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Car reviews - Honda - CR-V - range

Our Opinion

We like
Better looking, quieter, more refined, improved efficiency, spacious and functional interior, progressive packaging
Room for improvement
2.4L and AWD now costs thousands more, foot-operated park brake, carryover dated drivetrain for one-time high-tech Honda

21 Nov 2012

THE CR-V has come to represent something untraditional about Honda.

Despite stellar sales, the 1997 original was so unacceptably harsh and dynamically flaccid that it served as a warning the firm once feted as Japan’s BMW had commenced an unrelenting shift towards mainstream mediocrity.

Sure, the compact SUV erroneously called a segment pioneer proved reliable. But it was awful to drive, useless as a 4x4 and questionable value for money.

Worst of all, however, the CR-V’s initial success prompted Honda to stop building the CRX, Prelude, NSX and Integra, and start making Toyota clones that appeal to American consumers.

Understandably, there was little excitement in the news that a “new” CR-V had surfaced, especially when we learned the chassis and drivetrain was to be essentially carried-over from a predecessor that felt old before its time.

This was exacerbated by the fact that the previous generation’s $28K 2.4-litre all-wheel-drive entry variant was to be replaced by a $27.5K 2.0-litre front-drive instead, and that buyers would now have to shell out $33K if they wanted 2.4-litre oomph and AWD.

However, that was all before we sat in and drove the latest CR-V – the fourth such model to wear that moniker in 17 years.

Surprise number one is it looks better in the flesh than in photos. Thank a random deity for that one. Lower and shorter than before, linee are less conflicting lines, with a more resolved proboscis up front, while you might even see a touch of Volvo XC60 about the rear.

Indeed, the latter observation is no real shock considering the interior presentation and layout is palpably more premium than before (and ahead of most rivals including the feted Mazda CX-5).

It gives some idea behind Honda’s thinking for its revamped compact SUV.

Of course, you will not mistake the CR-V’s plasticky interior for an Audi Q3, but there is an appealing logic to how everything looks, feels and operates.

For starters, the larger and safer front seats (now with anti-whiplash head restraints) feel comfier – a longtime Honda bugbear.

The driving position is great, thanks to excellent ventilation, impressive ergonomics, improved front- and side-window vision and a standard reverse camera. There’s also ample space for adults despite the car’s lower height.

This is a family car, so we’re glad to find sufficient space for three adults across the rear bench, and furthermore they’re well served by reclining backrests, air vents, cup-holders, door bins, and grab handles.

The significantly lower and larger cargo area includes an amusingly acrobatic single-tug, dual-action rear-seat folding mechanism – though on the 2WD models the retractable luggage cover is only an option.

The cabin isn’t bereft of brickbats, though. Culprit number one is the awful foot-operated park brake. Honda was once a technological leader but seemingly now resorts to outmoded De Soto era devices.

There’s more. Why no ISOFIX child-seat anchorage points, considering they will soon be mandated for local use? Beyond this, the centre-rear seat belt sash rubs against your neck uncomfortably, and if you’ve owned one of these models before, you’ll notice the loss of the walk-through space. Now there are conventional fixed storage bins and three (!) cup-holders fitted up front instead.

Moving away from the cabin, even a brief stint behind the wheel highlights some very immediate and welcome dynamic improvements.

Right away, the now-electric powered steering is lighter yet more reactive than before. Though there is slightly less feel, the slow-witted heaviness has been banished – a fact illustrated by the older CR-V model brought along to the launch as comparison.

On the beautiful driving roads through the Adelaide Hills, the latest CR-V’s helm feels smoother with a more measured and flowing attitude through fast tight turns.

And while a high centre of gravity means that the CR-V leans during more boisterous cornering, its chassis felt well-sorted and grip levels were fine.

Note though that this is no ‘driver’s’ compact SUV like a Ford Kuga or Mazda CX-5 are.

We sampled the two expected high-volume models – the $33K VTi 2.0L 2WD and $43K VTi-L 2.4L AWD – fitted with carryover (though improved) five-speed automatics.

Both displayed firm yet well disciplined ride qualities, without the pitching that blights some larger SUVs. The latter’s gravel road braking wasn’t as instantaneous as we would like, though.

But we did appreciate the appreciably reduced road and tyre noise intrusion compared to before (though all our cars were fitted with optional thick floor mats), so the whole travelling experience is quieter and thus more refined.

Which now leaves us with the CR-V’s engine performance.

With two adults on board including luggage and air-conditioning blowing, even the new 2.0-litre model seemed more than sufficiently endowed along those gorgeous South Australian B-roads.

Honda has a habit of making sweet and revvy petrol engines, and the cheapest unit is no exception.

Admittedly, a determined right foot is required if you really need to hustle along, but most rivals with bigger units are the same anyway, and without the same levels of refinement. And the auto’s gearing makes the most of the available torque on offer.

Subjectively, then, the smaller engine is no real handicap. We may eat our words when we test it with three other bodies and a bootful of clobber though.

In fact, after an obviously faster off-the-line showing, the revised 2.4-litre – now about 10 per cent more powerful and yet about as frugal – doesn’t really feel all that much stronger once on the move, although again, loaded up, we’re sure the differences will be more pronounced.

As it stands, the larger unit provides ample performance without it being a particularly sparkling engine like, say, a Volkswagen Tiguan’s 1.8-litre turbo.

We have high hopes for the upcoming UK-sourced 2.2 turbo-diesel due later in 2013.

But in the meantime, we are happy to recommend the fourth-generation Honda CR-V – something we wouldn’t do at times in the past.

The 2.0-litre is no chore and the lack of AWD likely won’t bother most buyers (we never had a chance to test it off-road on the drive program anyway), while the inclusion of a reverse camera, a roomier body, better styling, (slight) efficiency gains in the 2.4-litre and big strides in refinement and practicality are all steps in the right direction.

Still, on a note of caution, the so-called “all-new” model in our mind fails to hit an outright home-run against the high-flying CX-5, while promising newcomers like the Mitsubishi Outlander, Ford Kuga, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4 and next-generation Tiguan might soon relegate the CR-V back to also-ran status.

Very good but not great – that’s one recurring tradition we’d be happy for Honda to abandon.

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