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Two curious facts distinguish the Passport from every other sport/utility on the market. First, it wears the Honda emblem, marking the first time Honda has ventured outside the realm of cars and motorcycles. Second, unlike any other vehicle you'll find in a Honda showroom, the Passport isn't really a Honda at all.
Rather, the Passport is an Isuzu. An Isuzu Rodeo, to be exact. Both vehicles are built on the same assembly line at the Subaru-Isuzu joint venture facility in Indiana and share everything except minor trim, emblems and grilles.
We hasten to add that curious doesn't equate with bad in this case. There's nothing wrong with the Rodeo. But over the years we've come to look for technological leadership, recognizable style and intense attention to fit-and-finish details from Honda. As a result, finding the Honda emblem on a vehicle made by another company is surprise.
The Passport is a good vehicle. But it may not meet everyone's expectations of what a Honda should be.
In choosing Isuzu for a supplier, Honda got what it needed: A vehicle that could go on sale immediately, built by a company capable of producing a best seller (which the Rodeo is). And Isuzu has plenty of experience in building body-on-frame vehicles, as distinct from the unit-body construction used in most passenger cars. Honda does not.
Choosing the Passport over the Rodeo does have one major advantage: Honda's dealer network is significantly larger than Isuzu's. More dealers means wider access to service and parts. On the other hand, Passport prices are slightly higher than those for equivalent Rodeos, and Isuzu's basic warranty covers the Rodeo for an additional 15,000 miles during the same 3-year period.
These factors aside, the Passport makes a good first impression. It is a stylish vehicle, one that has enough visual interest and bright trim (especially on more expensive models) to make it blend right in at the country club.
The exterior design has some mileage on it now, about five years' worth, and it looks a little angular parked next to some of the newer, rounder sport/utility shapes - the new Chevrolet Blazer/GMC Jimmy, for example, or Ford's redesigned Explorer. But it has the advantage of being distinctive.
The only external feature we found annoying was the retaining latch for the spare tire carrier. The knob that releases the latch is awkwardly placed and hard to use when the carrier is swung to the side.
Model selection plays a major role in getting a Passport that serves your needs. The basic DX version has a 4-cylinder engine and 5-speed manual transmission and is only available in 2-wheel drive form. Although 4-wheel drive may be something you can do without, the 4-cylinder's limited power makes acceleration a pretty leisurely business.
We consider the LX and EX models, which are powered by a 175-hp V6, to be better choices. Your options expand with these models: The manual transmission can be replaced with a 4-speed automatic, 4WD is available, and the DX's rear drum brakes are replaced by discs, better because of their superior resistance to heat buildup and consequent fade. All three Passport models include rear-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS). A 4-wheel ABS system isn't available.
Although the exterior design is weathering well, the Passport's interior looks dated with its blocky angles. Nevertheless, the instrument and control layout is efficient because all major gauges are grouped for easy readability. The instrument cluster is surrounded by handy switches for lights and wipers, and the controls for the effective temperature control system are simple and easy to use.
Our only gripe with our test Passport's secondary controls was the audio system. The tiny push-button controls were irritating to use even when the vehicle was sitting still, and nearly impossible for the driver to adjust when the Passport was rolling down the road.
All-around visibility is good thanks to lots of glass, which is, ironically, a trademark of Honda automobiles. Extensive glass area usually adds up to interior heat buildup, so windows from the second roof pillar to the back of the vehicle are heavily tinted to help keep the interior cool.
The Passport's 4WD system is designed for part-time operation on low-traction surfaces only. A transfer case lever located in the center console allows the driver to choose between 2WD, high-range 4WD and low-range 4WD. The latter is for very slow driving over rugged terrain.
The Passport's cargo space is more than adequate, with 35 cu. Ft. available when the rear seat is in use. Fold it forward and the space is more than twice as large. Passenger volume is another matter.
We found that comfort in a Passport is strongly related to the size of the beholder because the cabin is not quite as spacious as it looks. Our driver's left knee came in contact with the door panel much too easily, which could have proved uncomfortable during extended trips. And the level of support offered by all the seats, which have short bottom cushions and low backs, also drew a few negative comments from some of our testers. Additionally, taller backseat passengers commented on limited headroom.
To be fair, though, others thought all the seats were just fine. So we would guess that Passport comfort could be in direct proportion with your size. If you're shorter than 6-ft. tall, you may find Passport seating comfort to be somewhat of a nonissue.
Something that is an issue, however, is passive restraints. Airbags are conspicuous here only by their absence.
With its more powerful engine, our Passport LX performed generally well in all-around use. In town the V6 is smooth, quiet and equals the 4-cylinder's EPA city mileage rating. It's good on the highway, too, except when extra power is needed for passing situations. Maneuvers such as this require plenty of room because even with its relatively low weight and 175 hp, the Passport's passing performance is no better than just OK.
In any case, even though the Passport's V6 may not provide neck-snapping acceleration, its towing capabilities exceed some of its better-known rivals from Toyota and Nissan.
Aside from a shortage of passing power, the Passport can handle whatever it's asked to do. On paved roads the ride quality is good; nothing less than breaks in the pavement or potholes will upset passengers.
The power-assisted steering is light and precise, and the brakes will take plenty of hard use without any fade or hot-brake smell. And where there's no pavement at all, the Passport still performs well.
When all is said and done, the Passport has two drawbacks. The first, simply put, is that it isn't a "real" Honda. The second is that after five years of production, the basic design has lost its competitive edge against newer sport/utilities. There are more powerful competitors, and quieter ones, too. And there are fresher body designs on the market and more refined interiors. A few opponents - the newly redesigned Chevy Blazer, for one - top the Passport on almost all of these counts.
But the Passport is a Honda, at least in name, and that carries a couple of big pluses. First, Honda's engineering staff had enough confidence in Isuzu's truck-building know-how to sign off on this project. Second, you can be sure that Honda's excellent dealer service organization will stand behind this product just as though it was home-grown.
Beyond that, the Passport represents a reasonably good buy, particularly versus some of its Asian rivals. After all, saving a few bucks tends to make any vehicle just a little bit more attractive.