In the big pool of compact sport-utility vehicles, Honda Passport has always been in the shallow end.

Actually a gussied-up Isuzu Rodeo, Passport was Honda's ticket to the very popular (read: lucrative) market for sport utes without actually having to design and build its own.

The Passport/Rodeo came in as a bargain version of the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer realm of vehicles, offering a similar craft for thousands less.

In the past, it was a lesser sport-utility vehicle, below the level of refinement and performance of the more-popular models, though still a decent-enough family vehicle that would perform off-road as well as on.

For '98, Passport and Rodeo have been redesigned, with better styling, more power and more interior space. As such, the duo lands solidly in the much-improved category, while still offering a slightly less-expensive route toward an able and driveable sport-utility vehicle.

Now, you can put the Passport up against the 4Runner ilk without apology, because the Honda now offers as much style and driveability as the higher-priced spread.

The test car, a fully loaded EX model, came complete with no options needed, and despite the hedonistic level of power accessories, stereo goodies and leather, the Passport still came in under $30,000. The EX also has desirable mechanical features, such as four-wheel disc brakes, 16-inch wheels and limited-shift differential.

A base two-wheel drive can be had as cheaply as $18,000, or $23,000 for a four-wheeler.

The change in appearance is striking. Gone are the flat, boxy angles and the tacky plastic body parts in the rear. The styling is now rounder, more substantial looking and better integrated. The look is still generic, though, strongly echoing the styling of Pathfinder and Grand Cherokee.

Inside the Passport, Honda stylists have been hard at work making their Isuzu clone more like a Honda. Colors, shapes and textures are much more in tune with Honda's stable of automobiles.

The comfort level is high, which is a major part of the desirability equation with all sport-utility vehicles, rather than off-road prowess. The cabin is roomy, the seats are supportive and the sunroof is broad and appreciated. Back-seat passengers will find more head and legroom than in the previous model.

Behind the back seat is decent space for groceries, garden supplies or camping gear, plus a well-executed cargo net and cubbies for small-item stowage. Its Isuzu roots are obvious when you have to deal with the awkward mechanism for closing the tailgate.

We didn't get a chance to do any serious four-wheeling in our Passport, which hardly anybody ever does anyway, but we know from experience that Isuzu makes a good four-wheel-drive system that's sturdy and gets the job done. Four-wheel drive is engaged with a push button.

The suspension is soft, and there is significant body sway in cornering, but handling overall was balanced and predictable, within the parameters of the sometimes unwieldy vehicles in this light-truck class.

Engine power and refinement have been upgraded from the last version, and the beefy V-6 feels strong and competent, pulling well in acceleration and hill climbing. The price is paid in gas mileage, though. The automatic transmission has a regular and a sport setting, though we were hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Honda now builds its own four-wheeler, the subcompact CR-V, but the Passport/Rodeo arrangement seems to be working well enough for both automakers. Isuzu also builds the big, boxy Trooper, part of the first wave of Japanese sport utes in the early '80s. Trooper, now a bit more tony, serves Honda's upscale Acura division as the SLX.

Some aspects of badge engineering might appear kind of unfair, but the Isuzu trucks are good enough to stand in as Hondasand Acuras. Shoppers just need to be aware of what they're really getting.

In the case of t he Pass port, it may not be engineered by Honda, but it is a pretty-nicely-turned-out Isuzu offered at a competitive price.

1998 Honda Passport

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport-utility vehicle, rear/four-wheel drive. Base price: $28,950. Price as tested: $29,584. Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 205 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, 214 pounds-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,926 pounds. Length: 184.1 inches. EPA fuel economy: 16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway. Highs: Competitive price. High comfort level. Decent performance. Lows: Generic styling. Poor gas mileage. Awkward tailgate.