1999 Honda Passport EX 4WD Road Test

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1999 Honda Passport SUV

(3.2L V6 5-speed Manual)

Isuzu-Uh, I Mean Honda, Joins the SUV Fray

It came as no surprise to us that the Passport was extremely capable when taken off road. It is, after all, an Isuzu Rodeo with Honda badging, and Isuzu has a reputation for building highly capable utility vehicles. As we entered the Hungry Valley off-road park (60 miles north of Los Angeles) many of the Passport's on-road failings drifted into the background while the vehicle's utility nature became abundantly clear.

As Edmund's long-term Ranger skated and slid over various snow- and mud-caked trails, our Passport test vehicle behaved as if out for a Sunday drive. Unusually high rain and snowfall during the previous weeks had transformed the arid Hungry Valley into a moisture-soaked, puddle-strewn water park. However, even when the slush and "earth-turned-goo" driving conditions were at their worst, the Passport seemed to be taunting us with a "So, when are we going to hit the tough stuff?" attitude. Shifting the vehicle into 4LOW (which can be done with the touch of a dash button and a floor-mounted shift lever) provides adequate torque and grip to deal with all but the most extreme off-road circumstances. The Passport is one vehicle that needs a serious outback romp to appreciate fully.

And therein lies the problem. How many of today's SUV buyers use their vehicles for serious off-road excursions? And, for those who do, how many are willing to sacrifice on-road driving characteristics for increased off-road proficiency? For those (few) individuals who do find this trade-off acceptable, keep in mind that it isn't necessary. For approximately $1,000 less than the price of a Passport EX 4WD, you can purchase a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo with 15 additional foot-pounds of torque, more overall passenger space, and far better on-road ride and handling traits. True, the Passport offers 10 more peak horsepower, but these come at a lofty 5,400 rpm as opposed to the Grand Cherokee's 195 horsepower at 4,600 rpm. You'd be hard pressed to notice the Passport's power advantage (especially with the Jeep's torque advantage) under any circumstances, but the Grand Cherokee's superior seating, steering and brakes would be obvious within seconds of getting behind the wheel.

It's not that the Passport is a horrible on-road mount. A few years ago we would have classified its steering and brakes as "pretty good, for an SUV." Jeep, however, raised the bar considerably last fall with the introduction of its '99 Grand Cherokee. Now, the numb, stiff steering action combined with a substantial on-center dead spot, make the Passport feel excessively truck-like in an increasingly demanding world where buyers want industrial utility and car-like driving in the same vehicle.

For off-road purposes, the Passport's steering is less of an issue because the stiff feel and low ratio make it easier to navigate rocky terrain. With quick-ratio, power-assisted steering, like on the Mercedes M-class, an SUV can feel twitchy and high strung when traveling off road. Yet, as good as the Passport is, the Grand Cherokee is better, while still providing responsive on-road behavior. Braking ability also suffers from a lack of refinement. During maximum braking a loud clatter could be heard as the ABS cycled. Under less extreme circumstances, the pedal felt stiff and difficult to modulate. The 205-horsepower engine did move the Passport with authority, but the confidence-sapping brakes made it difficult to enjoy full-throttle blasts.

The Passport's austerity continued inside, where a pair of small, stiff seats greeted front passengers. Legroom was sufficient and the impressive-looking side bolsters suggested a comfy ride. Unfortunately, the seatback was one of the more uncomfortable units we've had the displeasure of experiencing, with its excessive, non-adjustable lumbar intrusion. Seat foam was generally too hard and leg support inadequate. Rear-seat comfort was slightly improved with ample legroom and a more comfortable, albeit too reclined, seat back.

The seating material, along with the headliner, was a soft cloth that scored high with testers. Other interior surfaces, however, appeared cheap and toy-like. The dash, door panels and center console/shifter areas were particularly cheap-feeling. Our EX model also had woodgrain sprinkled throughout the interior but, amidst the hard plastic and uncomfortable seats, it looked out of place and unstylish.

A few pleasant surprises did pop up while driving the Passport, including a stellar sound system with amazing reception capabilities, clear imaging and clean highs (too bad the tuning buttons are on the "far" side of the radio). Wind and road noise was also better than expected, while rattles and squeaks were non-existent. The simple climate-control layout garnered points for its ease-of-use, as did the roomy center-console storage bin. Grab handles at all four doors and a low step-in height made hopping in and out of the Passport a breeze for folks of any size and shape.

Perhaps the biggest interior flaw had to do with placement of the 4WD button. As with the Isuzu Rodeo, it's located on the dash just to the left of the steering column. Right next to it is the identical cruise-control switch, just daring you to get them confused while doing 80 on the highway. Four-wheel drive is supposed to engage at up to 65 mph. At higher speeds, the system is designed to ignore the button if pressed. We didn't feel like testing the brainpower of the four-wheel-drive system, but we do think that the button should be relocated.

Bringing up the Passport's rear is a two-piece cargo door. The top half of the door is flip-up glass while the bottom half is hinged on the driver's side and swings out when opened. This design is similar to the cargo door on Honda's CR-V and, as with the CR-V, it loses its appeal after about three openings. The flip-up glass section is useful for loading small, light objects lifted by tall people; otherwise, it serves no purpose except to clatter loudly when hitting bumps or going off-road. The lower section requires ample rear-end clearance, which means no opening it in small garages or while stopped in tight parking spaces. The lower door can also be quite cumbersome for drivers of small stature, especially if the spare tire is mounted on it (which, on all EX models, it is). As with the cruise-control button, Isuzu needs to address this problem.

You'll notice that not once during this review was the Passport referred to as a Honda. That's because it isn't a Honda, as the cheap interior material, lousy steering and questionable brakes will confirm. We're certain that, under normal circumstances, Honda would never allow its nameplate to be affixed to such a vehicle. But these are anything but normal times. When Lincoln, Mercedes, Porsche and eventually Saturn are willing to jump on the SUV money train, we can hardly find fault with Honda for selling a few rebadged Isuzus. What we can find fault with is the reduced warranty and lack of roadside service available on the Passport when compared to the Rodeo. Unless you've got a serious fixation with that Honda emblem, don't buy this truck.

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