Willow Springs Road is a 15-mile stretch leading out of Utah's Arches National Park near Moab. The unpaved trail is lined with breathtaking red rock formations and campgrounds drawing hordes of tourists in the summer months. During the region's midwinter off season, however, this trail's smooth sandy runs, rutted paths, mud pits and small rock climbs are nearly empty.
Conveniently, they provide a perfect setting to test the off-road chops of the new 2019 Honda Passport. That's right, this long-dormant nameplate is returning to fill a slot between Honda's smaller CR-V and its three-row Pilot.
In the wilderness
Speaking of the Pilot, the Passport has quite a bit in common with its bigger, more family-focused sibling. This new model's visual resemblance is undeniable, with a sculpted hood, wheel arches and side character lines that mirror those familiar crossovers. The Passport, however, sets itself apart with a more aggressive grille treatment, along with 20-inch wheels and accent trim, giving it a more rugged appearance. The back end differs from its kin, too, with a more steeply raked rear window, which to my eyes makes it look disappointingly like a Ford Explorer.
A 111-inch wheelbase is shared with the Pilot, but the Passport boasts a ride height that's almost an inch taller, combined with a rear overhang that's more than half a foot shorter. In total, the Passport provides markedly better approach and departure angles, as well as superior ground clearance. An available torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system raises the Pilot's off-road game further. It has the ability to deliver 70 percent of torque to the rear axle, which itself can then distribute 100 percent of the available power to the wheel with the most traction.
Throw in the four-mode Intelligent Traction Management system with settings for Normal, Snow, Mud and Sand to tailor the behavior of the Passport's throttle, transmission, torque vectoring and stability control, and you've got a crossover that's surprisingly capable off pavement. Blasting through sand and mud in a top-of-the-range Elite model with standard all-wheel drive is a tail-wagging hoot. Calling up the appropriate traction mode adjusts for snappier throttle response, alters the transmission's gear changes to keep wheel speeds up, and ensures a rear-biased power delivery enabling controlled drifts in the loose stuff.
Things get slower during some rockier portions that include light rock crawling and undulations that lift the wheels in the air. The Passport doesn't break a sweat through any of it, as the all-wheel-drive hardware does everything behind the scenes to provide grip everywhere with minimal wheel slip. Careful throttle modulation and brake work get the Passport up and over the small rock ascents with underbody scrapes and bangs never an issue.
Make no mistake, Honda newest crossover isn't made for blazing extreme trails like a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota 4Runner SUV, so don't expect to be seeing Passports with winches on the front bumper. That's simply not what this model is intended for. It's a light off-roader that'll make easy work of getting you to the mountain-bike trail or kayak launch, and it's plenty capable of heading deeper into the woods to play on weekends.
Civilized on road
While muscle from the 3.5-liter V6 and nine-speed automatic drivetrain is never lacking off-road, it's easier to appreciate everything the powertrain offers on road when not being juggled around. With 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque on tap, there's good grunt from the slick six-cylinder that gives off a nice, low growl when stomping on the throttle. Transmission tuning is on point, providing smooth launches and fluid cog swaps. I find zero gear-hunting issues throughout 200 miles of driving. The latter is excellent news, because that hasn't always been the case with this transmission.
EPA fuel economy estimates have standard front-wheel-drive models returning 20 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. All-wheel-drive Passports suffer a modest single-mpg penalty on each cycle, returning 19-mpg city and 24-mpg highway ratings. To haul things like small boats and campers, front-drive Passports can pull up to 3,500 pounds, while all-wheel-drive models are rated at 5,000 pounds.
The Passport's steering, suspension and brake tuning are massaged to impart a sportier handling personality than Honda's other crossovers. Steering response is sharper, but still lightly weighted. Firmer shocks and springs make for flatter and more composed cornering, though sufficient damping still manages to deliver a comfy ride on 20-inch Continental CrossContact LX Sport all-season tires. I'm a big fan of the Passport's shorter brake pedal stroke, but stronger initial stopping bite seems like it would be fitting to go along with the quicker steering and tighter suspension.
Honda's part-sharing ways continue inside: The Passport's dashboard, center console and seats have been taken wholesale from the Pilot. That's not a bad thing, seeing as materials throughout are nice, with lots of soft-touch surfaces, and there's an intuitive layout with plenty of storage cubbies, comfortable seating and lots of space. The Passport is simply missing its big brother's third row, instead boasting 41.2 cubic feet of cargo room, which grows to 78 cubic feet with the one-touch fold-flat backseats stowed. To keep smaller items out of sight, there's also a handy 2.5 cubic feet of underfloor storage surrounding the spare tire.
Infotainment on base Sport models is taken care of by a 5-inch touchscreen unit, but the EX-L and more premium Touring and Elite models employ an easy-to-use 8-inch Display Audio system. The latter features a responsive touchscreen with simple menus, manual volume knob, satellite radio and both and Android Auto compatibility. Touring and Elite trims take things a step further adding on-board navigation, a richer-sounding 10-speaker audio setup and Wi-Fi hotspot.
For improved safety, all 2019 Passports receive automaker's Honda Sensing suite of advanced driver assist features. In this case, that includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. Lane departure warning with lane-keep assist is also standard. This system gently steers wandering drivers back into the center of their own lane. EX-L and above trims receive standard blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert, too.
A top contender
The arrival of the 2019 Honda Passport finally gives this Japanese automaker a model to sell to people looking to upsize from a CR-V -- those who don't want to step into something as large or stodgy as the Pilot. The Passport takes on slightly upscale five-passenger crossovers SUVs such as the also recently resurrected Chevy Blazer and segment stalwarts including the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. The Passport may even swipe a few sales from the aging but more capable Jeep Grand Cherokee, too.
When the 2019 Honda Passport officially goes on sale in early February, it'll wear a $33,035 base price, including $1,045 for destination. All-wheel drive tacks on $1,900 to the bottom line of Sport, EX-L and Touring versions. The all-wheel-drive-only range-topping Elite trim starts at $44,725.
With an attractive mix of style, function, tech and a welcome blend of on- and off-road performance,becomes one of the strongest, most well-rounded entries in a growing segment. For anyone in the market for a bigger, slightly more premium five-passenger SUV, the 2019 Honda Passport should definitely be on their shopping list.
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