CR-V: better beats bigger

This fiercely independent resistance to bloat is quite evident in the latest version of the company's small SUV, the CR-V.

  • The image of cars on a parking

One of the things I’ve long admired about Honda is its commitment to what I might call engineering minimalism.

It’s not just about the efficiency of Honda engines – which are often among the most fuel-efficient in their class – but it’s also a philosophy that permeates every other part of the firm’s cars.

This fiercely independent “resistance to bloat” is quite evident in the latest version of the company’s small SUV, the CR-V.

While many rivals have grown bigger, heavier and more powerful, the CR-V’s formula hasn’t changed much.

It’s still a compact, efficiently-packaged five-seater (you can get a third row of seats now in a Toyota RAV4 or a Hyundai Santa Fe) powered by a four-cylinder engine and driven by an on-demand all-wheel-drive system optimized for urban rather than off-road use.

It’s an efficient, practical package, starting at $27,700 – quite reasonable for the space you’re getting, though more expensive than the Korean entries in the market.

What that does mean is that, compared to vehicles such as the RAV4 and Santa Fe, the CR-V does look a bit underpowered. Both those vehicles feature the availability of large-displacement V6 engines.

In most driving conditions, the 166 hp CR-V (the RAV4’s optional V6 makes a whopping 269 hp) is just fine.

Acceleration from a dead stop is peppy, thanks in part to the well-spaced gears of the five-speed automatic transmission; on the highway, the engine is surprisingly flexible.

It’s only when you load up the CR-V with three passengers in addition to the driver that it starts to feel a bit out of breath.

The lower weight of the CR-V’s compact drivetrain begets a better-handling SUV than its competitors. The steering can feel a bit heavy at lower speeds, but it’s very accurate and lightens up with speed; it transmits plenty of road feel.

The view out the front is great, the gauges are brightly lit and easy to read and most of the secondary controls – save for the tiny buttons surrounding the touch screen – quickly become second nature.

My tester, an EX-L model with the optional navigation system, was loaded with bells and whistles including a power moonroof, console-mounted CD changer, memory card readers for MP3 files and other goodies.

Instead of merely growing the body, Honda’s focused its efforts on better using the space inside.

The cargo area now has a shelf that divides it into two levels, effectively doubling its grocery-getting capacity.

The centre console – formerly a fold-away tray – now contains deep cupholders and a large bin.

The little Honda SUV has also taken a step upward in price.

The base model lacks all-wheel-drive and many goodies; add AWD and you’re up to about $30,000, while the EX model is $32,600. Leather takes you up to $34,600 and navigation to $37,400 – a lot for a four-cylinder compact sport utility without a third row of seats.

The numbers produced by its engine may be unimpressive in light of its competition, but the CR-V excels where it counts for an urban-biased trucklet with its tight footprint, roomy cabin and solid execution.

It’s a vehicle that’s a lot better in person than it is on paper.;

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