The Honda CR-V was one of the first small, carlike sport-utility vehicles when introduced for 1997. It was an instant hit because many folks were looking for a nimble sport-ute that didn't guzzle fuel.
Based on the Honda Civic, the CR-V had a peppy engine, a fairly high body expected with a sport-utility, unit construction for a solid feel and all-independent suspension for a smooth ride. The only major rival was the popular car-based Toyota RAV4, which debuted for 1996.
The second-generation CR-V arrived last year, when it had record sales of 146,266 units. That made it the top-selling entry-level sport-ute, followed by the Ford Escape, RAV4 and Hyunda Santa Fe.
The slightly larger, roomier 2002 CR-V got a new chassis, tighter construction, greater refinement and more features. Displacement of its 2-liter four-cylinder engine was bumped to 2.4 liters and horsepower was increased from 146 to 160. The larger engine also allowed more torque for better low- and mid-range responsiveness.
There was some grumbling that the side-hinged tailgate still opened toward the curb, which complicated curbside loading, but many buyers overlooked that fault. Partly making up for it was the glass liftgate; it can be popped up to enable smaller objects to be put in the cargo area--although you must lean over the tailgate-mounted spare tire to retrieve items, such as groceries, through the glass.
Honda pretty much shot its wad with the 2002 CR-V, so the latest model has only minor improvements, such as an enlarged console storage bin, rear coat hooks and greater color selection.
There are front- and all-wheel-drive LX models and higher-line all-wheel-drive EX versions. All-wheel-drive models lack low range gearing and generous ground clearance for serious off-road driving, but do fine on well-trekked trails.
A slick five-speed manual gearbox and responsive four-speed automatic transmission are offered.
The slightly larger second-generation CR-V is faster than its predecessor, able to scamper to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds. But highway performance is average. The smooth engine works hard during full-throttle acceleration. After all, it's still rather small and can only do so much in a vehicle with a good amount of comfort and convenience equipment that helps bring its weight to 3,201-3,287 pounds.
The CR-V remains more functional than sporty. But it seems perfect for driving in congested areas, thanks to a handy size, quick steering, nimble handling and good braking. The all-independent suspension delivers a comfortable ride, although it gets jerky on some roads. Highway cruising is no problem, although engine revs are rather high at 70 mph.
Even the base version of the entry LX model has air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD with four speakers, split-folding rear seat and power locks, windows and outside mirrors. The automatic transmission--not the manual gearbox--also is standard.
"Honda gave that model the automatic because it wanted to offer even the base-entry LX as a well-equipped, competitively priced sport-ute,'' said Honda national spokesman Art Garner.
The CR-V isn't one of those big, fuel-thirsty sport-utes under attack by anti-SUV groups. Estimated fuel economy is decent: 21 mpg in the city and 25 on highways with the manual gearbox and 22 and 26 with the automatic. The highest numbers are provided by the base LX with the automatic, at 23 city, 28 highway.
Besides standard all-wheel-drive, the EX adds a power sunroof, six-disc CD changer with six speakers and remote keyless entry. It also has anti-lock brakes and front side air bags. The LX models can't be had with the sunroof or those brakes, but side air bags are offered for them as a $300 option.
Despite its high seating, the low floor of the CR-V makes it easy to get in and out. Four tall adults comfortably fit in the quiet interior, although a long-legged driver will wish that his supportive seat moved back a few inches farther.
The steering wheel has a slightly awkward buslike cant, and the pistol-grip hand brake is a high-effort device. But the dashboard is nicely designed. Audio system controls sit conveniently high, but are a reach for drivers with short arms. There are many cupholders, and rear windows lower all the way.
The compact rear suspension helps allow a generous cargo area, which can be considerably enlarged by flipping the rear seatbacks forward.
The thoughtfully engineered CR-V is handy and won't leave owners in shock when they look at its monthly fuel bills.
Quick to highway speeds. Roomy. Nimble. Decent fuel economy.
Average highway performance. Occasional jerky ride. Awkward hand brake.