.3 combined
U.S. Base Price: $33,035 including $1,045 for delivery
U.S. As-Tested Price: $44,725 including $1,045 for delivery
CAN Estimated As-Tested Price: $58,000
Towering mesas and sheer-sided canyons dominate the southeastern part of this state, its sandy, rust-hued soil sprawling to the horizon in every direction. A seemingly unending variety of geographical variation makes this region a jewel of the American southwest, an area of exceptional scenic beauty that had me mumbling to myself, “How is this even a place?” more times than I care to remember.
The landscape around the town of Moab, in particular, is famous for its prominent rock formations and challenging off-road trails, features that make it ground zero for the annual Easter Jeep Safari, an event that calls the 4×4 faithful to worship like church bells on Sunday morning.
Passport to Fun
Home to some of the most challenging terrain and toughest trails around, this region of the U.S. is an unlikely place to evaluate a brand-new Honda, an automaker whose products are typically most at home on well-groomed asphalt, not wilderness two-tracks. But the brand’s 2019 Passport SUV emphasizes off-road capability like few Hondas before.
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Simplifying things, this revived nameplate is essentially a lifted and truncated version of the three-row Pilot, which itself is closely related to the Ridgeline pickup. All these light-trucks share common componentry with the Odyssey, a family-hauling minivan, but one with an enviably solid unibody foundation.
Compared to a Pilot, the Passport is about six inches shorter overall (15.7 cm), which means there’s no third-row seat even though the wheelbase remains identical at 111 inches (282 cm). Bolstering off-road performance, front-drive models are lifted by about half an inch (1.27 cm) while versions equipped with optional four-corner traction are elevated by 1.1 (2.8 cm). Additional improvements include enhanced approach, breakover and departure angles compared to the more on-road-focused Pilot. If you’re curious, they measure 21.4 degrees, 17.3 degrees and 27.2 degrees, respectively.
Wider wheels and tires, a more steeply raked back window and taller roof rails conspire to give the Passport a more menacing look than its street-going stablemate, as does the addition of various blacked-out exterior bits including the grille and wheel-arch trim.
ALSO SEE: 2019 Honda Pilot Review
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Like practically every other modern Honda, the automaker is projecting segment-leading safety for the new Passport. This means a five-star score from NHTSA and at least a Top Safety Pick rating from IIHS.
When the Going Gets Tough
During the drive, Honda’s available Intelligent Variable Torque Management all-wheel-drive system (i-VTM4 in company lingo) provided extra traction in challenging situations, routing engine twist to the tires with grip. This ensured the Passport remained surefooted, even if one or more of the wheels was in the air.
Further enhancing its off-road capability, this all-wheel-drive system offers several different modes including Normal, Snow, Sand and Mud. Each setting changes the way torque is apportioned and how the powertrain responds to driver inputs, optimizing vehicle performance in various conditions.
This system can route up to 70 percent of the engine’s twist to just the rear axle and 100 percent of that to either the left or right wheel, a feat that’s beneficial both on road and off. Enabling this is an electronically controlled rear differential with hydraulic clutches, meaning the Passport doesn’t need to use the brakes to apportion torque, unlike less sophisticated systems on the market.
A familiar and supremely likable 3.5-liter V6 with direct fuel injection is the only engine offered here. It’s bolted to an improved nine-speed automatic transmission that’s should be smoother and more responsive than before.
As for output, this powertrain delivers a class-competitive 280 horsepower with maximum torque clocking in a 262 pound-feet, enough to give the Passport peppy acceleration. Bury the accelerator and at 5,350 rpm the engine’s VTEC system switches over to the gnarly cam lobes for greater high-end performance and that celebrated Honda howl the firm’s powertrains are so well known for producing under load. This makes for an enthralling sprint to the 6,800-rpm redline.
Keeping things efficient, this V6 features cylinder deactivation that disables the rear bank of pots by holding the intake and exhaust valves closed, minimizing pumping losses. Active engine mounts eliminate unwanted noise and vibration when running on an odd number of cylinders, meaning all this technological wonderment is imperceptible to the driver.
In base form, the 2019 Honda Passport stickers at 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 on the highway. Combined, it should return 22 mpg. Opt for the available all-wheel-drive system and those figures drop by 1 mpg each (L/100 km: 12.5 city, 9.8 highway, 11.3 combined).
Admirable On-Road Performance
On pavement, the Passport feels comfortable and confident, with the engine delivering plenty of smooth power for more-than-adequate acceleration. Even though its steering ratio is about 10 percent quicker than the Pilot’s, it still on the syrupy side, with a certain dullness to the wheel. This is less an issue off-road than on, where speeds are generally lower, but a little more work could be done here.
Another small misstep is the transmission tuning. Mostly smooth and prompt, this gearbox is nonetheless Scrooge-like with downshifts. Nail the accelerator and in certain situations, and it flat-out refuses to drop. Fiddle with the paddle shifters and you can get it to do what you want.
When it comes to towing, the Passport is also unexpectedly capable. When properly equipped, front-wheel-drive models can handle up to 3,500 pounds (1,588 kg). Outmuscling certain rivals, versions equipped with all-wheel drive can drag 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg).
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Versatile in Other Ways
Further enhancing the Passport’s usefulness is a versatile interior and plenty of standard equipment. It should offer class-leading passenger and cargo room. Fold the second-row seats down and it offers up to 77.9 cubic feet (2,206 liters) of storage space; keep ‘em up and there’s still a more-than-respectable 41.2 cubes available (1,167 liters).
Additional storage space is found underneath the rear load floor. An extra 2.5 cubic feet (71 liters) of junk-swallowing room is nestled in the spare-tire well.
Offered in four trim levels, Sport, EX-L, Touring and Elite, the 2019 Honda Passport comes standard with a wide range of features. LED exterior lighting is offered at no extra cost, as are 20-inch wheels, push-button start with keyless entry, three-zone climate control and a standard five-inch screen. EX-L and higher models feature a Honda Display Audio system splashed across a crisp and colorful eight-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay as well as Android Auto baked right in.
But perhaps best of all, Honda Sensing is standard, the automaker’s suite of advanced driver aids. It includes useful features like collision-mitigation braking, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and more.
The Verdict: 2019 Honda Pilot Review
The 2019 Passport delivers typical Honda virtues like a space-efficient interior, refined drivetrain and innovative features, all with an unexpected dash of ruggedness. It performed admirably on some of Utah’s challenging backcountry trails, better than one might expect given its unibody underpinnings.
About the only confusing aspect of this vehicle is its positioning in the marketplace. Is it more lifestyle-crossover or mudslinging off-roader? That’s a question prospective buyers have to answer as it’s both and neither at the same time.
What’s not so difficult to understand is pricing. A base Passport Sport can be had for $33,035. Go all in on an Elite-trim model and plan on spending $44,725. Both prices include $1,045 in delivery fees. Look for examples at dealerships as early as next week since production is already underway.
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