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Car reviews - Honda - CR-V - Luxury 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Honda engineering promise, smooth drivetrain, high build quality, spacious cabin, versatile cargo area, ease of operation, promising firm resale value
Room for improvement
Luxury is laughably expensive against German rivals, engine needs more oomph, firm ride on 17-inch alloys, dated cabin ambience, slow-witted part-time 4WD set-up, ponderous handling, awkward styling, foot-operated park brake

12 May 2010

SOMETIMES a new car comes along that shifts the goal posts so far forward it causes the opposition to look prematurely old or tired.

Imagine how despondent Chrysler Valiant dealers would have felt when the original Holden Commodore landed in late 1978, or how out of step the (final) rear-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla seemed on release exactly three years later compared with the first Ford Laser that was showing Aussie small-car buyers accustomed to Holden Gemini technology the light with front-drive?

Welcome, then, to the recently revised Honda CR-V Luxury AWD, a $42,790 compact SUV that finds itself priced right alongside the upper echelons of the segment-shaking Volkswagen Tiguan and, now, the entry-level BMW X1s. Ouch.

Against these the Thai-made American-moulded Japanese SUV feels distinctly un-premium (and quite un-Honda, actually), with bloated exterior styling and a very workmanlike interior.

No wonder then sales halved last year, to about 5000 units – the worst since the series started back in 1997.

The third-generation CR-V has been under attack from all sides since its January 2007 (was it really that recently?) launch.

Mazda also deserves credit since it arrived to the dull compact SUV party with the sexy and speedy CX-7 just months before the Honda’s launch. Kick in the head number two came swiftly in the form of the re-engineered Subaru Forester barely 12 months later.

And now there’s the stylish Hyundai ix35 and upcoming Kia Sportage III as well as a front-drive Toyota RAV4 beavering away underneath …

So here we are, with a mid-cycle CR-V refresh (new bumpers and grille, more sound-deadening material, and auto-on wipers and lights on the Luxury), the words ‘ho-hum’ spring to mind. But is it any good?

At least Honda has had the good sense to lop $2000 off the price.

Three years ago, we rated the CR-V as a top contender alongside the CX-7, (also now time-ravaged) RAV4 and old-shape Forester, while it dispatching rivals like the ageing Ford Escape (how it must drive now!) and half-baked Hyundai Tucson.

And today we would still gladly recommend the Honda for its smooth drivetrain, high build quality, spacious cabin, versatile cargo area, and ease of operation … but only in the context of the low-$30,000 base model (especially the six-speed manual version with its sweet-shifting gearbox and handy T-bar-shaped handbrake in place of the horrid foot-operated item that all auto versions use).

As a result, the pricier CR-V models – Sport and Luxury – are now slightly out of their league.

Take the interior as an example – a lovely example of mid-2000s architecture, with an inoffensive slab of a dashboard that is the very model of functionality. Finished in a variety of smoothly crafted and gently contrasting plastic, it appears as premium as a Target garment – tested to a standard but inexpensive. Like a Toyota.

Electric blue-ringed analogue gauges for speed and revs dominate the instrumentation binnacle, featuring a white-on-blue themed info window in the centre containing crisp digital readouts for engine and exterior temperatures, fuel, trip computer, and odometer, plus a bird’s eye view pictogram telling you when a door is ajar.

Few centre consoles are as logically or sensibly laid out as this, with big clear buttons for the radio and climate control air-conditioning, a gutsy gusty face-level vent action and a high-mounted auto lever that’s always in reach. In a world of dual-clutch gearboxes it’s a shame Honda hasn’t even bothered to make it a Tiptronic-style sequential shifter.

The steering wheel (with a hub design that is meant to mirror the curious jutting shape out of the bumper and grille) is a thin-rimmed but agreeable affair that adjusts for reach and height, so finding a suitable driving position is possible. Said pilot is also likely to appreciate the views afforded by the lofty chairs, lengthy glass area and extra-large exterior mirrors that – along with the standard rear-parking sensors – help make reversing simple.

Nobody will complain about the surplus of storage facilities (despite the shallow glovebox) due to all the shelves, cubbies, door bins, cupholders and deep console box on offer. The latter contains 120V and MP3 adaptors. Expect to lose stuff in the Honda for months on end.

Getting in and out of the CR-V is child’s play thanks to the set of wide-arcing doors that open up to a hip-height cabin. There’s a reassuring thud to the way they close too.

But while the heated front seats look inviting with their ‘captain’s chair’ armrests and electric manipulation (for the drivers side only), the leather is like vinyl, the cushion is bum-numbingly flat, and more rearward travel would be welcome.

The rear seat has clearly been designed to be used by families because Honda seems to have thought about everything except for ventilation outlets – the comfy rear bench reclines, space is provided for heads, knees, legs and feet, there are rests for elbows and arms, and yet more receptacles for flotsam and jetsam.

If you’re likely to be using the Honda for hauling kids and their gear, you will love the low, wide and deep load space, child-seat anchorage hooks behind the seat backs and easy way the whole cargo area can be configured to accommodate all sorts of items. The sunglasses holder also doubles as a convex mirror for parents to keep an eye on their brood behind.

The rear floor also has a second, higher, 10kg-rated shelf as another useful load level, although removing and replacing it is fiddly and it rattles over rougher roads.

Nevertheless, from behind at least then, the family friendlier CR-V is easily in front of the Tiguan and X1.

As a driving device, however, the Honda trails the frontrunners even though it ranks as one of the simplest and least intimidating SUVs from behind the wheel.

Take the engine – a 125kW/218Nm 2.4-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder petrol powerplant that’s mated to a tried and tested five-speed automatic gearbox. Sweet, revvy and refined in time-honoured Honda tradition, it feels almost unburstable.

But a heavy right foot is needed to get the 1620kg Honda happening, and with the weight of extra passengers and cargo, it feels lacklustre when overtaking scenarios suddenly arise. Flooring the throttle has the engine revs soaring as the trannie tumbles down a ratio, but with little performance reward for the ensuing racket, while fuel consumption rises in sympathy. We averaged about 11L/100km.

Once on the go though, the CR-V will cruise along happily with plenty in reserve for those gradual speed increases needed to keep up with the gentle ebb and flow of freeway traffic, aided by an effective cruise control system.

Honda may have silenced some noise paths, but there is still too much road rumble getting in, so the Thai SUV lacks the level of refinement qualities its Luxury nomenclature implies. This is a $43K vehicle, remember.

And forget about the CR-V if you’re a keen driver, because although it seems competent and safe in everyday driving conditions, with a responsive set of brakes and a feeling of stability and security, there is nothing here to stir the soul.

Well weighted as the powered steering system might be, it feels numb and slow-witted to inputs, and won’t be hurried at all.

Not that the typical CR-V would be driven like this, but a string of snaky turns and roundabouts had us kerbing the apexes unintentionally with the rear wheels, accompanied by tedious levels of body lean and a general heaviness. Constant understeer, with an eager ESC stability control safety net always chiming in, is the Honda’s modus operandi here. Again – this one costs X1 money so the dynamic bar has been lifted.

If a soft and cushioned ride was the payback then we would put up and shut up, but the Luxury’s 17-inch wheel and rubber package had us feeling as well as hearing the road surface below. The ride’s constant pattering isn’t uncomfortable, just ever persistent.

The Honda feels like a heavy front-drive SUV almost at all times on the entirely on-road only drive routes we took not once did the Real Time 4WD set-up seem to kick in. Previous experience with the CR-V in sandy and muddy conditions has led us to believe that the system is too slow reacting to be an effective off-roader.

Finally, we come to the question of value. The Luxury may be $2000 cheaper than it was last year, but it still feels too expensive.

The fact that Honda charges another $2699 for the ‘Active’ pack that adds the almost mandatory Bluetooth connectivity – along with the less important side steps, roof racks, mats, cargo tray, chrome exhaust tip, side window visors, door sill garnish and dust/pollen filter – takes the top-dog CR-V to more than $45,400 – and that’s before on-road costs. And you’ll require another $2699 for some minor visual titivations to separate your Luxury from your neighbour’s garden variety Sport. Yikes!

Three and a half years on from the third-generation model’s release in Australia, and with only a mild facelift to show for it, the CR-V still impresses in some key functionality areas. Also it’s still probably top of the class for reliability, quality, resale and durability. A Valiant try, Honda.

However, we would dodge the Luxury and settle for the entry-level ‘Standard’ model instead, where – ironically enough – the CR-V is not shown up nearly as much by the new compact SUV standard-setters.

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