Payne: It's not flashy, but the Honda Passport is practical, roomy and comfortable

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The last time I took a road trip to South Haven, I was testing a Honda Civic Coupe. It was a nimble, athletic hatchback with polarizing styling that looked like it was designed by a 16-year-old. I couldn’t wait to get some laps on it at Gingerman Raceway, where we had a blast.

This summer I returned to South Haven in a Honda Passport. We never set foot on track.

The Passport is Honda’s entry into the mid-size SUV class occupied by stylish badges like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. Its demographic is a different generation from the Civic Coupe. If the Civic is the first car for 20-somethings who’ve flown the nest, then the Passport is for 40-something empty-nesters who want SUV utility — but with more pizzazz than a three-row family bus.

The Passport and Civic Coupe bookend the enormous demographic that Honda covers today.

Life's a beach. But the 2019 Honda Passport is for couples whose kids have flown the coop.

While the Civic Coupe shares its bones with other Honda hellions like the Si and winged Type R, the Passport is stablemate to the three-row Pilot SUV and Ridgeline pickups. Passport has picked up traits from both.

Five miles down the road from Gingerman — and a million miles away in lifestyle — is The Fields glamping resort. Glamping as in “glamorous camping," Passport’s natural habitat.

Think of the Passport as a Glampilot. Glamorous Pilot.

After a cross-state, day’s journey in Passport’s quiet Pilot-like interior, the Passport summoned its inner pickup and happily bounced up the dirt road to the blueberry farm on which The Fields campground is located.

South Haven’s Gingerman has long been a destination for motorheads like me who have a need for speed. It’s one of the Midwest’s safest tracks to exercise your race car or performance sedan. But The Fields is more in line with a South Haven better known as a magnet for Midwesterners wanting to spend a weekend sampling Lake Michigan wineries, sandy beaches and orange sunsets.

Glamping brings style to outdoor camping, with luxury tents lit by chandeliers. The Passport brings Honda practicality to stylish, midsize utes.

Typically, empty-nesters have come to the segment looking for more bling than soccer-mom practicality. The Edge and Chevy Blazer RS are the most outstanding examples of this: rolling sculptures with floating roofs and yuuuge grilles.

The 2019 Honda Passport features Apple CarPlay standard — which is a big help on long trips.

Or there’s the Jeep Grand Cherokee and its iconic, seven-slot grille. My personal segment favorite is the Edge, which combines chiseled beauty with a sporty ST trim that I might be tempted to take out on Gingerman to floor its mad 335-horse, twin-turbo V-6 (with shift paddles, natch).

The Passport is a wallflower compared to these Hollywood starlets.

Sure, my Passport tester layered on the mascara — black grille, black wheels, blacked-out pillars — and sported wild, jewel-eyed peepers that would make Elton John jealous. But wipe away the makeup and Passport is a boxy Pilot that's jacked up 1.6 inches for off-road cred.

Assuming packaging isn’t your top reason for purchase, the Passport’s strengths lie in good-old daily livability and value. In short, it’s a Honda — an obsessively passenger-friendly vehicle.

As butch as Passport appears outside, it will wow female buyers. There’s not a female SUV shopper that I haven’t preached Passport/Pilot/Ridgeline to.

Like its Honda stablemates, Passport forgoes the common tortoise-shell center console for a sliding shade. Combined with the space-saving electronic “trigger” shifter (You’ll get used to it; Corvette is adopting something similar), this gives the console bottom-less space, meaning a purse or computer tablet can fit down there.

Leave the sliding shade open and rummage in your purse for anything. Your days of purse-tossing on the passenger seat are over.

For smaller purses and other items, just keep the shade shut and throw 'em on top. During the course of our drive, Mrs. Payne and I tossed two phones, a purse and a Kleenex box there. Try doing that in any other vehicle.

On top of the center console’s dexterity, the Passport offers room for two cupholders and forward space that can hold and charge your phone.

The 2019 Honda Passport opens lots of rear space by flattening the second row (unlike the Pilot, there is no third row).

The Passport’s interior serves passengers well even if it’s not as stylish as competitors. My favorite interior in the segment belongs to the Chevy Blazer with its Camaro-like, adjustable aviation vents.

Passport controls look like, well, other Hondas with standard-issue tablet screen and digital instrument display. But like the console, its excellent ergonomics are all about the customer. Unlike the Chevy, Honda allows you to shut off the annoying stop-start feature where the engine internationally stalls at stoplights to gain credits for federal mpg nannies. Annoy you? Push the button.

The Honda soundly beats its Detroit Three competitors in cargo space, a meaningful statistic as my wife and I dragged around two suitcases, two tennis bags and a cooler in our west-side trip.

But the Passport doesn’t stop there. A hidden cubby under the rear cargo floor provides separate storage for, say, muddy shoes or valuables. And the rear seats fold flat with the floor (unlike, ahem, the Edge) allowing you to easily slide in a bookcase.

There's value, too. Only the turbo-4-powered Hyundai Santa Fe — at $4,000 less than my comparably equipped Passport — is a better value in the segment. My Elite trim tester clocked in at $44,000, competitive with the turbo-4-powered Ford Edge.

But compared to V-6 powered competitors Blazer and Grand Cherokee, the Passport is thousands of dollars less. When I put my foot into the Passport’s strong, throaty, 280-horse six-cylinder, I even briefly felt a Civic-like urge to boogie.

The console on the 2019 Honda Passport is the best in ute-dom.

In this class of 4,000-pound-plus, all-wheel drive rhinos, the Passport handles better than most. With new entries from Honda and Chevy, the mid-size, empty-nest segment feels fresh. Yet, brand traits remain remarkably true.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee and its Trackhawk trim is the class-best dirt-kicker. The Edge’s ST macho and self-park technology are right out of the brand playbook. And like Chevy brothers Corvette and Camaro, the Blazer is the class athlete.

Passport’s ergonomic strengths are undeniable: roomy, powerful, comfortable, with an interior layout that never frustrates. The big ute lacked for nothing and excelled in everything.

Unless, of course, you want to take some laps around Gingerman Raceway. For that, you’ll need a different Honda.

The two-row 2019 Honda Passport is for empty-nesters with a sense of adventure — but in the same size vehicle as their family-sized, three-row Honda Pilot ute.

2019 Honda Passport

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: Base price $33,035, including $1,045 destination charge ($44,725 AWD Elite as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,237 pounds (AWD Elite as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 19 city/24 highway/21 combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Best storage console in the biz; eager V-6 mill

Lows: Wallflower looks; not as stylish inside as competitors 

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.