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First Oz drive: Honda CR-V evolves

Somewhat familiar: There is still evidence of the original CR-V in the new design.

Honda holds the pricing level on its compact off-roader, but ups engine size and equipment

10 Dec 2001

IF any vehicle captured the very essence of the compact all-terrain wagon sales boom of the late 1990s, it was Honda's CR-V.

Since its launch in mid-1997 more than 40,000 have found their way into Australian homes - mostly in suburbia - courtesy of a combination of car-like manners combined with the high-riding macho image of a 4WD and the flexible interior space of a five-seat wagon.

From January 1, the second generation CR-V arrives in showrooms, with both dealers and Honda Australia keenly hoping sales lightning strikes twice.

Honda's problem is that the CR-V sales goldmine has inevitably ebbed towards the end of the current model's life - albeit from incredibly high levels back to merely good - at the same time as the Civic small car and the prestige Accord have dipped significantly.

The result is a 25 per cent plummet from 2000's record of nearly 30,000 sales back to about 22,000 when the dust settles on 2001.

Therefore CR-V II comes just at the right time, and while the initial monthly sales estimate sits at a relatively modest 800 per month, there's no doubt Honda's men are quietly hoping for much, much more.

To that end, the all-new CR-V heads into the fray without any sort of price increase over the outgoing model. That means $31,990 for the base version and $36,490 for the Sport. Add $2000 for the automatic version of either.

That's pretty impressive, although it's worth remembering Honda pumped up pricing on April 1 2001 for CR-V by $2000 to the current level and even then hinted there would be price rises for the new car. So it's played its cards with a degree of cunning - not surprising for a car company!The new CR-V is described by Honda as "evolution rather than revolution", and that's evident from the exterior styling, which retains many familiar cues despite significant revisions to the front, C-pillar and rear treatments.

Although it looks a bigger car, dimension changes are relatively nominal with length and width increasing by 5mm and 30mm respectively, while height and wheelbase measurements remain the same. Kerb weight is up around 65kg.

A new 2.4-litre DOHC four-cylinder engine - equipped with Honda's latest i-VTEC valve control system - heads the list of second generation changes, producing 118kW of power and 220Nm of torque. The previous 2.0-litre powerplant developed 108kW and 182Nm. Fuel consumption is claimed at 7.0l/100km on the highway cycle and 9.0l/100km in the city.

Suspension is now MacPherson strut at the front while the rear retains its double wishbone set-up, reflecting the fact the CR-V continues to share its platform with the Civic, which made a similar suspension change with its latest generation.

The old model's rear drum brakes have finally been cast aside in favour of a four-wheel disc arrangement, although ABS remains standard only on the Sport variant.

What stays the same is the "Real Time" four-wheel drive system, which only transfers power to the rear wheels when its detects slippage at the front. In other words, CR-V remains a light-duty off-roader.

Specification levels have been boosted, but cruise control is currently only available on automatic models and standard only on Sport. Honda is hoping cruise will be added to manuals early in the new year.

The base model includes dual front airbags, air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, a single CD player, 60-40 split/fold rear seats and four cupholders, while the Sport adds the aforementioned ABS and cruise, a sunroof, alloy wheels, front foglights and body coloured bumpers and mirrors.

PRICING
Honda CR-V (man) $31,990
Honda CR-V (auto) $33,990
Honda CR-V Sport (man) $36,490
Honda CR-V Sport (auto) $38,490

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

The CR-V has never really been a media favourite in Australia, rivals such as the Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 consistently rated ahead of it by many motoring journalists.

But that didn't matter a jot to thousands of CR-V buyers, who were quite happy to accept the Honda's less nimble chassis balance and off-road ability compared to the Subaru in particular, in return for better space and a high-riding outlook.

So that breed of buyer will be pleased to learn that the new CR-V improves on its strengths as an urban runabout with a more powerful and torquey engine, excellent new transmissions, even more interior space and a substantially improved level of noise dampening.

The result is CR-V that is even more car-like than its predecessor, without being dramatically different. It's a comfortable and easy to drive with a good ride and that will undoubtedly win it many more sales across suburbia.

But it's the ease of use that is even more important.

Comfortable front seats, a redesigned side-opening tailgate that does away with the fiddly old split design, improved luggage and passenger compartment capacity and an even bigger picnic table. A particularly impressive feature is the 60/40 split-fold rear seat that separately slides, reclines, fold and tumbles.

The driver has a couple of new ideas to contend with, a park brake that folds out of the centre console like a grab handle - you'll only grab it by accident once! - and the gearshift lever in the auto which is mounted in the dash, where it proves efficient and easy to use.

The looks don't quite match the functionality, with a gaping storage hole in the centre console and an audio unit that looks out of place. But on a positive note the fold-down table is back between the seats as useful as ever, complete with cupholders and luggage hooks - the latter festooning the car.

But for all the worthy on-road, equipment and design improvements, CR-V II has taken a step back off-road, if the launch drive over a variety of unsealed roads and tracks is any guide.

That's because that 21 per cent torque improvement prompts a surprising amount torque steer. That's a side effect of feeding the power, torque and steering forces all through the front wheels, which jerk around under acceleration in a fashion akin to tram tracking rather than proceeding straight ahead.

The problem does sort itself out when "Real Time" kicks in, but that takes a little while and the effect can be quite unnerving - not to say surprising.

Honda Japan engineers in Australia for the launch of the car admitted they were aware of the torque steer but said they felt it was acceptable. They also said they had not tested the new CR-V in Australian off-road conditions, only on test tracks in Japan.

"We well knew that increasing engine torque would produce some effect, but our judgement was that we could go so far without going over the line," explained CR-V project leader Takahiro Hachigo. "We felt we were in the correct bounds raising it to that degree."On bitumen torque steer is not an issue, but on any sort of dirt - including the moderate forestry roads the CR-V's designed to cope with - it's noticeable and in our view has the potential to catch inexperienced off-roaders out. And most people who venture off-road in a CR-V would fall into that category.

Besides that, it's just a plain unpleasant sensation.

This is a blemish on a vehicle that is otherwise a significant, if evolutionary, improvement over its predecessor. Hopefully, Honda, a company which prides itself on engineering excellence, will soon realise it is not acceptable, and rectify a good vehicle's only major fault.

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