Hooniverse Asks: Can a CUV be a good off-roader? I’m about to find out

When Honda first showed its new 2019 Passport SUV they made no secrets that this was the vehicle was targeting the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Toyota 4Runner. If that seems absurd it’s because Grand Cherokee and 4Runner are very different vehicles than the Passport, even if their two-box designs and size seem similar. The 4Runner is a classic body-on-frame design with a live rear axle. The Jeep has substantial subframes front and back, and a classic longitudinal drivetrain layout with a two-speed transfer-case.

The Honda Passport has none of these things. It uses the same chassis as the Ridgeline pickup, Odyssey minivan, and the three-row Pilot. Its engine is mounted transversely in the unibody, primarily powering the front wheels. But Honda is quick to point out that the Passport has “torque-vectoring Intelligent Variable Torque Management (i-VTM4™) all-wheel drive system with Intelligent Traction Management – with Snow, Mud and Sand modes — allowing the driver to optimize Passport’s tractive and dynamic performance based on terrain and weather conditions.”

Cool, cool. But is that a match for the 4Runner’s low-range gearing and a locking rear differential? Honda stubbornly says that it is. In fact Honda took two of its Passports and slightly modified for increased off-road abilities. Then they threw a tent on the roof, handed me the keys, and said go camping. Really.

Yes, this weekend I’ll be driving the above pictured modified 2019 Honda Passport to the Overland Expo East. While there I’ll be living out of the tent. Because there is no on-site power, Honda threw one of their awesome generators into the trunk.

This Passport is modified in the following way:

  • Jsport lift kit, adding 1.5 inches in front and 0.75 inches of ride height in the rear.
  • A custom front skid plate.
  • 18-inch Nitto RidgeGrappler tires mounted on exclusive Jsport KMC XD 18-inch wheels.
  • Jsport Plateau modular roof rack.
  • Roofnest Sandpiper rooftop tent.
  • Jsport side steps.
  • Jsport external swinging spare tire holder.
  • Additional front and rear lighting from Baja Designs.

This is all very interesting but I am not easily swayed by mod lists and looks. I lived out of a Land Rover Defender and a Land Cruiser 70 in Africa for four weeks. I off-roaded a pricey Range Rover and a cheap, beat up Discovery in places I couldn’t walk through. I watched too many Camel Trophy videos. I’ve owned two Jeeps. And now I own the very vehicle that Honda is targeting with the Passport – a [lightly modified] 4Runner.

I honestly don’t know what to expect of this Passport. Additional ground clearance and proper tires are the two most basic things for better off pavement performance. There are people off-roading Subarus with great successes. I’m intrigued and anxious to find the answer.

10 Comments

  1. I’ve taken a 4-cyl, front-wheel-drive Ford Escape on 80,000 mile treadwear warranty tires farther off-road than 95% of Cherokee owners. You’ll be fine.

  2. Functionally, there should be no disadvantage to primarily pulling over obstacles versus primarily pushing over obstacles. The transverse engine still doesn’t sit well with me.

    Hell, it might even be better off-road than a truck-based SUV. I’d still rather have the truck-based SUV.

  3. It’s a soft-roader, at best. I’ve seen FWD sedans driven by ravers go over roads that slowed me down in my ’91 GMC longbed, including fording a small stream, at the end of 35 miles of washboard road south of the Mexican border. I expect the Honda will perform on par with those.

    A “capable” off-roader can be judged by its ability to take damage. Unless the bottom of that thing is basically dragon scales of skid plates the first time you high center it the insurance company will declare it a total loss. Bottom out the suspension 6 or 7 times per mile and see how the alignment is.

  4. No, it isn’t a rock crawler. But people who buy this aren’t looking for that- they want something that will get them a little deeper, that can handle some poorly maintained fire roads to find a cool camp site or fishing hole.

    I have a TJ Wrangler, which is awesome for getting into the rocks- but it sucks as a camping vehicle- zero space for camping stuff once I put the kids in the back.

    I also have a Crosstrek, which seems more comparable to this (capability wise) than a 4Runner. I’ve taken that thing into stuff I probably shouldn’t have, and it has handled it just fine. And it’s a better platform than the TJ for taking the kids out camping, as long as there’s no real tough obstacles on the way.

    So I think the Passport will do fine for that stuff- I have a hard time seeing it as competition for a 4Runner, even though it would probably handle most everything most 4Runner owners would actually take it to.

  5. You’ll be fine. Much like the magician who designs his trick around a certain card before he asks you to “pick a card, any card”, Honda is loaning you a CUV that can deliver an adequate experience in the environment of the event. I’ve camped inside body-on-frame SUVs quite a few times, and I’m sure a rooftop tent would be more comfortable, and that the Passport is more than capable of supporting a tent on the roof. And the snow, mud, or sand you encounter at the event won’t be too difficult for the AWD system. You’ll leave with a positive impression. That doesn’t mean this is up to the task of rock crawling two weekends a month, but you’ll never get the opportunity to experience an attempt.

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  6. I’m conflicted on this one… though I do think it’s awesome that Honda built one and threw it in the fleet.

    The Passport is actually pretty sweet in mild off-road situations. I drove one at Honda’s proving grounds and it was very chuckable through the dirt course. On the flipside, I’m still not in love with roof-top tents. I really dislike the idea of throwing more weight in a higher position on the vehicle. Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of converting the rear of my Montero into a sleepable space, but I don’t think it would be that great. I’ve also been eyeing towable tent solutions. Those seem pretty cool, until you have to store it.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

    1. Thanks. I’m on the fence about RTTs, too. They take up the whole roof, which then cannot be used for transport other things. And conventional tents are really small when packed up. Yea, they take longer to set up and you’re on the ground… but being on top of a vehicle exposes you to more winds.

  7. The metal plate under the extra lights looks counterproductive – blocking airflow – not sure there are any skid plates visible underneath?

    Anyway I’m sure it will be fine on just about any formed trail.

  8. I have no specific comments on this passport, but after my experiences with my x3, towing full trailers of firewood out on some rather gnarly, but far from technical, roads, I’m firmly in the camp that a CUV can be a dependable off roader, as long as you keep within the bounds of the actual operational envelope.

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