Blame the pandemic or Instagram: People are frequently looking for outdoor action, and they want sharp-looking vehicles with some off-road capability. That’s why the 2022 Honda Passport TrailSport and the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness are here. Honda and Subaru tired of seeing customers going to aftermarket shops for suspension lifts and adventure-ready looks, so they each created their own versions straight from the factory. The Outback Wilderness has beefier tires and more off-road hardware than the Passport TrailSport, and the Honda has better approach, breakover, and departure angles. Both vehicles used their mainstream, street-oriented variants as their base, with added equipment to make them look meaner and perform better off-road. The big question: How do the unibody-construction Honda and Subaru perform against body-on-frame SUVs like the 2022 Toyota 4Runner, one of the most popular off-roaders on the market?
We packed our bags, dusted off our recovery equipment, and headed to Big Bear, one of Southern California’s most popular ski resorts and home to dozens of trails. For two days we crossed multiple puddles, traversed more than 30 miles of rugged terrain, and drove more than 100 miles on pavement. We based this comparison around both on- and off-road performance, value, safety and fuel economy. Yes, we know people buy these SUVs with their off-pavement utility in mind, but that still accounts for a fraction of the miles they drive.
Before you vent about us comparing a wagon, a crossover, and a body-on-frame SUV, here’s our reasoning: All three vehicles compete in the same midsize SUV segment in our Ultimate Car Rankings, and these specific models have similar prices. People will cross-shop them.
The Toyota 4Runner TRD Sport checks in at $43,540, but our test vehicle came with options that raised its price to $47,435. With its two-speed transfer case, 20-inch wheels, and street tires, this 4Runner is tailored for the road, but it has the bones to go anywhere.
Although Honda’s Passport TrailSport doesn’t have 4×4 traction, it comes with a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system and a more efficient and powerful V-6 engine compared to the 4Runner. These traits are not exclusive to the TrailSport, but the off-road variant has 18-inch wheels and all-season tires with more aggressive shoulder tread, along with a fake skidplate. The lack of off-road hardware is evident, so it’s fair to ask if our test car’s $44,090 is justified.
Subarus have long resonated with outdoor enthusiasts, but the Wilderness subbrand takes that to the next level. The Outback Wilderness is the first model to wear the special badge, and it comes with real off-road tires, 9.5 inches of ground clearance, and front skidplates to tackle the trails. Starting at $38,370, our model added a moonroof, navigation, and reverse automatic braking, for an as-tested price of $40,215—the best features-per-dollar value in this group of test vehicles.
On The Trail
Surrounded by big conifer trees and beautiful vistas, Big Bear turns into a ski resort in the winter and a camping, cycling, and hiking hot spot in the spring and summer. The trails we drove were mostly dirt roads, and they proved to be troublesome for the Outback and Passport.
After driving through a couple of mud puddles—one of which was rather deep—we clogged the radiator on both the Outback and Passport, which cut off the air conditioning and eventually sent overheating warning messages asking us to pull over. However, the warning messages didn’t appear until the next day, when the mud—along with low cruising speeds—meant the radiator wasn’t receiving much air flow. Still, this type of trail driving isn’t out of the ordinary, and it’s something we expected the two crossovers to handle.
That wasn’t the only issue. The Subaru’s front-passenger wheelwell liner came off after we hit a small ditch at medium speed, and the front bumper dislocated when crossing the puddles—proof its lowest-in-test approach angle requires taking extra care. The Passport, on the other hand, suffered a flat after a small, sharp rock struck a tire sidewall. Honda sent us a replacement, but even the TrailSport (the most off-road-capable Passport) doesn’t come with a full-size spare, which meant we had to leave the trail carefully while riding on a donut.
The 4Runner, however, was as strong as an ox. We only engaged 4High once to go through a steep incline, and we covered most of the trail in rear-drive mode. Its overall capability was superior, tackling the same obstacles as the other two with no issues. Its best-in-test ground clearance and approach, breakover, and departure angles kept it free of any rocks or dirt, and its tires didn’t suffer any punctures. “For as old and trucky as it is, the 4Runner has a wonderful charm to it,” features editor Scott Evans said. “It’s so easy to see why owners love them and people keep buying them despite how outdated they’re becoming. It always feels capable and confident.”
On the other hand, what the Toyota brings to the trail, it lacks on the road. Its body-on-frame architecture makes its ride bouncy on city streets and highways, and body roll is significant on twisty roads. Brake dive is also quite noticeable. Its street tires help with the ride and keep its cabin relatively quiet, but the suspension doesn’t absorb undulations as well as you might wish.
Conversely, the Passport and Outback shine here. The advantage of unibody architecture translates into a composed ride, with the Honda feeling superior. Despite its larger shape, the Passport feels like a smaller SUV, and its light steering and little body roll give it an edge over the Subaru. Although the Outback’s smaller proportions help its behavior on twisty roads, the off-road tires sacrifice its ride quality.
The Passport feels the fastest on the road. Its 3.5-liter V-6 engine makes 280 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque and has more oomph than the 4Runner’s 270-hp 4.0-liter V-6. Both models deliver the same torque, though the Honda’s nine-speed transmission sends power to the wheels in better fashion and feels more modern than the Toyota’s aging five-speed. “The 4Runner’s transmission doesn’t have enough gears,” senior editor Aaron Gold said. “Its weight notwithstanding, it should be a lot zippier given its big, torquey engine.”
To our surprise, the Outback was quickest in our 0-60 and quarter-mile tests, completing the tasks in 6.1 seconds and 14.7 seconds at 96.1 mph, respectively. Its 2.4-liter turbo-four makes 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, but its continuously variable transmission holds it back on the road or trail. Press the throttle down, and the engine soars to high revs, but the lack of low-end torque is evident. Subaru made changes to the Wilderness’ transmission to prevent this, though behind the wheel it feels like there’s a huge delay. “You press the pedal, the engine revs up, nothing happens, then suddenly, the CVT changes ratios and the car lunges forward,” Evans said. “It’s frustrating to drive around town and even worse on a trail when you need precise power application.”
The interior is another place where the 4Runner falls short. Like its five-speed gearbox, the interior is past its prime years, and it has antiquated controls and technology for its price. The lack of automatic air conditioning, for instance, is inexplicable for a car priced in the mid-$40,000 range, and its infotainment needs a deep refresh. We’re pleased Toyota at least updated the 4Runner to equip it with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but we wish it redesigned the entire center dashboard for better ergonomics. Despite the wide cabin, it’s difficult to find a secure place to leave your phone. The cupholder locations are weird (one is by the shifter, and the other by the center armrest), and the knobs for A/C and the transfer case take up a lot of space in the center stack.
The Subaru’s cabin feels modern and contemporary, but its tabletlike 11.6-inch touchscreen is frustrating to use. The display houses a lot of soft buttons—from A/C controls to driving modes—but the software is difficult to operate, as some functions are hidden deep in menus. And although we like the vertical look of CarPlay, the menu icons are too small and low on the screen. We do appreciate the premium fake leather seats and yellow details and stitching throughout the cabin—a Wilderness exclusive feature.
Other than the TrailSport logos stitched into the Honda’s front headrests, orange stitching throughout, and all-season floormats, the Passport’s cabin is just like any other model. Its 8.0-inch touchscreen adds CarPlay and Android Auto, and although the infotainment package isn’t the best on the market, it is the best one of this group. We’re not huge fans of the button-activated shifter, but it liberates space in the center console. The Passport also adds tri-zone automatic climate control and a powered tailgate (like the Outback).
Safety, Fuel Efficiency, and Value
The 4Runner is by far the least efficient SUV in this group. Mainly hit by its old architecture and powertrain, the Toyota delivers 16/19/17 mpg in city/highway/combined driving. The Passport returns 19/24/21 mpg, while the Outback shines with its 22/26/24 mpg.
The safety story is mostly the same. Toyota has updated the 4Runner multiple times since its launch 13 years ago, but its old chassis can’t support the newest safety technologies. Our test model came equipped with dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert, automatic high-beams, and a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection—a list far shorter than that of Toyota’s newest vehicles. The Outback and Passport, both of which have platforms developed in the past six years or so, come standard with safety technologies packaged under the Subaru Eyesight and Honda Sensing names, respectively. Both add adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and automatic emergency braking at no cost. We prefer Honda’s system, as the Outback beeps at virtually anything—even when the vehicle is centered within its lane.
In terms of value, the Toyota again loses some ground. “As good as the 4Runner is off-road, it’s hard to overlook the fact it is thousands of dollars more expensive, has basically no options or features, gets horrendous fuel economy, has the lowest crash test scores of the trio, and drives the worst on-road,” Evans said. The Outback Wilderness and Passport TrailSport could virtually tie in terms of value; the Subaru has the lowest price without sacrificing the features, but the Honda has more interior space for a few thousand bucks more.
If you focus solely on off-road adventure, the 4Runner serves you best. Its capability in those conditions is superior, even on the street-oriented model. But our comparison went further than performance on dirt. When shifting to look at on-road driving, interior space and features, fuel economy, safety, and value, it falls behind the Passport and Outback.
To come to a final finishing order, then, we have disparate factors to consider and advantages to weigh. The Passport and Outback earn credit for their performance on pavement, and their holistic approach makes them attractive vehicles for city use and weekend adventures. In those respects, the Passport outduels the Outback. The Passport also outpaces the 4Runner by a wide enough margin here to take home first. The same is not true for the Outback, though; its on-road talents cannot overcome its off-road deficiencies.
3rd Place: 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
- Real off-road tires
- Higher ground clearance
- Great efficiency
- Weak low-end torque
- Poor approach and departure angles
- Mediocre transmission tuning
Subaru tried hard to make a beefy Outback, but its outdoor capability isn’t especially impressive. Its on-road ride also needs some work.
2nd Place: 2022 Toyota 4Runner
- Body-on-frame platform
- Two-speed transfer case
- Charming overall
- Poor efficiency
- Aging architecture
- High price
Choose the 4Runner if you do a lot of off-roading, but it sacrifices comfort and fuel economy during city driving.
1st Place: 2022 Honda Passport TrailSport
- Composed ride
- Ample interior space
- Decent value
- Noisy cabin
- Mediocre off-road performance
- Middling infotainment system
The TrailSport is closer to an appearance package than a real off-road kit, but its AWD system, settled ride, and ample cabin bring the best of both worlds. It’s the one we’d live with and use to head outdoors occasionally.
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