If your Ford had a Matthew McConaughey, it would be a Lincoln

Preparing for a New Automotive Chapter

I am shopping for a capable camping vehicle. The current contenders are the 2019 Honda Passport, 2020 Subaru Outback, and . . . . maybe a Toyota 4Runner.

The short story is that my reality is likely to be forest roads with mildly nasty ditches and gullies across the roads, divots/potholes/bumps/low rocks, and some odd terrain when parking at a campsite. My fantasy had been being able to tackle the Trans America Trail someday expedition-style, and do OHV park type exploration. The odds of that are low in the foreseeable future for a variety of reasons, and should the opportunity arise, I’ll probably just need to then acquire a more robust expedition vehicle, because (spoiler alert) I’m not likely to get a 4Runner.

The Backstory

I have found that my competitive part of my personality has been overwhelming the fun aspects of autocross. I may or may not “retire” from autocross, but at the least I decided to go camping and hiking more, targeting once per month. I did go out in early August, which was fun.

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I also went for a hike with my wife on Labor Day weekend. This involved driving on a forest road to the hike . . . and barely made it up one rutted gravel hill, denting my rocker panel in the process (see image at bottom of post).

I pointed out to my wife that this was why I had been wanting an SUV for camping and hiking trips, although I still wanted my GTI as a daily driver. I had been considering a less than $10,000 Toyota 4Runner as a third car, but my wife really doesn’t like the idea of a third car sitting around. (This third car resistance was part of the problem with my pursuit of a C5 Z06 Corvette that some of you may remember.)

During the last week of September we took our annual fall vacation week of doing daily hikes in the Shining Rock Wilderness in Pisgah National Forest. After speaking during that time about my commitment to getting outdoors more, my wife understood how serious I was about this. As we drove home from our vacation she said that she would be okay with replacing her car with a 4Runner. I was very excited.

However, this radically changed what that vehicle would be. It would no longer be totally my toy, cheap enough to beat up, no big deal to modify for theoretical future overlanding trips that probably won’t happen. Instead, I quickly learned that the minimum expectations that she had were much higher than mine. In summary, she did not want to go “backwards” technologically from her 2014 Mazda3.

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The Contenders

This new paradigm for SUV shopping meant that sitting in a 2019 4Runner Off-Road Premium (the car that I would have been delighted to buy new just a couple of weeks before) was disappointing to her because it did not have push button start or keyless entry. Or driver’s seat memory.

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At least it had heated seats.

So it has become a question of 2019 Honda Passport vs. 2020 Subaru Outback vs. 2020 Toyota 4Runner.

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Minimum Criteria

Our basic (combined) minimum criteria:

  1. Keyless/door handle entry
  2. Push button start
  3. Heated front seats
  4. About 77 inches from tailgate to front seat with fairly flat cargo floor (ruling out most 3 row SUVs) so that I can sleep in the car at trailheads if need be. This has the added benefit of enough room for luxurious tenting cargo for two humans and our canine god.
  5. Rear HVAC vent for the canine.
  6. All-wheel or four wheel drive
  7. More than 7 inches of ground clearance.
  8. Blind spot/rear-cross traffic alert (this one is kind of on the bubble as a requirement, but still a bit more than a strong preference).
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We have a strong preference for a driver’s memory seat since we will swap out drivers on this car very regularly and have a 10 inch height difference. However, this is not a deal-breaker, as we have survived without for many years.

Photo of Handa R&D Team Passport fom the Southern Ohio Forest Rally (http://www.hondaresearch.com/article.php?s=2019-07-18-passport-rallies-as-fan-favorite)
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2019 Honda Passport (EX-L, probably)

I have learned that the new super-advanced safety features are sensitive to ride height, although apparently they can be re-calibrated after changes. Either way, it will be best to turn all of that stuff off when off the typical road . . . so it would be good to have an easy way to do this. From what I can tell, the Honda Passport has a bunch of buttons to the left of the steering column to do this, and I hope that they are comprehensive.

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For off-road capability, I’m tempted to base this on ride height. However, there is a concern about approach and departure angles, as well as breakover angles. Some forest roads have steep ditches or crests, and some pull-offs for camping spots have ditches in the way, and I’d like to increase my options.

The 2019 Honda Passport has a very good claimed 8.1 inches of ground clearance, 21.4 degree approach angle, 27.7 degree departure angle, and 17.3 degree breakover angle. It is 78.6 inches wide.

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It has an annoying push button gear selector, but has physical HVAC control. It appears to have a very good AWD system with four settings (including normal) that apparently will work while blasting along forest roads at speed, but no hill-descent control. The styling is bland. It comes with ridiculous 20-inch wheels with low-profile tires, and I’ve already told my wife that part of the potential purchase price will be acquiring 18 inch wheels and associated tires . . . like the Pilot comes with, and these are the same vehicle, basically. This might resolve the slightly stiff ride some reviewers mention (Honda really should offer an optional wheel package). Room inside is good, nice V6 engine, and decent approach and departure angles.

2020 Subaru Outback Onyx XT with aftermarket wheels. Swiped from user “bartomoleo” on SubaruOutback.org
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2020 Subaru Outback (Onyx XT, probably)

The 2020 Subaru Outback has a generous claimed 8.7 inches of clearance, but worst in my list 18.6 degree approach angle, 21.7 degree departure angle. Good 19.4 degree breakover angle. It is 73 inches wide.

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The Outback also has a fancy traction control system called X-Mode, with a special version on the Onyx models that has TWO modes of X-mode. It does have hill-descent control. The X-mode only works under 25 mph, it seems. Edmunds claims in the list of features that the Onyx XT doesn’t have rear HVAC vent, but I thought when I looked at one on the lot that it did (base model doesn’t). If it doesn’t, then the Onyx fails to meet the minimum criteria

No trim offers rain sensing wipers, even while is has high beam light assist, lane-keeping, etc., which I find disappointing. But I would get over it.

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Also, the Onyx has “StarTex” urethane seat cover material, and one or two early forum users say that this material may make one sweaty in warm weather. Sweatier than leather/fake leather in similar conditions? I’ll have to see what me and the wife think of them in person, they could be great for us, actually. Also, apparently the navigation function isn’t the greatest, but also is avoidable with Google maps or Waze on a connected phone.

We could bump up to a Limited XT, but then it would lose a bit of the offroading features and the “StarTex” upholstery, but also the blacked out wheels, which I could do without anyway.

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All the road-keeping tech is supposed to work better in the Subie than in the Passport, but that’s not critical for me.

The Outback should be a clear winner with fuel economy, but I have heard that real-world is often lower. I’m a bit nervous about Subaru quality, and I don’t like that the HVAC is mostly via screen with few physical buttons. I’m really disappointed by how far out the nose extends, significantly affecting how fast I can go through rough roads. But it should handle the best.

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Recent fifth generation Toyota 4Runner living the dream. Image swiped from user “jafrush” on toyota-4runner.org

2020 (or 2019?) Toyota 4Runner (TRD Off-Road Premium, maybe?)

This is what started me down this road. I wanted to have the option to off-road with Jeep-like challenges. But that capability comes with a lack of . . . a lot of things.

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The 2020 Toyota 4Runner has 9.6 inches of ground clearance, 33 degree approach angle, 26 degree departure angle, no claimed breakover angle. It is 75.8 inches wide.

It also drives like a truck. I kind of miss that from my 2001 Ford Ranger, but it is not a benefit in urban driving when I regularly have to do quick lane changes or stops due to fellow road warriors.

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It is long enough to sleep inside - lots of people do. But it is made more difficult by the bottom cushions of the rear seats needing to flip forward to lay the seatbacks flat. Those bottom cushions then limit the length of flat space to less than my preference. This can be avoided by removing one side - I only need to take out two bolts. We could do that as we rarely transport humans in the back, but it isn’t ideal.

For some reason, even though Toyota can equip the 2020 4Runners with all of the active road-keeping technology, they otherwise haven’t updated the truck in 10-years, really. Next generation is supposed to be coming in 2022.

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This means only the Limited comes with many of the features on our requirements list, but without the reasonable wheels and locking diff, etc., that come on the TRD Off-Road Premium, kind of defeating the purpose of getting one. A 2020 versus 2019 does add push button start across all models, and I think door handle unlock. It also means the the tried-and-true, reliable engine and transmission combo are ancient, and along with the cool styling, combine to return fuel economy on a par with my old 4.0L Ranger. Which, at the end of it’s life, I hated it’s fuel guzzling ways. (I know, it could be worse, but, still.)

(I considered used options, since these are basically unchanged, but used examples lack the key comfort features, and apparently are plated with gold somewhere on the frame. Very pricey for condition/miles.)

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Where I stand with all of this

The Outback is likely the best handling and most fuel-efficient, but I’m worried about quality and actual capability on rough roads. It’s also new on lots, so not likely to be discounted much.

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The Passport may actually be the most down-the-middle with smart AWD, okay fuel economy, slightly better approach and departure angles, but it’s almost too big, especially at the point where I have to park it in an urban parking deck or take it down a narrow access road. And while it appears to be heavily discounted right now, bringing the likely price out the door of an EX-L in line with an Outback Onyx XT, I then would spend $1,500-$2,000 on wheels and tires to get started.

The 4Runner is cool, but basically old and inefficient on space and fuel. While I like the potential it gives me, the reality is that 95% of the time it would be ill-suited to it’s daily chores. I still want it, which is why Toyota can get away with packaging and pricing it the way it does. The pricing is high, although if we gave up even more items on our required list, we could be in a 2019 for maybe a good price as they are clearing them out.

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So, the plan is to test drive all three with my wife this weekend, back-to-back. This will likely rule out the 4Runner finally and hopefully clarify Passport or Outback, which I flip back and forth on almost daily.

Any constructive input is welcome. To be continued (doggo for your time).

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Image source: Me. Dented rocker panel on the GTI, one needs to be looking for it to see it normally.

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