My favorite class in my undergrad years was product marketing and management. In there we talked a lot about versioning, which is where you take a product, tweak it ever so slightly, and then market it and sell it to a whole different demographic of buyer who was never going to buy the original. This allows you to increase sales considerably and thus get a much greater return on your investment into the core product. This is precisely what Honda has done with its new Passport. They’ve taken the Pilot, a minivan substitute marketed at people with kids, changed it about as little as they possibly can in an effort to make it less minivan like (I’d wager that 98% of parts content carries over, at least), and thus, somehow, appear more rugged, and are marketing it toward a very different subset of buyer — people without kids.
And the keyword here is marketing, because most of what differentiates the Passport from the Pilot is how Honda has chosen to market it, using ads loaded with imagery of the vehicle driving fast off-road, over dunes, and through streams in places like Moab and northern Arizona. The thing is, it doesn’t take a car-obsessed individual like myself to notice how the Passport is still virtually identical to the Pilot inside and out, which led me to wonder just how credible Honda’s claims are that this is a vehicle equipped for getting out and exploring the road less traveled.
To find out, I took the Passport on an adventure of my own to evaluate its "adventure-worthiness" in a number of categories.
Wheels & Tires
The Passport comes standard with 20-in wheels wrapped in all-season tires, which in the case of my loaner were Continental’s CrossContact LX Sport model, described on Continental’s website as: "A crossover and SUV touring all-season tire developed with highway drivers in mind. Combines a quiet and comfortable ride with all-season traction, even in light snow." Don’t get "all-season" tires mixed up with "all-terrain" tires, which are actually designed with off-road driving in mind. The Passport’s wheel and tire combo is not an off-roading setup, as the lack of pliability you get with the Passport’s massive wheels and thin tires put it at an increased risk of puncture. In fact, at an off-road event I attended last year, a Pilot riding on these exact same tires — size, wheel diameter and everything — was the only vehicle out of 12 to get a flat, and it was in the form of a slashed sidewall experienced on what was deemed a "mild" off-road trail.
As tires are the simplest thing to change on a vehicle to make it off-road worthy, I cringe every time I see Honda’s ads that show the Passport barreling down a dirt road in places like Canyonlands National Park with this fuel-economy-oriented tire and wheel setup. On top of that, the Passport only comes with a space-saver spare, so not only do the factory tires present a real risk of puncture off-road, but limping out on that donut spare will be even less fun than changing the flat. To put it plainly, the Passport’s wheels and rubber are meant purely for curb appeal and EPA ratings and are not appropriate for venturing into remote areas with unpaved roads.
My road trip in the Passport covered around 725 miles and involved about 85% highway driving. I was blown away when about 15 miles from home I looked down at the fuel economy readout and saw that over the course of the entire trip, the Passport had achieved 25.5 miles per gallon (and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m far from a hyper-miler). This is 1.5 mpg better than the all-wheel-drive Passport’s EPA rating of 24 mpg on the highway, and keep in mind that that 25.5 figure included about 40 miles off-roading in addition to some single-lane sub-50 mph roads as well. With a 19.5-gallon fuel tank, this works out to a fuel range of well over 450 miles between fill ups. The Passport’s V6 is no slouch either, putting out 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, good for a 0-to-60 mph time of 5.8 seconds. That’s fast. Factor in the 9-speed automatic transmission, and the Passport’s powertrain is pretty great.
Utah’s Highway 12 and the surrounding network of dirt through-roads that spur off of it are a hotbed for motorcycle adventurers as well as 4-wheeled travelers. At one point after we’d arrived at our lodging for the night, a guy falling somewhere on the spectrum between Walter White and Stone Cold Steve Austin pulled up next to the Passport on his Africa Twin — perhaps the most legendary dual-sport motorcycle you can buy and another Honda product. Seeing this gnarly looking bike with its aggressive tires, gold wheels, in-your-face graphics, and copious body armor, not to mention all of the rider’s travel gear loaded onto the back, I couldn’t help but see a missed opportunity with the Passport. Honda could’ve easily integrated something — anything — from its rich motorcycling and powersports history into the Passport as a reminder that Honda does in fact have credibility in this area. Optional gold wheels, a Passport-only paint color that matches the blue used on the Africa Twin’s fairings, an optional roof-basket "designed and developed by the accessories team at our motorsports division." Without tangible features to back them up, Honda’s efforts to market this thing as your adventure companion lack substance.
Just like the Pilot with which it shares the vast majority of its parts, the Passport offers a ton of space inside. From a generous cargo area to three tiers of storage on each door panel, all of the Passport’s cubbies make it easy to stay organized on a road trip. As someone who travels with a removable-lens camera, I found the Passport’s massive center storage box to be especially convenient, as tossing my Sony A6300 in there allowed me to keep it out of the way and hidden from view when not in use, but also allowed for easy access any time I wanted to take a roadside photo.
The Passport has a few features that’ll serve you on an adventure, but none that really stand to differentiate if from the Pilot. Sure, the shortened rear end results in a slightly better departure angle of 27.6 degrees to the Pilot’s 20.8, but if you’re testing out departure angle, you’re likely already putting your Passport through a scenario in which trail damage is likely, given its lack of suspension travel and weak approach and breakover angles.
Additionally, Honda advertises that in AWD-guise the Passport offers 0.8 inches of additional ground clearance over the Pilot, but what they fail to mention is that both vehicles actually have less ground clearance than the humble CR-V, which has 8.2 inches to the Passport’s 8.1 and the Pilot’s 7.3.
The Passport does come with covered storage located under the rear cargo floor, and Touring and Elite models come with roof rails that are ready to accept accessory crossbars and whatever racks or carriers you want to attach to them. Additionally, the Passport can tow up to 5,000 pounds if you opt for the towing package, which is enough to pull a small boat, camp trailer or a toy trailer. Finally, it’s worth mentioning again the Passport’s abundance of interior storage cubbies, which have real benefits on an adventure, as there’s a place for all your road-trip necessities like snacks, water bottles, mobile devices and cameras, allowing you to stay organized on the road.
Don’t get me wrong — the Passport is a very competent vehicle. If you’re interested in a highly practical midsize SUV, but don’t want the minivan-vibes put off by the Pilot and its third-row seat, you’ll find a lot to love about the Passport. It’s got a great powertrain, returns good fuel economy, and covers all the bases in terms of safety features and amenities. All that said, outdoor adventure marketing and overlanding are huge right now, and Honda seems to want a piece of that pie without really investing development dollars into a vehicle with genuine off-road cred (and in their defense, this would be a huge investment). So while 25 mpg, automatic high beams, a high-resolution backup camera, adaptive cruise control and the like make a strong case for the Passport as an on-road vehicle, its highway tires, massive 20-in wheels, and pavement-oriented suspension and AWD system all make a weak case for it as an off-road vehicle, despite the commercials and social media campaigns that encourage you to think otherwise. Find a Honda Passport for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.
MORE FROM OVERSTEER:
Video | The 1998 Lincoln Navigator Was the First Big Luxury SUV
Video | The 2003 Audi RS6 Is Amazing and Horribly Unreliable
Autotrader Find: 1994 Porsche 911 RS America With 5,200 Miles