Possibly the adage being embraced around American Honda Motor Co. these days is “better late than never.”

For the first time in company history Honda has entered the highly competitive sport/utility market.

It has introduced a vehicle called the 1994 Passport. As sport/utility models go, the Passport follows tried and proven design criteria, plus a short cut to getting the thing into dealer’s hands.

The Passport is manufactured for Honda by Subaru-Isuzu Automotive near Lafayette, Ind., and is a derivative of the Isuzu Rodeo.

“With Honda’s name-brand loyalty,” said Joel Pitman, general manager for Dan Young Honda, “it’s creating a lot of interest. This opens up a new market for us, and it is a market that is booming.”

Honda’s first entry into the SUV (sport/utility vehicle) arena is a rugged piece of equipment designed to fulfill the manufacturer’s promise of being able to go anywhere. Available in four different models and with a variety of engine and drive-train configurations, the Passport falls into the compact category with one of the longest wheelbases (108.5 inches) for this class.

The vehicle is strongly oriented toward off-road use in four-wheel-drive form. But whether in two-wheel or four-wheel drive, it fits a lifestyle of either urban use or going up the side of the mountain.

The Passport has five doors — four doors plus a tailgate — and is being produced in DX, LX and EX series. The DX is the entry level and the EX is top of the line.

The overall design is fairly standard stuff, what with the body mounted on a separate frame, torsion-bar independent front suspension and live rear axle with semi- elliptical springs. Nothing really revolutionary here. Just basic good engineering with everything made as strong as a bridge.

The Passport has a minimum of eight inches of ground clearance that gets it across those off- road gulleys, humps and mud pits. You really need to drive all four wheels to do this, of course. So owners contemplating such use are relegated to the LX or EX models.

The DX is available only with two-wheel drive, the EX only with four-wheel drive. With an LX you have your choice of either two-wheel or four-wheel drive, with all vehicles having the same wheelbase and overall length.

As you go upscale, however, bring your money. A Passport EX with four-speed automatic and 16-inch wheel package is $25,600, just about $10,000 more than a DX with a five-speed manual, the only way it comes.

One of the features on which the Passport concentrates is power. Offered is a 2.6- liter four-cylinder engine in the entry-level DX. For heavy-duty work, the vehicle goes to a 3.2-liter aluminum-alloy V-6.

This V-6 is a fairly high-tech 24-valve motor. It utilizes but a single overhead camshaft (per bank) to actuate the four valves per cylinder, but it has a 75-degree angled V block to minimize vibration. Power output is 175 horsepower versus 120 for the four-cylinder.

You cannot shift the Passport from two-wheel to four- wheel drive “on the fly.” To engage four-wheel drive, it’s necessary to stop the vehicle and put it into Neutral or Park.

Then the driver selects a 4H mode for traction at normal driving speeds of up to 50 miles an hour on slippery surfaces like rain or snow, or 4L, which gives low-gear reduction for pulling in sand or mud. The Passport isn’t meant to be a high- speed sport/utility in four-wheel-drive mode.

It’s meant to be a very comfortable sport/utility with an interior that is functional and roomy.

The DX has a bench-type front seat with a center fold-down armrest. The LX and EX models have reclining bucket seats. The rear seats are bench-type on all models.

All models also have a full complement of gauges. The three- spoke steering wheel is adjustable on LX and EX vehicles, and is leather- wrapped on the EX. The EX also has individual map lights in the headliner and a passenger-side vanity mirror.

For those vehicles equipped with automatic transmission, a Winte r/Power status display is set into the top edge of the instrument panel, with display lights indicating the mode engaged.

“I expect to have a complete range of models on the grounds by the end of February,” Pitman said. “And I’m anticipating with the Honda name we’ll achieve market penetration that otherwise might not occur.”

Passport DX Model year: 1994.Base price: $15,660.Type: Front engine, rear-wheel drive, six-passenger, sport/utility vehicle.Engine: 2.6 liters, SOHC 4, 8 valves, fuel-injected, 120 horsepower, 150 foot-pounds of torque.Transmission: Five-speed manual.Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds.Mileage: 16 mpg city/20 mpg highway.Wheelbase: 108.5 inches.Length: 176.5 inches.Width: 66.5 inches.Height: 65.5 inches.Curb weight: 3,545 pounds.Options: Limited slip differential, P245/70R16 tires, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, splash guards, flared wheelwell mouldings.

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