Back in 1997, the wheels hadn’t quite fallen off the whole “bigger is better” philosophy that seemed to dominate the SUV segment. Gas was relatively inexpensive, and it was assumed by many that large truck-based sport utility vehicles were the safest things they could buy.
Honda introduced the CR-V that year, a slightly boxy four-door mini-ute based on the platform of their Civic. With a fuel-sipping engine, car-like ride, and handling as well as optional all-wheel drive, it was a sensible and affordable choice if you needed something slightly more useful than a sedan but didn’t want to spend too much or give up ride comfort.
These days, nearly every car brand has an entry in the compact crossover SUV segment, from Kia to Mercedes-Benz. And Honda has advanced its original idea by introducing the fourth-generation CR-V.
Though bigger than the original 1997 model, it’s actually a bit trimmer than the 2011 in terms of exterior dimensions. Yet thanks to clever packaging, there’s a touch more passenger room. And like the previous example, the cargo hold is absolutely huge. Open the liftgate and you might be amazed at how deep the luggage space is, again thanks good engineering and design.
Honda even came up with a very slick way to fold down the 60/40 rear seats for more cargo volume. Instead of having to flip one section and then another, you merely pull a single lever, and the seat flip-flops down and forward in about three seconds. If you’re out back, redundant levers on either side of the cargo hold will do this for you as well. That’s especially handy if you’re in a hurry to create extra space, like when you’ve just purchased something bulky and a downpour of rain has begun.
The engine is essentially a carryover from last year, but there’s a bit of extra power on tap. Compared to last year’s CR-V, the 2.4 liter four cylinder now makes an extra five horsepower for a total of 185. And, fuel economy is up a bit too, to 23 city and 31 highway by EPA estimates. You lose one mile per gallon on both cycles if you choose all-wheel drive.
One curious area where Honda is standing still engineering-wise: The sole transmission is a 5-speed automatic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but these days even some of the lowest-priced economy cars have 6-speed automatics for better drivability and efficiency. It just seems strange that the CR-V hasn’t caught up in that regard.
But not to worry, as Honda’s continual refinement means that this example drives, rides, and handles as well or better than the competition. And if you want to really maximize fuel economy, they’ve included an “ECON” button on the dash. Push that and the engine computer remaps a bit to eke out a little more from each gallon of gasoline, though at the expense of engine peppiness.
It would seem that Honda has once again found the formula for success in the small SUV arena. The CR-V has many times been the top-selling model among not only compact crossovers but all SUVs in general. The only problem is, the competition hasn’t been sitting still. The new Kia Sportage, for example, is a first-rate contender. And in a few months, Ford will be launching an all-new Escape to take on Honda in this lucrative segment.
Base price for a 2012 CR-V LX is $22,295 with front-wheel drive. Moving up to the EX, with its additional standard features, will set you back $24,395 ($25,645 with all-wheel drive), and the range tops out at $29,795 for an EX-L with navigation, leather seats, and all-wheel drive.
Many have raved about the CR-V over the years, including the folks at J.D. Power, Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book, all giving it awards and recommendations for its quality and value. This latest example should be able to stay right up there as a top pick among compact sport utility vehicles.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz