The words "design" and "styling" are largely used interchangeably in the automotive world. In the fashion world, however, they are quite different. The way a dress looks is the result of design. The jacket, shoes and purse you pair with it are styling.
I mention this because the 2019 Honda Passport is largely the work of styling in the fashion sense. Yes, it's shorter in overall length and seat count than the Pilot, and there are design tweaks to the front end and tailgate. But much of what makes the Passport distinctive and arguably more attractive than its rather drab three-row sibling comes down to "styling." There are the blacked out wheels and trim, the beefier roof rails and crossbars, and the more macho grille. There's also the ground clearance increase that does as much for aesthetics as it does for off-road ability. Take all that away, and the Passport really is just a shorter Pilot, albeit with better proportions.
Thankfully, even the most basic Sport trim level ($33,035) gets the handbag and earrings treatment. The EX-L and Touring have silver wheels that dull some of the visual impact, but the black wheels return for the Passport Elite AWD that I recently tested during a Memorial Day weekend road trip along the Oregon coast. With an as-tested price of $44,725, the range-topping trim level painted Obsidian Blue came with no options per the Honda norm. That's a seemingly excellent value: A similarly loaded (but less spacious) Nissan Murano Platinum would be $46,275, a Chevy Blazer Premier would be $46,795, and a Ford Edge Titanium would be $46,930. The admittedly less powerful Hyundai Santa Fe Ultimate 2.0T aces everything at $39,845.
Compared to the next trim down, the Touring, the Passport Elite gains automatic wipers (that got a bit confused at times by Oregon coastal mist), heated and ventilated seats (used both as result of wacky Oregon coastal weather), a heated steering wheel, and wireless smartphone charging. It also comes standard with Honda's torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, whereas other trims have it as an option. Really, though, most of the Elite's desirable niceties are also found on the Touring: handsfree power liftgate, roof rails/crossbars, acoustic door glass, heated rear seats, a house-style power outlet, a 10-speaker sound and integrated navigation (proved invaluable when spotty internet coverage rendered Google Maps a sporadic convenience). You're getting good value with either trim level, so if you like the Elite's extras, including those black wheels, getting one makes just as much sense as the Touring.
As we've previously reported, the Passport drives a lot like the Pilot, but with better body control courtesy stiffer springs and generally less girth to lug about. The steering is reassuringly precise and consistently weighted, but is also nothing to draw you into the driving experience. The 3.5-liter V6 is smooth, strong and similarly benefits from the Pilot-to-Passport weight loss (Car and Driver recently discovered it's the quickest in the segment).
However, the nine-speed automatic standard on every Passport is still not up to Honda's usual norm. Though improved from other iterations that always seem to be in the wrong gear or slow to engage the correct one, there are still moments of unusual behavior. There can be a little too much engine braking off throttle, for instance, as if you're in the wrong gear. The Sport mode also makes the transmission a bit silly in its aggressiveness — you can't use it around town without it herking and jerking you about.
Finally, the transmission too easily overrules manual inputs you've selected with the paddle shifters, which was annoying when driving down lengthy grades. After selecting fourth gear with the paddles to use engine braking, I'd eventually find myself back in fully automatic Drive mode and sixth gear once I'd prod the throttle a few times to maintain a desired speed. I'd then have to pull the paddle and start the process all over again. There is no manual mode button to press to maintain your control.
Also annoying are the various accident avoidance tech items that come standard on every Passport. These are Honda's previous-generation systems, as opposed to the updated ones on CR-V and Accord. The lane-keeping assist and road departure mitigation are far too sensitive or prone to false alarms with loud warnings of BRAKE! in the instrument panel accompanied by beeping. This would occur when not crossing either lane line.
Furthermore, the also-standard adaptive cruise control is Honda's older system (also shared with our long-term Ridgeline) that doesn't operate the brakes or accelerator as smoothly as a human would, and more important, as other systems do. It also won't fully come to a stop, instead throwing up the BRAKE! alert at you, and most distressingly, can be flummoxed by single-lane, winding rural highways. Though it operated fine on left-hand sweepers, it would briefly lose the car ahead in right lane sweepers and start to accelerate to meet the set cruise control speed. I braked before seeing if the Passport would throw up the BRAKE! for itself. In general, it's a good thing Honda includes these items on every Passport (plus the Pilot, Ridgeline and Civic), because they aren't executed well enough to warrant extra money.
OK, now that the annoyances are out of the way, on to the good stuff, because the 2019 Honda Passport Elite really is far more good than bad. As per the Honda usual, packaging is exceptional. Yes, a whole bunch of SUV was lopped off the back of the Pilot to create the Passport, but there's still more back there than in any other midsize crossover. It's deep, wide and expandable — since the Passport keeps the Pilot's sliding second row, you can increase cargo capacity or bring the kids (or dogs in my case) closer to the front seat. Cargo capacity is 41.2 cubic feet with the seat raised and at its rearmost position, and 77.9 with it lowered. For comparison, a CR-V is 39.2/75.8 and the Pilot is 46.8/83.9. Yep, Passport is right in the middle.
Honda also positioned the spare tire far forward, which will be a pain when a tire blows, but the rest of the time it frees up space for a covered, removable plastic bin under the floor perfect for stowing dirty (or valuable items). Muddy hiking shoes went in there along with the towels we used to wipe off the equally muddy dogs (Instagrammed below)
Up front, you get the same clever center console storage as the Pilot and our long-term Ridgeline. The giant center bin was big enough to hide my wife's purse during a hike. Its flat rolling cover is also nice since it provides additional storage without needing to serve double-duty as an armrest (there are minivan-style attached rests on each seat). If there is one storage beef, it's that there are only two cupholders up front. There really aren't any in the doors, either, whereas each rear door has two apiece (pictured above). Want coffee and water bottles up front? Nope, not going to work.
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Now, the infotainment system does work, just not very well. Much was made about "Honda puts the volume knob back!" which is all well and good, but it didn't correct many other flaws: insufficient menu buttons, no tuning knob and/or direct tune function, and an excessive process for going between Honda and Apple/Android interfaces are just some of the annoyances. Many were actually corrected for the vastly improved system in the Accord and Odyssey, but the Passport and most other Hondas stick with this old system.
Could I live with the frustrating infotainment and safety tech? I could, especially in light of the Passport's superior value, clever storage, useful size, well-rounded driving experience and, yes, styling in the fashion sense. At the same time, though, it's disappointing that the latest and greatest addition to the Honda fleet doesn't have its latest and greatest tech, especially in a top trim level like the Elite.