Had it not been for the 1990s bust-up between Honda and Rover, there might not have been a CR-V.
The Land Rover Freelander was being developed, but when BMW pulled the rug from under Honda’s feet, the Japanese went away and created their own SUV. Little wonder, then, that the first CR-V had clear similarities with the original Freelander, although there’s been a divergence ever since. Though things have moved on, the CR-V remains a pioneer of the compact soft-roader class – the most popular SUV category in New Zealand. Although the Suzuki Vitara beat other compact SUVs into showrooms by eight years, the Honda quickly became a local favourite, and has sold solidly for 12 years. Ironically, the more individualistic Freelander was never really a threat to the CR-V because it cost so much more. Today a new Freelander starts around $70,000 compared to $38,400 for the Honda. At times the CR-V has been the top four-wheel drive SUV in Kiwi charts, although the arrival of a wider range of competition has made its life increasingly difficult. In a market sector where sales fell nine per cent during the first quarter of 2008, CR-V volume dipped 45 per cent from class-leader to third, behind the Mitsubishi Outlander and Hyundai Tucson. The Honda isn’t the only SUV to take a hit; Toyota RAV4 sales have dropped 34 per cent. Conversely, Nissan’s X-Trail has leapt ahead by 74 per cent. In the medium SUV sector, the Ford Territory and Mazda CX-7 are well down on their 2007 performances, while Holden’s Captiva has posted a useful increase. So where does this leave the CR-V? Such has been its enduring strength that at times it has commanded a quarter of all new compact SUV sales – an impressive achievement. The CR-V makes a good fist of combining the virtues of a sensible station wagon, high seating position and easy driving with limited four-wheel drive capability. Unlike many SUVs, it feels decidedly car-like, with nimbleness, a soft ride and half reasonable handling. The anti-4WD brigade can hardly complain about it, given its sensible dimensions and moderate fuel consumption. Driving a five-speed automatic (standard on Sport versions), we averaged 10.1 litres/100km (28mpg), giving the 58-litre tank a 500km range. The 2.4-litre DOHC i-VTEC engine provides a 190kph top speed and 0 to 100kph in 11.2 seconds; mid-range urge is strong, if a shade noisy at times.
Although the auto has gear logic control, the Honda tends to overrun on a trailing throttle; you can opt for the six-speed manual if gearchanging is your thing. With around 2000rpm in top at 100kph, cruising ability is relaxed, provided the going is easy. But the Sport test example, fitted with the standard 17-inch, seven-spoke alloy wheels and 225/65 Bridgestone tyres, generated a fair amount of road noise – on coarse-chip and smooth sealed surfaces. A multi-link double wishbone rear suspension allied to MacPherson struts up front soaks up the bumps while providing a pleasantly compliant ride. Hydraulic rack and pinion steering geared to three turns lock to lock is light but lifeless. The on-demand drive system is ideally suited to the New Zealand lifestyle. Usually operating in front drive, the automatic system moved seamlessly to four-wheel drive when required. Two pumps decide when a speed differential exists between front and rear wheels, leaving occupants oblivious to the transition from two to four-wheel drive.
Standard electronic vehicle stability further enhances overall ability and general safety. The good thing about the latest CR-V is that it hasn’t grown larger than the previous model.
All three generations run the same 2620mm wheelbase, and the current model’s overall length of 4519mm is 16mm less than its predecessor’s and only 9mm more than the first CR-V’s. At 1820mm, it’s the widest CR-V yet, and the 1680mm height is the same as generation two and only fractionally more than the first version. The latest model drives better because of its lower centre of gravity, resulting from a lighter bonnet and tailgate and relocating the spare wheel from the back door to the boot floor. The tailgate is now hinged from the top not the side, and provision for two-tier loading is a useful feature. When the second shelf isn’t needed, it can be stowed flat on the floor, and the rear seats double-fold forward for increased load depth.
Though the dull black interior plastics are somewhat harsh, overall finish is excellent, and there are nice touches like a leather-bound steering wheel incorporating cruise and audio controls, stacks of compartments and dual controls for the climate air conditioning.
Privacy glass with added tinting is applied to rear side and back windows and the door mirrors retract electrically. Interior space is generous, with plenty of rear seat accommodation.
The $43,500 Sport auto adds automatic rain sensors for the wipers, high intensity Xenon headlights, electric operation for the comfy front seats (which also have seat warmers), an electric glass sunroof and leather upholstery. An extra $3000 for the Sport Plus with the body kit seems expensive. Does this CR-V offer more style and form rather than function? The new shape slips through the air 12 per cent more efficiently than the old model, and Honda has worked hard to cut weight. Most observers – unless they are Honda sales people – regard the new double grille as ugly and the curving rear side window a design hiccup. That curving C pillar window exaggerates a blind spot, although standard fitment of a sensor proximity warning system on all versions is a blessing. Whether you like the CR-V’s looks, its overall competence means it’s still a defining soft-roader.
CR-V fast facts
Internationally, Honda has sold well over 2.5 million CR-Vs since 1996. It’s built in Japan, Mexico, Britain, USA, Thailand and China, and was the best-selling SUV in the United States last year, ousting the Ford Explorer that had been number one for 15 years.