Off-roading a soft-roading Honda Passport

When Honda launched the new Passport it boldly claimed that they are going after the Jeep Grand Cherokee* and the Toyota 4Runner* market. That’s a very brave statement, as this two-row, midsize CUV has a transversely mounted engine in its unibody, primarily powering the front wheels. It is heavily based on the Honda Pilot, with the biggest differences being that the Passport is six-inches shorter and rides on one-inch taller springs.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Toyota 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 independent suspension. Both are available with two-speed transfercases, selectable terrain control modes, and limited-slip or locking rear differentials.

Putting their money where their press release is, Honda loaned me slightly modified Passport to drive the Overland Expo East. This Passport has 18-inch wheels wrapped in all-terrain tires, skid plates and rather useless side steps. There was also tent on the roof, more on that later, but that’s it. There were several of these Passports built by Honda using dealer available Jsport accessories, some with a lift kit, but not this one.

The most important factors in any vehicle’s ability to go off pavement are ground clearance and tires. Yes, all-wheel drive systems matter, angles of departure and approach matter, differentials matter. But if you want to go on a hilly dirt road that has some rocks and mud holes, tires and ground clearance will make them passable for vehicles that wouldn’t otherwise make it through.

Honda puts 20-inch wheels on every version of the Passport. That is just silly. No vehicle that is designed with any inclination toward venturing off pavement should have dubs on it. Jtech rightfully installed 18-inch wheels and wrapped them in Nitto Terra Grappler tires of 255/60 variety. The result of this was a slightly narrower and taller tire, which is what is desirable in most cases when off-roading.

Narrow tires put more pressure onto a smaller patch. This allows the tires to dig deeper into the snow, dirt, mud or sand, pushing those away from the center of the tire, improving traction. The tall and skinny tire proportions are clearly visible on Land Rover Defenders and Toyota Land Cruiser 70-series. Wider tires tend to work better on some rocky terrains or in the kinds of thick mud and snow where floating on the surface is preferred.

Honda says that the Passport’s ground clearance is 8.1-inches, which seemed kind of optimistic to me. The issue with these Hondas; Pilots, Passports, and Ridgelines, is that the transaxle casing is one of the lowest points of the vehicle. There, the skidplate installed on this Passport protected that very transaxle but also lowered the ground clearance, frequently scraping on rocks.

While the skidplate did its job, the accessory side steps did not. Looking kind of like rock-sliders, they are just attached to edge of the body. The extended step part also seemed to be lowest part of the vehicle, scraping the terrain the most. To put into technical terms, the side steps increased the breakover angle. To add insult, the step area was too small to securely step on when folding the roof top tent.

I took the Passport on a grade 1, border line grade 2, kind of a course. Moab this was not. At a slow pace and with careful planning, the Passport made it through without much drama. Yes, it did scrape. Yes, wheel articulation is not great, with one wheel frequently catching air on rather insignificant elevation changes. I drove with the traction and stability control systems enabled. It span one of the wheels at times when other vehicles wouldn’t, but it made it through unscratched. In the end that’s what matters.

So the Passport confidently made it through this trail but anything more would be challenging. It is no off-road champ but it is a damn good road cruiser. Honda’s V6 engines are not really renown for anything but they are smooth, make decent power, 280-horsepower in this case, and return good gas mileage. Even with the Roofnest Sandpiper tent strapped to its roof and a cargo area full of camping stuff, the engine never felt stressed, even if the nine-speed transmission kept it running at higher speeds than when running empty.

The interior is good for long distance travel, too. The seats remain comfortable even after hours spent driving. There are various compartments, trays, cubbies, and cup-holders for all the little stuff that we accumulate on road trips. This Elite model has heated heats and steering wheel, which is always nice. Three USB ports and three 12-volt sockets keep all your stuff charged but notably missing is a 120vAC household socket which can be useful on road trips.

The point here is that the Passport is a very good road trip car. It is a very good camping vehicle, as seen here with tents attached to it. It’s a great ski resort vehicle. It will confidently get you down a bumpy dirt road to the horse stable. But it isn’t what one would call an off-roader or an overlanding vehicle. Drive it to a conventional campground and have a blast. But for venturing further off the beaten path consider something completely different – parking your vehicle and hiking!

Update – Honda informed me that the Passport isn’t truly going after the Grand Cherokee or 4Runner market. Instead, it’s intended to fill the white space that currently exists, delivering something new to the midsize SUV market – more off-road capable than “soft roaders” and more refined and sophisticated than the rock crawlers.

Disclaimer: Honda provided the vehicle for the purpose of this article. Trail Trek Tour for set up this drive and an Overland Expo East excursion (more on that soon). 

 

14 Comments

  1. Sounds about right for what I’d anticipated. The side steps are a double-edged sword, yes reduce clearance but also protect the vehicle for Honda. Why they didn’t put the lift on yours too is disappointing.

    Fundamentally though, I think independent suspension can’t offer the travel of a live axle, and I wonder if struts are more limited than double wishbone etc? I can’t find the photo I’m looking for of a guy testing a mid-90s Falcon sedan; he had put taller springs and longer travel shocks in plus taller tyres, and the rear axle travel was limited by the handbrake cables. This wagon pictured here has leaf springs on the back instead but overall similar. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/98cce189a3586b4202e8c20413d739ce9fd85cc3bd1bdb087e3c545a8f5ea7e6.jpg

  2. Speaking of soft-roaders, I’m considering looking at a CrossTrek this week. I feel like it might be more off-road capable than this.

    1. Short wheelbase helps, same for crank_case’s Fiat below. Both probably have more clearance too.

  3. What happens when you have to drunk-pee in the middle of the night? Or is the Roofnest Sandpiper just a place to keep the food way from the raccoons? Isn’t that what the empty car is for?

    To be fair, when I rode the Laverda through scorpion country I slept on the picnic table with my boots on the bench. In extreme circumstances, sleeping on top of your vehicle might be advisable, but you’d have to stay sober if you wanted to avoid a broken ankle.

  4. Each of the press cars is attached to what appears to be a beginner-grade tent on the ground. Did Honda provide those?

      1. It looks like you had nice weather and a fresh tent. Age it 10 trips and then after a night of camping in heavy rain and strong wind, you’ll be shopping for a replacement.

        1. The Napier tents attached to the back of the SUV seemed pretty nice. I haven’t used the typical ground tents pictured in the second to last pic. Like all equipment, stuff is as good as the people who take care of it. I’ll have a write-up on my friend’s budget overland setup soon.

          1. In this case, it’s the materials at issue, not the maintenance. Every time you pack up that tent, the polyethylene floor is going to be creased or wrinkled, depending on whether you stuff or fold. Do that enough times and you’ll have a thousand invisibly tiny holes that will allow water to enter from below during a hard rain.

            I don’t think I’m a gear snob, but sometimes you need to spend the money (often not too much more money) for something durable. Those fiberglass tent poles will yield to a brisk wind. With most cheap tents, that means the sideways tent wall keeps flapping against your head while you try to sleep. With this type of tent, it also means the tent fabric is going to abrade the paint on and around the tailgate, and the attachment straps may tug on whatever parts they are attached to..
            https://www.exploringoverland.com/overland-tech-travel/2015/10/27/ban-crappy-tents
            https://www.exploringoverland.com/overland-tech-travel/2015/11/5/update-on-crappy-tents

  5. Just like a Ridgeline is really all the truck that folks dreaming of 4WD 4 door F-150s need, this Passport is all the off road capability that folks who are looking at 4 Runners and Grand Cherokees need. I think Honda is betting, perhaps correctly, that folks are going to see these images and others like this and be convinced that it’ll do “real off road stuff” when and if they need it and will therefore cross shop against those more capable machines. Like most Grand Cherokees and 4 Runners, they’ll rarely see anything more difficult than a gravel road, which makes the Passport perfect for most buyers in this segment. Serious off roaders won’t be fooled, nor is Honda trying to fool them.

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