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2020 Subaru Outback vs 2019 Honda Passport: Which Does a More Convincing SUV Impression?

Cars in SUV clothing face off in a battle to make their owners feel more adventurous.

Crossovers, for those who don't know the difference, are SUVs minus the worst qualities of hardcore 4x4s, resulting in car-based lookalikes with better interior packaging, handling, and efficiency. We often use the terms crossover and SUV interchangeably because, well, so do most people, and we can't lead every story about those vehicles with this little disclaimer. But when looking at the 2019 Honda Passport and the all-new 2020 Subaru Outback, it's worth delving into the crossover/SUV minutiae because that's what these two adventurous-looking, car-based not-SUVs are all about.

Can either the Passport or the Outback scamper in a Jeep Wrangler's tracks up the Rubicon trail? Likely not, but to the uninitiated, they look as though perhaps they could. Crossover? SUV? What's the difference if they both have copious amounts of black plastic body armor, all-wheel drive, and seemingly high ground clearance? And that's really the whole point. Honda and Subaru are hoping the Passport and Outback give their owners the same wispy sense of Millenial adventurousness that comes with donning a Patagonia raincoat or living in a tiny house off the grid. Never mind if you never actually go hiking in a drizzle or if that micro-Airbnb has electricity and running water—you feel out there, man, even in the Trader Joe's parking lot.

Specs and Details: Passport vs. Outback

The Honda Passport was new for 2019, but it's not really new. Instead, it's a shorter version of the three-row, mid-size Pilot that's been on sale since 2016. The two Hondas share a common 111.0-inch wheelbase, and from the B-pillar forward they're nearly identical; in back, the Passport's tail is bobbed 6.5 inches, and it does not offer a third-row seat. Honda actually charges customers $340 more for a Passport than it does for a Pilot, mostly because the former comes with more equipment out of the gate and wears more rugged body cladding. Yep, that's a style tax right there.

Interestingly, the Passport name is borrowed from an Isuzu-based 4x4 Honda sold in the '90s, which had real off-road cred. Today's Passport is, as we mentioned, a car-based crossover that shares bones with the Odyssey minivan. It even comes standard with front-wheel drive and uses the same 280-hp V-6 as the Pilot. Obviously, if buyers wish their Passports to somewhat live up to the image, they'll need to option theirs up with Honda's Intelligent Variable Torque Management (i-VTM4) all-wheel drive. The system is more impressive than your typical mall marauder's, with real torque vectoring on the rear axle (up to 100 percent of the engine torque sent to the rear axle can be directed to a single rear wheel), and an ability to freewheel the rear axle to save fuel on the freeway. Plus, opting for AWD ups the Passport's ground clearance to a decent 8.1 inches (from 7.5 inches on the FWD models). Our test vehicle was a 2019-model-year Passport Elite with AWD, which stickered for $43,680.

Subaru's Outback is a familiar presence. The nameplate represents the best-selling station wagon in America by far, even if the new-for-2020 model stretches tall enough to be considered a crossover. Study the Outback's profile closely, and you'll notice that between its roof rails and some other detailing that attempts to lengthen the body's appearance into something wagon-like, its boxy greenhouse looks as SUV-ish as a Forester's or Ascent's. And with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the Subie actually steps higher over obstacles than the Passport. So, it's either a crossover impersonating an SUV, or a wagon impersonating a crossover—either way, the design includes liberal helpings of the body cladding, tall ride height, and lovey-dovey Subaru brand image that made its predecessors so popular.

The Outback's mechanical package is straightforward, combining standard all-wheel drive with a 182-hp 2.5-liter flat-four engine and a continuously variable automatic transmission. Our $37,750 2020 Outback XT Onyx Edition test vehicle came with the up-level 260-hp 2.4-liter flat-four engine, which is shared with the larger three-row Subaru Ascent. The all-wheel-drive system isn't as fancy as the Passport's, but it does have Subaru's X-Mode programming built-in, meaning it can sort out slippery surfaces such as snow, mud, or dirt using front-to-rear torque splits and brake-based traction scrambling. The Outback also has hill descent control for managing downhill speeds off-road, something the Honda lacks.

Real World Driving: Outback vs. Passport

We didn't take either of these pseudo-SUVs off-road, really, but past experiences with both suggest they can handle slightly more challenging terrain than, say, your average soft-roader. Again, both the Passport and the Outback do a far better job of looking as if they're overcome by the spirit of adventure than actually delivering that on unmarked trails.

On paved surfaces, where the majority of real-world Passports and Outbacks will spend all of their time, the more carlike Subaru is our favorite. It is no sports car, nor does it evoke any of Subaru's rally heritage in its moves, but the ride is smooth and quiet and the handling feels secure without undue body motion. The Honda, interestingly, is far less discombobulated than its larger Pilot sibling, exhibiting fairly buttoned-down suspension behavior; the tradeoff is a slightly firmer ride than you get in the Pilot. Also, the Passport's V-6 feels as taxed here as it does in the Pilot; the crossover isn't slow, necessarily, but the Subaru's turbo four and general sense of lightness combine to give it a peppier feel.

Interior Quality & Space: Passport vs. Outback

Neither the Honda nor the Subaru are lacking for interior room. Both are large for two-row vehicles and offer plenty of space for humans and cargo. The Passport is slightly bigger, owing to its extra height, delivering 115 cubic feet of passenger volume and 41 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat. The Outback isn't far behind, with 105 cubes of interior space and 33 cubic feet of cargo room. There is limo-like stretch-out space in both vehicles' rear seats, although we found the Outback's to be comfier.

The Outback is altogether more interesting and luxurious inside than the Passport, too, although that isn't saying much. Remember, the Honda is basically a Pilot—meaning its plain-Jane dashboard was seemingly designed knowing the front-seat occupants would either be always staring at the road or turned around tending to screaming, drink-spilling children. Why make it exciting?

Even though the Outback's exterior styling is evolutionary, the interior is leaps and bounds better than before. There is a new, optional 11.6-inch touchscreen that's vertically arrayed like the also-TV-sized display in Tesla's Model S. We found it easy to use for one-layer-deep tasks such as changing audio settings or using navigation, mostly because it separates infotainment and climate controls on-screen. And Subaru mercifully retains physical volume and tuning knobs, which flank the display along with physical temperature up/down buttons for the dual-zone HVAC. Our Touring trim-level test vehicle also benefitted from Nappa leather seats.

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So Which is Best, Passport or Outback?

If we had to give an edge to either of these not-SUVs in terms of implying off-road-readiness, it'd have to go to the Subaru. Perhaps because Subaru has pulled the wool over our eyes with its dirt-road commercials filled with dogs or whatever, we're biased to think of it as outdoorsy, whereas the Honda simply looks like a regular ol' mid-size crossover with black-painted wheels. The Subaru is less expensive, too, starting at $27,655 to the Honda's $33,110 (and that's for the front-drive model!). The least-expensive all-wheel-drive Passport starts at $35,110.

Between the Subaru's apparent readiness to accept canine companions—yep, their damn marketing definitely got to us—as well as roof rack attachments for cargo boxes, bike mounts, and the like, it is the better SUV faker—at least when it comes to projecting an adventurous image. That it does so with no downsides and being smooth driving, classy inside, roomy, and relatively affordable is simply cladding on its body of work.