VTEC Soft Roader Pt1: Why I Chose the Honda Passport Over the Grand Cherokee or 4Runner
As a gearhead, the modern crossover is one of the easiest types of vehicles to write off or dislike. Traditionally, the car-based crossover SUV has had neither the on-road performance and fun of a traditional car nor the off-road capability and ruggedness of a real body on frame 4x4. Yet as the market for crossovers in America has exploded in recent years, automakers have been putting in serious effort into making the modern crossover more than just some body cladding and a higher seating position.
On the luxury and sports-oriented side, crossovers have become better and better at bringing the fun and performance of a sport sedan or hot hatch into the more popular crossover form. A turbocharged Mazda CX-5 or an Acura RDX are great examples of this. And on the other end, automakers have been increasingly bringing out crossovers that offer genuine off-road capability—at least compared to the models of the past. Here, models like the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, Toyota RAV 4 TRD and upcoming Ford Bronco Sport come to mind.
No matter your feelings on the crossovers that have come to dominate the parking lots and highways of America, there’s no denying that the market has come a long way.
Like a lot of car guys, I’d long written off the majority of car-based crossovers as being lame and compromised, but I’ve recently eaten my words and become the owner of a 2020 Honda Passport Sport AWD, which is going to serve as our new family hauler—and perhaps as a light off-roader on the weekends.
The specifics of the Passport have been covered in past articles, so to summarize it’s basically a shorter version of the Honda Pilot SUV with a bit of additional ground clearance, a slightly more “rugged” look designed to slot between the CRV and the Pilot in Honda’s lineup. So, why exactly did I end up choosing the Passport over other crossovers and more “legit” SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner? Let me tell you.
That Wonderful Honda Engineering
I may me biased on this one, having owned a number of Hondas in the past including an Accord Wagon, a real-time 4WD Civic Wagon, a Civic Type R and more. But there is just something smart and efficient about a Honda.
The packaging on the Passport is great. While it’s not gigantic on the outside, it feels massive on the inside. There’s plenty of width to stretch out, the backseat has more than enough room, the outward visibility is excellent.
There are other cool packaging tricks like a large underfloor storage area in the generous rear hatch and enough cubbies to make you think you're in an Odyssey minivan (which shares a platform with the Passport).
While neither its exterior or its interior are designed to wow, everything is put together very well and there’s a functionality to everything that’s much appreciated in a family hauler.
i-VTM4 Just Kicked in Yo
Yet there are also a few things that to me make the Passport a little more than a generic family crossover. And that starts with the all-wheel-drive system. While you can get AWD on just about any front-drive based crossover, the systems are not created equally. The majority of them are simply there to assist when the front wheels lose traction, providing that little extra shove to get through or over a wet or loose surface and provide "confidence" to the driver.
The Passport though, like its platform-mates the Pilot and Ridgeline, uses Honda’s i-VTM4 AWD system. Mechanically, it’s the same as Acura’s SH AWD system though geared a little more toward off-road and less toward sportiness. i-VTM4 can send up to 70% of power to to the rear wheels, and it has torque vectoring which can also direct things side to side. There’s even fun screen on the dash where you can see where the power is going.
The result is that the Passport has a different feeling than most AWD crossovers. Yes it still uses FWD architecture, but you can actually feel the back end doing its share of the work both on and off-road, even sending the majority of power to the rear at times.
A Legendary VTEC V6 & a Real Automatic
Along with having a fairly capable AWD system, another thing that won me over with the Passport was its engine. There’s just one choice available on this model, and fortunately it’s a good one. It’s the latest iteration of Honda’s naturally aspirated 3.5L J-series V6. While it once powered a number of Honda and Acura sedans, the J-Series has been replaced by a turbocharged four cylinder in cars like the Accord. In Honda’s larger vehicles, the traditional V6 is alive and well.
It makes 280hp and 262 pound feet of torque—and it has old fashioned VTEC. The kind you can actually hear and feel when you put your foot into the throttle and hit that cam changeover. In a world where the V6 is being dropped in favor of torquey but low revving turbo engines, the old school V6 has a lot of charm.
It’s also quick - relatively speaking that is. While no one is buying a family crossover to go drag racing, the Passport can do 0-60 in the low six second range and run high 14 second quarter mile. Not blistering by any means, but significantly quicker than something like a CRV or a RAV4.
And unlike a lot of modern Honda products, the Passport uses a nine-speed automatic transmission rather than a CVT. While great improvements have been made to modern CVTs to make them feel more natural and less rubber-bandish, there’s just something nice about an automatic that does real gear changes. It even has paddle shifters…
It goes without saying that if serious off-road capability is your primary goal, then a car-based crossover probably won’t be your first choice. Yet, that being said, old school off-roaders might be surprised at how good something like the Passport can be off the pavement.
Honda has portrayed the Passport as the “adventurous” choice among its SUV lineup, hoping to cash in on the growing market of those who want to fun exploring on the weekend without bring compromised on their commute. And while a lot of that is simply marketing speak, the Passport does have some nice tricks up its sleeve. Ground clearance comes in at 8.4 inches, the shortened length compared to the Pilot makes for less overhang and better approach and departure angles.
And when equipped with the aforementioned i-VTM4 system, the Passport includes selectable terrain modes for snow, mud and sand—with the sand mode providing maximum power to the rear wheels and a loosening of traction control. If so desired, it can even tow up to 5,000 pounds.
In the short time since the Passport has been on the market, there has already been a small but impressive line of aftermarket parts developed to further improve its adventure-ready status, and Honda itself built up a rally version of the Passport that’s been surprisingly successful in its class.
An Ideal Blend
Last year I wrote a story about how off-roading was one of the last frontiers of the auto enthusiast world that i’d yet to have really explored, and while the Passport is far from being a dedicated 4x4 rig, the reason I chose it is because I liked its balance of on and off-road behavior.
A Toyota 4Runner is a 4x4 with undeniable capability and tough style, but it’s also expensive, has much worse fuel economy, is less comfortable and worse performing on the road—which, let’s be honest, is where the majority of time is going to be spent with a family SUV.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee is another vehicle I considered, but much like the 4Runner the Jeep platform is quite old, costs more to buy and it has less space inside even if it’s more of a “real” 4x4.
There’s also something I like about going with the slightly untraveled path, seeing how much fun you can have in an SUV that happens to share its platform with a minivan. With that in mind, I have a few upgrades planned that should be able to elevate the Passport’s capability (and coolness) without taking away from the nice balance I just talked about.
First step is going to be getting rid of the stock, low profile 20-inch all season tires and fitting a set of beefier all terrain Nitto 18-inchers on some new wheels. I may just be dipping one toe into the off-roading world with my new family car, but I’m excited all the same. Let’s begin the # (hashtag) adventure.
More From Driving Line
- Want to see why a street car guy is jealous of off-roaders? Check the story here.