Quiz time. When is a Honda not a Honda?

Before I answer that staggering enigma, let’s consider how cars are being marketed these days.

An alert shopper would know, for instance, that a Plymouth Laser is actually a Mitsubishi Eclipse and that a Geo Tracker is really a Suzuki Sidekick in disguise. A Mercury Villager minivan is the same as a Nissan Quest, and a Ford Escort is powered by Mazda and built in Mexico.

Confused? You oughta be, but not so much that you can’t solve our quiz.

So, when is a Honda not a Honda? When it’s an Isuzu. An Isuzu Rodeo sport-utility vehicle, to be exact, all gussied up as a member of the up-market Honda clan.

So the Honda Passport, the automaker’s first foray into the overheated sport-utility market, is not really a Honda but an Isuzu. That’s not a bad thing, really. The Rodeo has shown itself to be a hardy hauler, with decent reliability and good manners.

Ours had a strong, smooth V6 engine and above-average handling for this sometimes ungainly class of vehicles. Best of all, the Rodeo always has been something of a bargain, typically coming in several thousands under its competitors at Ford, Jeep, Chevy, Nissan or Toyota.

The fully loaded model we tested lists at slightly more than $26,000, easily $3,000 or $4,000 less than the others. All well and good. But one gets this uneasy feeling that maybe the Honda guys are trying to put one over, taking the Honda emblem and applying it to a vehicle that most certainly is not a Honda, hoping to fool their own customers. And for what reason? Why not just sell Isuzu Rodeos at Honda dealerships?

Some reports have the Honda versions selling for more than the Isuzu models, with less warranty or other incentives. The obvious answer is that Honda has built a fine reputation as a builder of superior automobiles.

Taking an Isuzu and imbuing it with Honda mystique certainly can’t hurt. Can it?

Well, looking at the Rodeo in Honda terms, it’s kind of tinny, lacking the style and spark of Honda vehicles. It ran great, did everything it was supposed to do, but it doesn’t look or feel like a Honda.

Meanwhile, back in the Rodeo corral, I found it a successful upgrade of Isuzu’s earlier model, very driveable and easy to live with.

See? It all depends on the view. Whether it’s a Passport or a Rodeo, this is a sport-utility that at least approaches being affordable, offers a roomy interior with decent features, has good cargo space and enjoys a reputation as a solid family vehicle.

Honda has unveiled its own, smaller sport-utility, the CR-V, that’s going up against the Sidekick / Tracker, Kia Sportage and new Toyota RAV4.

But the Passport is a different animal.

Meanwhile, at Honda’s toney Acura division, the Isuzu Trooper is being sold as an Acura SLX. The same comments apply. And just to muddy the stream a bit further, Honda Odyssey minivans will be available at Isuzu dealerships under the name Oasis.

As for the Passport, we didn’t do any real four-wheeling, though we did have an excellent dirt-track trip on Castle Hot Springs Road west of Lake Pleasant. But so what? Most people never use their four-wheel drive.

Which brings up another point: Like all four-wheel-drive vehicles in this class, the Passport’s gas mileage is pretty poor. And as nice as the Passport drives, it’s still clumsy and trucklike when compared to a modern passenger car.

So if you’re not going off road, why live with the compromises? If gas prices ever go through the ceiling again, what will happen to the booming sport-utility market?

But that’s the price you pay for the adventurous allure of a sport-utility vehicle. The Passport certainly gets good grades, especially at its price. Just be aware that you’re not buying a Honda.

1996 Honda Passport

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport-utility vehicle, rear-wheel / four-wheel drive. Base price: $26,000. Price as tested : $26,395. Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 175 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 188 pounds/feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 4,073 pounds. Length: 176.5 inches. Wheelbase: 108.5 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, rear anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city, 18 mpg highway.

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