You can’t kick a rock these days without hitting some type of off-road-oriented SUV—maybe a reborn Hummer or a Ford Bronco, maybe just a Subaru Forester with a factory lift kit. It might even land on a Honda, even if Japan’s big H is better known for on-road precision than dirt-slinging shenanigans, at least when it comes to passenger vehicles. Honda wants to change that thinking, and it’s tiptoeing onto the scene as it ramps up a crop of rigs under the new TrailSport banner, the first of which is the 2022 Passport.
The TrailSport is pretty self-explanatory. It slots in as the new midgrade trim level within the updated Passport lineup, a $43,695 proposition that sits above the now base EX-L model and below the top-spec Elite. (Honda’s larger three-row Pilot gains a similar TrailSport variant for the new model year.) Save for a few minor equipment upgrades, this is still much the same Passport we put 40,000 pleasant miles on not long ago. However, a new hood, revised front and rear bumpers, and a blockier grille do help address one of our main complaints from that long-term test: somewhat innocuous styling that makes it a little too easy to lose the Passport in a Costco parking lot.
The Passport’s TrailSport treatment is mostly theater, encompassing a gloss black grille and badging plus orange-accented TrailSport emblems. The orange theme extends to the inside, with contrast stitching and embroidered headrests sprucing up the sensible, cubby-laden cabin, which doesn’t quite match the level of finery in the latest Accord and Civic. Model-specific bumpers with faux skid-plate inserts also are included, as are 18-inch wheels with a greater offset that widen the Passport’s track by 0.4 inch (other models wear 20-inch rollers). Wrapping those wheels are 245/60R-18 Firestone Destination LE 2 all-season tires with more aggressive shoulder tread that provide a bit more bite on loose terrain. There’s no suspension lift, unlike the TrailSport version of the Pilot, although that model has a slightly lower baseline ride height. The all-wheel-drive Passport has 8.1 inches of ground clearance, still enough to clear many smaller obstacles, and it can tow up to 5000 pounds. In terms of efficiency, the TrailSport gets the same EPA fuel-economy estimates as other Passports, which remain 19 mpg city and 24 highway for all-wheel-drive models.
This off-road showmanship is not for Honda’s lack of experience in getting dirty. Honda’s legendary off-road background with dirt bikes and other powersports machines needs little introduction. The company has supported a desert-racing Ridgeline pickup for several years now, and Honda engineers currently campaign an essentially stock Passport in North American rally competition. In addition to driving the TrailSport both on- and off-road, we recently rode in that rally version and came away impressed with how well it makes use of the production mechanicals. The Passport’s standard 3.5-liter V-6 continues to deliver a strong 280 horsepower and a satisfying induction honk, and it plays well with the smooth-shifting nine-speed automatic transmission, particularly if you toggle the Sport mode on the still-clunky array of shift buttons. Weighing just over 4200 pounds, all-wheel-drive Passports scoot to 60 mph in a smidge over six seconds and have ample thrust for dispatching dawdling Winnebagos on country roads.
Opposite to how the Passport’s spacious interior feels more expansive than its dimensions suggest, this mid-size crossover seemingly shrinks in size on the road with a sense of well-oiled responsiveness. Along with a chassis setup that nicely balances ride comfort and cornering forces, much of its wieldiness stems from the flexibility of its variable all-wheel-drive system and torque-vectoring rear axle, both of which are standard on all but the starter EX-L model, which is front wheel drive. Depending on conditions, the system can funnel up to 70 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear end and route up to 100 percent of that grunt to either rear wheel. We’ll have to wait for a test vehicle to see how the TrailSport’s tires impact the Passport’s modest grip and braking measurements, but cranking the steering wheel off center still brings a welcome buildup in effort and some feel. Among workaday SUVs, the ease with which this Honda rotates around mountain switchbacks can even approach entertaining.
Steer off into the hinterlands and the all-wheel-drive system helps provide dogged traction over rough ground, aided by four terrain-management selections (Normal, Snow, Sand, and Mud) for the myriad chassis and drivetrain systems. With no exterior trail cameras or additional underbody protection, you’ll want to be careful around larger boulders. Yet navigating rocky desert washes that occasionally tilted the Passport up on three wheels was surprisingly uneventful. Adroit compression and rebound tuning for the passive dampers manifests in impressive composure over mildly uneven terrain—and at speeds that we wouldn’t have expected were it not for our stint in the rally racer. While that vehicle’s lack of ABS or any sort of traction-management tech allows it to slide around with abandon, the regular model shares much of its nimbleness and capability, highlighting the Passport’s potential should Honda decide to upgrade it further.
We got a glimpse of such a Passport from the company’s recent Rugged Roads project vehicle, which features a modest aftermarket lift kit, larger tires, a rear-mounted spare, and a host of other overlanding-themed modifications. For now, factory upgrades are limited to plastic fender flares, rocker panel moldings, and new 18- or 20-inch Honda Performance Development (HPD) wheels painted either black or a snazzy bronze. But Honda is adamant that grander TrailSport happenings will drop in the next year, potentially including both new models and parts that could bring enhanced suspensions, all-wheel-drive systems, and beefier off-road hardware. The current TrailSport, then, marks the beginning of the journey, and it will be interesting to see how far off-road Honda goes.
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