BALBOA ISLAND, Calif. — There's something to be said for testing a top-of-the-line model instead of having to grub around in the entry-level version. Since Honda, based an hour up the road, offers no fewer than five choices for its 2000 Passport sport utility vehicle, with the low-end two-wheel drive $22,800 LX at the bottom of the ladder and the luxury $30,150 EX-L at the peak, it was gratifying to slide onto leather seats, gaze at the wood-grain trim and know my fenders had special flares.
However, the truth is there's very little difference between all those noble models, the LX, EX and EX-L, aside from two and four-wheel drive systems. They're all four-door SUVs, share the same powerful V-6 engine, the same towing capacity and just about everything else. The major and most visual contrast is the location of the spare tire. The least expensive LX models hang the spare outside on the tailgate, while the upper end EX and EX-L hide it discreetly under the floor. A couple of other small differences: minimum ground clearance is 8" on the LX and 8.2" on the rest of the models. The high-end EX-L has a six-CD changer where it belongs — in the dash — and a moonroof, as do the EX models.
Veering toward large
In spite of being categorized originally as a compact, this is a rather large vehicle and veers on midsize. Redesigned in 1998, the 2000 model has a few cosmetic changes to the front grille for a more rugged appearance but is basically the same vehicle. It has grown two inches in height over the previous model and seven inches in length, although the wheelbase and width remain the same. With wagon-like rear windows, the Passport avoids the completely typical boxy SUV styling but its overall design and tall roofline shout Adventurous Sport Utility! and Take me Off-Road!
2000 Honda Passport
There's tons of interior room, seating five passengers without crushing manly shoulders and leaving loads of cargo space, 33 cubic feet with the rear seat up, and 81 cubic feet with the seat folded down. Lacking is enough center armrest length for the driver's right elbow. In a luxury version I'd have liked a sliding armrest, at least, but because of the center console design and the 4WD knob, there's clearly nowhere to add more support.
Controls, switches and gauges are standard fare and conveniently at hand. Big and friendly knobs control the air conditioning and heating. Door handles are recessed, front and rear lights meld neatly into the frame, and splash-guarded 16-inch wheels and roof rack are part of the package. All in all, a no-nonsense SUV that looks like it's ready to tackle just about anything.
Easy access to the outdoors
Despite its height and ground clearance, stepping in and out is easy without straining. Some SUVs I have to hop into — I'm 5'5" — but the Passport needed no such extra effort.
The interior, like most SUVs, is so comfortable and car-like you think you're in a sedan. The dash, console and surrounding areas are copycats of passenger cars. Until you start wrestling with the wheel. Actually, the steering is easy, almost loosey-goosey, and you can adjust it into six different positions but the driving characteristics are so truck-like you'll handle the Passport the way SUVs are meant to be handled, with respect and recognition of their unique qualities.
Vehicles with high centers of gravity are not meant to race along highways. Driving to Las Vegas and back I found that an average of 75 miles an hour was about the break-even point between sanity and suicide although you can legally drive ten miles faster than that in most segments of the highway.
2000 Honda Passport
It's obvious that what sets this SUV apart from its competitors is its beauty of an engine that is smooth, quiet and impressive. The 205-horsepower, V-6 powertrain took me up through the mountainous 4445-ft high Cajon Pass competently and fast. With 214 ft-lb of torque at 3000 rpm there's lots of quick acceleration and low-end power available instantly when you need it. The anti-lock brakes work perfectly, as I discovered at a traffic light when a Montana-licensed car and its driver didn't realize that a yellow means speed up in the Golden State and the ABS shuddered the Passport to a halt.
Off-road this SUV is well equipped to straddle boulders and bumps with a 32.5-degree angle of approach and a 26.3-degree angle of departure. It can also ford streams and play in the mud. Skid plates, those underbody shields not found on all SUVs, protect the fuel tank, radiator and transfer case from rock damage. Occasional uses of rear wipers were a blessing in a fast-moving storm that hit my return trip.
The 4WD system has two ranges: 4High for wet, sandy or snowy terrain and 4Low for maximum off-road or hard pulling in deep doodoo. The limited slip differential distributes power equally to the rear wheels for greater traction. I had no argument from any of these systems.
There are two driving modes to choose from: Power when you need greater acceleration, and Winter when you're driving at six miles an hour or less. Both modes have light indicators on the dash when activated, as does the transfer control when it's engaged.
If I enjoyed frequent and semi-serious off-roading I'd put the Passport on my list to test-drive at a dealership. If I only needed an SUV to tote kids and groceries I'd skip the Passport but if I wanted something powerful yet reasonably-priced that I could feel safe in, this one would get consideration.
|2000 HONDA PASSPORT EX-L
Price as tested:
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 205 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic w/lock-up torque converter
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Length: 178.2 in
Width: 70.4 in
Height: 68.8 in
Weight: 4114 lb
Ground clearance: 8 in
Cargo volume: 33 cu ft
Fuel economy: 16 city / 20 hwy
Towing capacity: 4500 lb
Major standard equipment:
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