Auto review: 2019 Honda Passport SUV brings the steak, not much sizzle

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 3, 2019

              

2019 Honda Passport

“You can complain about vanilla styling, but vanilla is the best-selling flavor of ice cream,” an exasperated auto executive once snapped at the 10th question about his midsize sedan’s unexciting appearance.

He was right, but I’ll take chocolate any day. With dark chocolate chunks, if you’re bringing my dessert. Occasionally a little jalapeno, just to see if I’m paying attention.

The 2019 Honda Passport SUV is an overflowing scoop of the finest vanilla automaking, topped with sprinkles of driver assistance features, interior space and price competitors will struggle to match.

Honda will sell every one of them that its plant in Lincoln, Ala., can turn out.

The Passport is the latest in a growing class of vehicles aimed at drivers who like the height, convenience and trendiness of an SUV, but can do without the parental connotations of three-row family haulers like Honda’s own Pilot, which not coincidentally rolls off the same assembly line as the Passport.

Five-passenger midsize SUVs like the Passport — bigger than a five-seat Honda CR-V, not as big as the seven-seat Pilot — are the flavor of the month. Automakers expect to charge as much for them as for bigger three-row models, netting a handsome return on the relatively small investment of a model that shares many parts with its bigger sibling.

Behind the Wheel

2019 Honda Passport AWD Elite

All-wheel-drive, five-passenger midsize SUV

Price as tested: $43,680 (excluding destination charge)

Rating: Three out of four stars

Reasons to buy: Passenger and luggage space; features; price

Shortcomings: Fuel economy; power; audio controls

How much?

Passport prices start at $31,990 for a front-wheel drive model. All-wheel drive raises the tab $1,900 to $33,890. All Passports come with a 280-hp 3.5-liter V6 and nine-speed automatic transmission.

The Passport’s main competitors are the Chevrolet Blazer — also new for 2019 — the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano.

Passport prices are competitive with those SUVs, but the top Elite model has more standard equipment than the comparable Blazer, Edge and Murano, giving it an effective price advantage.

The Subaru Outback is new for 2020. I haven’t tested one yet. Prices, specifications and fuel economy are not available for comparison.

I tested a loaded AWD Passport Elite. Features included adaptive cruise control; lane-keeping assist; blind-spot alert; front collision alert and automatic braking; Apple Car Play; Android Auto; navigation; Bluetooth; navigation; touch screen; leather interior trim; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; and 20-inch alloy wheels.

It stickered at $43,680. All prices exclude destination charges.

Competitive base prices

(Excluding destination charges)

(Automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models.)

Honda Passport AWD Elite: $43,680

Chevrolet Blazer RS AWD: $43,500

Ford Edge Titanium AWD 2.0T: $40,755

Nissan Murano AWD SL: $40,930

Source: Autotrader

Living with a Passport

The Passport has the biggest passenger compartment and most luggage space in the group. Day to day, that means lots of head, shoulder and legroom in both rows of seats. There’s plenty of storage space in the front seat, particularly from a wide and deep bin in the center console.

The front bucket seats have flimsy fold-down armrests that I had to readjust every time I buckled my seat belt. Most SUVs use a taller bin in the center console with a padded lid for a center armrest, but Honda says its buyers like the flip-down armrests, which its CR-V compact SUV also has.

The dashboard, armrests and door tops are covered in soft materials that look and feel good.

There’s a big, easy-to-use touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility for smartphones. Voice recognition is good.

Unfortunately, Honda omitted a tuning dial from the controls in the center stack. Using buttons or “seek/scan” is a pain in the neck compared to turning a dial when you want to sift through a bunch of stations or tracks on your music device.

The Passport will carry four or five adults to dinner comfortably, fulfilling what automakers believe is Job 1 for midsize SUVs with two rows of seats.

Specifications as tested

Engine: 3.5L V-6

Power: 280 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm; 262 pound-feet of torque @ 4,700 rpm

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 111.0 inches

Length: 190.5 inches

Width: 78.6 inches

Height: 72.2 inches

Curb Weight: 4,237 lbs.

Assembled in Lincoln, Ala.

Fuel efficiency is sooo 2009

Oddly for a new Honda, the Passport Elite’s fuel efficiency is nowhere near the leaders in its class. The EPA rates the AWD model I tested at 19 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway and 21 combined.

That’s not atrocious, but it is lowest among the SUVs we’re talking about.

Fuel prices have been low for a few years. They may not be top of mind for consumers, but it’s still reasonable to expect an all-new vehicle to be at least as good as an older competitor, unless it has significantly better power and performance. The combined figure is 23 mpg for the Nissan Murano and Ford Edge, both of which have been on the market for years.

At current prices, that’s just $150 a year more to fuel the Passport, per the Environmental Protection Agency. The new Chevy Blazer also rated 21 mpg with AWD.

Not make-or-break money for anybody shopping $40K+ SUVs, but what’s the world coming to when a new Honda is a backward step in fuel efficiency?

EPA fuel economy ratings

(Automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models.)

All vehicles tested with regular gasoline

Honda Passport AWD Elite: 19 mpg city/24 highway/21 combined

Chevrolet Blazer RS AWD: 18/25/21

Ford Edge Titanium AWD 2.0T: 21/28/23

Nissan Murano AWD SL: 20/28/23

Source: www.fueleconomy.gov

Choose your battles

I discussed the Blazer’s failure to challenge the leaders’ efficiency with Chevrolet engineers when I tested it earlier this year. They said styling and features trump fuel economy for likely buyers of five-seat midsize SUVs. Accordingly, they prioritized looks, performance and handling. The Blazer has the most power in the group, and movie star looks.

The Passport is attractive, but a wallflower compared to the Blazer, Edge and Murano — a trio of vehicles as gorgeous as any slice of the car market. The jury’s out on the Outback until I walk up to one from every angle for a few days. Subaru’s not exactly famous for styling flair, but the Outback has established a handsome and consistent look after 25 years on the market.

Honda prioritized room, safety equipment and price. That could be enough to keep vanilla’s winning streak intact.

And who knows? The Passport may look daring when the almost inevitable, and inevitably conservative looking, Toyota five-seat midsize SUV hits the market.

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