Subaru’s best seller vs. Honda’s latest adventurer: We examine the most off-road-oriented versions of each
In a vehiclescape increasingly dominated by high-riding crossovers that mostly just haul folks around on pavement, it’s fun to zoom in on the few that still pretend to serve the outdoorsy mission the genre was created for in the first place. For 25 years people have been taking Subaru Outbacks out to the back of beyond. Sure, the Outback started life as a mildly hiked up wagon and no, it never featured butch rock-crawling gear like a ladder frame or live axles, but these days it offers 8.7 inches of ground clearance, standard all-wheel drive, a National Parks infotainment app, and an Onyx XT trim grade boasting a front-view camera for spotting the immediate obstacles ahead, a full-size spare, and an exclusive Dual-Mode X-Mode drive program that adds settings for deep-snow and mud or dirt and sand conditions to facilitate family adventuring. Honda’s key competitor in this space, the Passport, once did feature a ladder frame and live rear axle (all of which was designed and built for Honda by Isuzu), but returns to market sporting Subaru’s same essential unibody multi-link formula. Which is the more enticing new entry? We examined both at the 2019 New York auto show to find out.
All Outback Onyx XTs get a 2.4-liter turbo flat-4 good for 260 hp and 277 lb-ft, routing all that twist through a CVT. CVTs by nature are pretty good at optimizing the ratio for any given situational demand for performance or fuel economy.
Passports all get Honda’s 3.5-liter V-6, which trumps the Subie’s power by 20 horses, while ceding 15 lb-ft on the torque side. Comparing the similar Touring trim grade, the Passport weighs about 150 pounds (68 kg) more, giving it a very slight advantage in weight-to-power, and a slight disadvantage in weight-to-torque. Even so, the fact that its nine-speed automatic has a 42-percent broader ratio spread (shorter first- and taller top-gear ratios), we’re calling the drag race in Passport’s favor.
The aforementioned 150-pound (68-kg) weight advantage and slightly shorter (2.9 inches) wheelbase bodes in Subaru’s favor here, as does its lower overall height (by more than 6 inches).
The Passport counters with a wider track (by 4.9 inches in front, 3.9 inches in back) and considerably fatter, lower-profile tires—265/45R20s versus the Subaru’s 225/60R18s. This one’s too close to call.
The Subaru turbo achieves EPA city/highway/combined ratings of 23/30 mpg (10.2/7.8 L/100 km) city/highway, which suggest an overall range of about 550 miles (885 km) of range from its 18.5-gallon tank at the highway figure.
The all-wheel-drive Passport’s 19/24 mpg (12.4/9.8 L/100 km) rating and 19.5 gallon tank mean you’ll need to stop 100 miles (160 km) sooner. Clear advantage: Outback.
Rated for 3,500 pounds (1,587 kg), the Outback isn’t Subaru’s designated tow-er. Its bigger sibling, the three-row Ascent can lug 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg).
Honda rates both the Passport and the three-row Pilot capable of towing 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) (with AWD and the towing package—front-drivers get a 3,500-pound (1,587-kg) rating). Advantage Passport.
The Outback Onyx enjoys a slight (0.6-inch) ground-clearance advantage over the Passport, and by comparison with the Passport’s T165/80D17 donut the Outback’s full-size spare greatly improves the odds of completing or retreating back down whatever trail proves tough enough to pop a tire. The lighter weight is a plus, narrower dimensions minimize brush pinstriping, and that Dual-Mode X-Mode system’s terrain optimization should at least match the capability of the Passport’s four-position off-road mode.
In the Passport’s favor is a much lower first gear for precision crawling (4.1 mph/1,000 rpm versus the Subaru’s 6.2), greater approach and departure angles (21.4 versus 18.6 degrees on approach, 27.6 versus 21.7 degrees on departure). But for the type of off-roading we reckon owners in this class are likely to tackle, we’re calling this one for the Outback.
Accommodating Adventure Gear
Here, the result depends on how many people need to ride along with the gear. If it’s just you and your co-pilot, the difference is minimal, with Subaru’s 75.7 cubic feet trailing the Passport by a barely noticeable 2.0 cubic feet and both offering just over 6 feet of flat load floor length. Another big plus in the Subie column is the roof rack. Those tubular bars you see can pivot across the roof and bolt down to form the cross bars needed to mount all manner of bins or racks for skis, kayaks, bikes, etc. Honda sells the crossbars as an extra-cost accessory that may end up stored in the garage when you want to make an impulse purchase. Both vehicles offer seatback releases in the cargo area (electric on the Honda, mechanical on the Subie), and both permit hands-free hatch opening (by foot under the bumper in the Passport, and by waving an elbow or whatever at the Subaru’s Pleiades emblem on the hatch). Subaru introduces a cargo shade that you can bump with a box or elbow to make it rise up to the top of the hatch opening for ease of loading (this feature is new to Subaru).
With the rear seatbacks up, the Honda’s wider, taller cargo area means it trumps the Subaru’s 32.5 cubic feet by a noticeable 26.8 percent (8.7 cubic feet). And that mini-spare donut leaves room for a 7-inch deep under-floor bin that measures 42 by 11 inches. With each vehicle offering a 12-volt outlet in the way back, along with cargo tie-downs and bag hooks, we’re calling this one a tie, which you can break based on whether seats-up or seats-down space is most important and how eager you are to use the roof rack.
The Outback manages to deliver 1.9 inches more front legroom than the Passport, but in every other interior dimension there’s no getting around the fact that the Subaru is 5.6 inches narrower, 6.1 inches lower, and rides on a 2.9-inch shorter wheelbase. The very fact that the headroom is within 0.9 to 1.8 inches and the shoulder and hip width dimensions measure within 2.5-4.5 inches of the Passport’s figures speaks to greater space efficiency in the Outback’s doors, seats, and headliner.
Still, the Passport provides 3.7 cubic feet more front and 5.4 cubic feet more rear passenger space. Truthfully, these differences are all pretty academic except when you’re carrying three adults in the rear seat, at which point they’ll be much happier riding in the Honda. Advantage Passport.
Features and Amenities
The 11.6-inch vertical tablet screen that controls practically everything in the Outback makes quite an impression and gives the Subaru a going-in edge in terms of cool factor, though we look forward to seeing how intuitively it works. Want to play a CD? The Subie’s Harman Kardon system offers such a slot (in the center console), and it appears to just barely trump the Honda’s jams with 576 watts pumped through 12 speakers (relative to the uplevel Honda’s 550 watts and 10 speakers). Concerned about getting wet and muddy before the ride home? Outback Onyx owners need not worry, as their upholstery is a waterproof polyurethane that manages to look upscale, especially in the two-tone gray with bright green stitching.
Meanwhile the Passport bests the Subaru in USB charging power, with its two rear USB A ports rated at 2.5 amps to the Subaru’s 2.1. (Both cars have two front USBs too, one of which is an infotainment connection). The top Passports get a fully electronic gauge cluster that looks fancier than Subaru’s twin analog gauges flanking a driver info display. Top Passports give rear seat passengers their own electronic HVAC controls. Pretty cool, but that screen wins Outback the nod here.
Subaru makes its EyeSight advance driver assistance system standard on all Outbacks, with adaptive cruise control and lane centering included. A new DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation system warns against drowsy driving. Crash protection is also said to improve with the new body absorbing 40 percent more energy in front/side crashes than the outgoing model, which already achieved a Top Safety Pick + rating from the IIHS and five stars in every NHTSA category except rollover, where it got four.
Meanwhile all Honda Passports get the Honda Sensing suite of driver assist and collision warning/mitigation systems as well, full LED headlights. To date the Passport has not yet been tested by the IIHS, and NHTSA has only tested it for frontal (four stars) and side (five stars) impact. For this reason primarily, the nod here must go to the Outback.
Well, on paper the Subie wins four categories, the Honda three, with two ties. Stay tuned for a proper dynamic comparison as soon as Subarus become available.