Honda’s Passport sport-utility vehicle is rolling proof that you can indeed mystify most of the people much of the time.
Pry off its badges. Remove the emblems. Recognize that tall, square-shouldered pounder of farmland, sod and the Santa Ana Freeway? Of course. It’s a naked Isuzu Rodeo.
Observers have frowned and wondered why Honda–manufacturer of the impeccable Accord, holder of enviable records for dealer efficiency and customer satisfaction–would bet its reputations on bald rebadging of a product from less prominent, narrowly specialized Isuzu.
The trick is that specialty.
Isuzu–builder of the perky Amigo and up-market Trooper–does trucks very, very well. It has a six-decade involvement in the building of buses and other commercial vehicles. The Isuzu Rodeo, first sold during the 1991 model year, is America’s hottest selling sport-utility import.
Honda builds cars to levels of sophistication and reliability that are world standards. It does not do trucks. Last year, however, a survey of Hondarians revealed that more than 14% wanted a sport-utility as their next vehicle.
With Japan’s economic present slowing faster than disc brakes, Honda had neither time nor billions to burn on developing a 4×4 of its own.
So it contracted with Isuzu for an initial purchase of 20,000 robust Rodeos that would be brushed here, tickled there, rebadged and sold as the Honda Passport.
“It was a good thing for us and a convenience for customers who can now buy a quality sport-utility without losing the relationship they enjoy with Honda dealerships,” Honda spokesman Chris Marshall explains. “We have 1,000 dealers while Isuzu has only 300. . . . Without putting Isuzu down, that’s the difference between driving 20 miles to an Isuzu dealer or driving only 10 miles to a Honda dealer.”
In theory, it’s a canny maneuver.
In practice, by jumping the gun Honda may have shot itself in the foot.
For no matter the badging, no matter the sleight of commerce and commercials trumpeting Honda’s entrance into the truck market, the company is still selling a 4-year-old sport-utility that’s on the downside of its design cycle.
Ford’s Explorer is a perennial bestseller. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is only in its second season and recently earned a Best Buy listing from Consumer Guide. All are within the Passport/Rodeo price range. And let’s not forget the Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy.
Against that formidable combination comes Honda Passport, which will strain brand loyalty to the limit.
Base price of an Isuzu Rodeo S is $14,969 for the 2WD, five-door wagon with a 120-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. The base Passport DX is identical to the Rodeo S but sells for $700 more.
Top of the Rodeo line is the LS 4WD with a 175-horsepower V-6 selling for $24,899. The halo Passport EX–same old same-o as the Rodeo LS–costs $1,700 mo re.
Passport comes with Honda’s three-year, 36,000-mile warranty. The Rodeo carries a tougher, three-year, 50,000-mile warranty.
Apart from a chromium “H” centered on the grille instead of “ISUZU,” and a body-colored D-pillar for the Passport versus a contrasting color on the rear column of a Rodeo, there are no important differences between the vehicles.
That means the 1994 Passport wears lines the Rodeo has been showing since 1991–a squared-off, retro and aging interior that never rose above almost-handsome when it was fresh.
The good news is that mechanically, from the pulling power of both engines, to suspension and handling that favors a passenger sedan ride, the rear-drive Rodeo always was one of the best.
Those qualities are transferred to the Passport. So are standard anti-lock brakes, power steering even on base models, a 4,500-pound towing capacity, four-speed automatic with a tamer setting for winter slipperies, and 35 cubic feet of cargo space expanding to 74 cubic feet with rear seats folded down.
Space, back and front, is close to throne room. The sedan ride is not so mushy that the Passport becomes a wallowing fool off-road. High range is good in crumbling dirt or slush up to 50 m.p.h. In low, it could pull a small condo from a deep sinkhole.
Acceleration is respectable, and storage space with the rear seats down is almost six feet long.
Switching modes to obtain four-wheel-drive, however, is an antediluvian pain in the gearbox.
Unlike most other sport-utilities, shifting is not on the fly. The Passport must be rolling at less than 5 m.p.h. before engaging 4WD. The only way to unhook 4WD is stop, reverse to disengage, then proceed in 2WD.
Rear access is equally awful.
First the spare wheel and vehicle-wide carrier must be unlatched and moved aside. Then the top window must be opened and raised. Now the rear tailgate can be pulled down and set flat. By this time you will have dropped two bags of groceries over your Nike Airs.
What these are, of course, are first edition flaws. Honda knows it. Isuzu has been listening to critics since 1991. And Isuzu is working on a second generation Rodeo that will address all shortcomings. Especially the shortage of air bags.
Until then, buying a Passport over a Rodeo remains an issue solely for those who examine labels before looking at the suit.
1994 Honda Passport EX
The Good Solid, athletic performance on and off road. Honda car aura surrounding Isuzu truck history. Roomy.
The Bad Rebadged, but not reconfigured. No air bags. Noshift-on-fly.
The Ugly 1991 dashboard.
Cost Base, and as tested, $26,600. (Includes automatic transmission, air conditioning, moon roof, rear anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels, adjustable steering, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cargo net, power windows and locks, cruise control, tachometer.)
Engine 3.2-liter V-6 developing 175 horsepower.
Type Five-door, five-passenger 4WD sport utility.
Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 12 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 110 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 15 and 18 m.p.g.
Curb Weight 3,545 pounds.