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Here's your Passport to the other side of the looking glass, where a Honda isn't a Honda--and where a tough, truck-based SUV can offer handsome styling and downright luxurious appointments. As the foster child of Honda's lineup, the Passport is engineered and built by Isuzu; and if you think it resembles an Isuzu Rodeo with Honda badges, then award yourself a gold star for accurate observation.
That said, we don't mean to demean the Passport in any way. A true, versatile, dual-purpose SUV, it can cruise the highway in comfort and style--while its dependable 4WD system and rigid frame let it tackle very rough terrain with out batting a headlight. In fact, the handy and handsome Passport handles rough tracks as well as some tougher-looking big-tire trucks.
Passport's styling was freshened last year with new front and rear bumper facias, plus flush-mounted headlight assemblies. Its looks go unchanged for 2001.
2WD LXs ride on 225/75R16 tires; all other models use 245/70R16s. All come with a full-size spare.
Passport's dependable four-wheel drive system allows shift-on-the-fly engagement at speeds up to 60 mph; simply push a button to grab 4WD-High. To drop into 4WD-Low you need to stop and shift a floor-mounted lever.
The 4-speed automatic transmission features a winter mode. When it's engaged, the transmission starts out in third gear to prevent wheelspin on icy or snowy surfaces. The transmission also has a power mode that gives better acceleration by raising up-shift points. Both functions are controlled by buttons in the center console.
Passports have consistently offered responsive handling and a stable ride. This year's model is no exception. It owes its solid feel to a ladder frame with eight cross members and box-section side rails. Steel tubes in the doors, in addition to providing better passenger protection, also make the body more rigid.
The spare tire on Passport LX models is mounted on a rack on the rear tailgate. On EX and EX-Luxury models the spare is under the rear cargo area. While having it down there does give the Passport a cleaner look, the tire will drag on the ground if you start up a steep grade.
Passports are available in six colors: Alpine White, Canal Blue, Ebony Black, Palazzo Red, Bright Silver, and Huntman Green.
While most of the controls are well placed and easy to operate, the windshield wiper control-located on a post on the right side of the steering column-can be confusing if you don't take the time to figure it out. Fortunately, we had driven an Isuzu Rodeo a few weeks before the Passport, and the foibles of the control were still fresh in our minds when we picked up our test truck near downtown Los Angeles one wet and rainy afternoon.
The moonroof-standard on EX models--lowers front-seat headroom from 38.9 inches to 37.8 inches. While that 1.1-inch might not sound like a lot, it does make a difference to taller people. Interestingly, Honda's smaller, unit-body SUV, the CR-V, offers more headroom (40.5 inches versus 37.8 inches) and comparable legroom (41.5 inches in the CR-V, 42.1 inches in the Passport).
While some might find the passenger space limited, there is plenty of cargo room. The Passport has 81.1 cu. ft. of cargo space with the rear seat folded down. That compares favorably with other mid-sized SUVs. The Nissan Xterra has only 65.6 cu. ft. of hauling space. Ford Explorer and Toyota 4-Runner both come close with 79.8 cu. ft., although Dodge Durango has them all beat with 88.0 cu. ft. of maximum cargo volume.
In our review of a 1999 Isuzu Rodeo, we lamented the fact that the seats weren't very comfortable. We must not have been alone in that opinion-and somebody must have been listening. The front and back seats were redesigned last year for the 2000 models. Without having old and new seats side by side it isn't possible to pinpoint exactly how the new ones are enhanced, but it at the very least the seat bottoms seemed bigger and deeper. Whatever the changes, they are definitely for the better.
Our Passport EX-Luxury was nimble and responsive as we traveled around Los Angeles. It had enough power to move in and out of traffic with ease. On the freeway the ride is smooth and sure. It handled the open road well, too. The 3.2-liter V6 is a little hummer, and it will tackle most highway grades without faltering. Regardless of the conditions, the steering was precise.
Leaving the wilderness of urban Southern California, we headed north to the Owens Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The new seats were comfortable. We spent the week with our Passport exploring the Owens River and poking around the foothills at the base of the Coyote Mountains. It rained much of the week we spent there, and the Passport handled muddy dirt roads as effortlessly as it handled the mean streets of Los Angeles.
The Passport did well on the dirt tracks at the base of the Coyotes, too. Shifting into 4WD High is effortless when the going gets rough. And the 16" tires and 8.5" of ground clearance gave us ample undercarriage room to explore some fairly rocky roads.
We also had a chance to try out the transmission's Winter mode on a side trip to the nearby Mammoth Mountain ski resort. The 16" wheels couldn't get a bite on the icy surface until we engaged the Winter mode. Then the Passport literally walked out of its parking space.
Back on paved (and ice-free) mountain roads the Passport was agile and sure. In radical transient maneuvers the rear-end loses traction before the front-end-just the way it should. The 4-wheel ABS system works as expected and keeps the vehicle straight and true in emergency stops. In fact, the ABS system even works well on rough dirt roads where other systems are lacking.
The Honda Passport is a stable, solidly built, and versatile SUV that can hold its own against some other more expensive Utes. While some plus-sized passengers (or drivers) might find some of the interior spaces lacking, the Passport offers an outstanding balance between value and performance.
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