On the Road Review: Honda CR-V

After decades of negative publicity about Ford Explorers, Chevy Tahoes and the whole SUV phenomenon, there is barely a peep from the pundits about today’s top selling crossover wagon/SUVs. Is it because the four top selling wagons in America today are all compact class offerings — led by this week’s Honda CR-V — or is it because this protracted drumbeat now falls on deaf ears, as the top selling vehicle at numerous automakers is in fact a crossover wagon/sport utility vehicle?

Yes, trucks are once again dominating the sales charts, and it is not just because fuel has become less expensive. It takes years of product planning to put our vehicles into production, yet consumer tastes progress over a similar time frame. Buyers are voting with their feet — and their wallets — that they want the space, versatility, comfort, and for many drivers, the perceived security, of a larger, taller two-box design like today’s crossover wagons. Add rapidly increasing pickup truck sales and buyers are slowly shifting away from limited versatility sedans.

In reality, many of today’s crossover wagons are adapted from car-based platforms, with independent chassis setups using front drive primarily and AWD systems based on the same. Marketers are reacting to what consumers are asking for; space, comfort, and cargo capacity. Toys and recreation items are used regularly — bikes, kayaks, camping — while users pursue more active lifestyles in both urban and suburban environments.

Honda has capitalized on this market progression best, with its compact class CR-V the top selling crossover/SUV in the whole country — regardless of size. Yes, the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee are enjoying growing sales, as is Chevy’s ever-popular Tahoe and Suburban, however the CR-V is clearly ahead of Escape, RAV4, Equinox, Santa Fe and all of the rest.

What makes the CR-V stand out, you ask. Certainly not its conservative styling, as the Honda is distinctive, yes, but not Porsche handsome by any means.

In addition, the performance and engine room provide no redemptive qualities that supersede the class — no diesel power, no hybrid, nothing that separates the CR-V from the pack.

It appears that the CR-V combines several astute initiatives to become so successful, not the least of which is Honda’s attention to reliability. And space efficiency. And subtle value.

So, the latest CR-V — with modest improvements and additions for 2015 — is tough, reliable, roomy and cheap. In many ways, yes, it is.

That does not mean that the newest Honda is without criticism, because there are several nits to pick with the CR-V as several long days in the saddle revealed so-so fuel economy at my chosen pace, a cabin that could be quieter at highway speeds, plus a laser-guided cruise system that is way too cautious, too conservative for active traffic situations. However, after stepping out of an expensive and hyperactive Infiniti sedan, the CR-V’s Touring model offered several electronic driving aids similar to the Infiniti that proved to be equally productive but less intrusive. Perhaps not as polished or sensitive as in the premium priced Infiniti, but nonetheless, these driving systems are now available in a vehicle that costs thousands of dollars less and that has to be reason to celebrate even if the equipped Honda does retail for almost $33,000, as does our Touring edition CR-V.

Honda says that the base LX model accounts for 25 percent of CR-V sales, while the EX model (with EX-L leather trim) accounts for a combined 55 percent of sales. That leaves 20 percent for the Navi and Touring equipped models — the high-end editions that add margin and profitability. Honda also claims that 62 percent of CR-V drivers opt for the optional AWD system. Pricing for this year’s CR-V starts at $23,230 for front-drive LX models, ranging to $32,770 for our sampled AWD Touring model.

In the automaker’s race to make entertainment and electronic dashes more complicated, Honda has shifted many former center dash controls onto the steering wheel. This is OK in the CR-V, as most of the audio functionality is handled with fairly large steering wheel buttons. Voice activation helps with the navigation system, which also is good, because the tiny, tiny buttons next to the screen are all too easy to misuse. At least here, Honda uses one vehicle information panel atop the center dash, while the colored screen below relays mapping info and entertainment and climate images.

Key to the CR-V is how well the cabin works, and this has to be central to why so many buyers gravitate toward the Honda. Access is easy, the second row seat is roomy, the rear cargo floor has a low access point, plus there is good elbow, shoulder and hip room throughout. The center console up front has been revised, and works even better, while a power liftgate now comes with Touring trim. Space efficiency means a lot to owners looking to maximize this compact car’s usability. The CR-V succeeds very well.

The latest Earth Dreams 2.4-liter engine now uses direct injection for increased efficiency and improved emissions. Power is ample, even producing some torque steer on crowned roads, while fuel economy notches up to 26/33/28 mpg. Our weeklong average was reduced by my chosen velocity, hence the 26.6-mpg average — the so-so comment from above. It was notable to watch the CR-V’s fuel report rapidly decline as the pace rose above 70 mph.

Teamed with the four-cylinder engine is a new CVT automatic transmission. CVTs are becoming popular to improve driving mileage, which they generally do by offering multiple ‘ratios,’ but they do little to improve the driving experience. Ditto here.

Ride compliance is admirable, handling responses predictable, and the AWD system is nonintrusive. It would be good, however, for a locking button to keep AWD engaged when you need it for deep snow, but one is not offered. Ground clearance is not as great as some rivals either.

The challenge to Honda’s engineers had to be to make the CR-V better, but don’t screw up the success of this wagon. They have made several notable improvements, with the added safety features and electronic driving aids, while rounding off the burrs of previous offerings. Quieter cabin would be on my list (better here, but not great), as would more intuitive dash controls.

Honda rolls out a smaller compact crossover later this winter, the Fit-based HR-V. It will be interesting to see if this vehicle siphons sales from the ever-popular CR-V. Doubt it, as this wagon fills the niche so well — strong, reliable, spacious and still, a good value.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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