Honda didn't invent the compact crossover market, but it often feels like the folks behind the stylized H badge did.
Beaten to the punch by the Toyota RAV4
in the heady days of the mid-1990s, back when the term crossover
meant something entirely different, the Honda CR-V
nonetheless took this market by storm. More than 15 years on, it still commands the largest share of the consumer crossover or SUV market (admittedly, the fleet-heavy Ford Escape
is the segment's biggest seller).
Was Honda wise in not dramatically altering its CR-V for its fourth-generation model, which hit the markets not too long ago as a 2012 model?
We decided to find out.
What is it?
Despite its rather more expressive styling, the 2012 CR-V is much the same underneath as it was last year. A 2.4-liter four-cylinder sends power through a five-speed automatic transmission to either the front or, in the case of our tester, all four wheels, and the CR-V rides on a global passenger car architecture not too distantly related to the Honda Civic.
Clever packaging, long a CR-V forte, returns, although the integrated picnic table included in the first-generation CR-V is long gone. Too bad.
Like other Hondas, CR-V is available in a relatively wide lineup that starts with steel wheel-clad LXs, moves up to alloy wheel/moonroof EXs and leather seat EX-Ls before culminating with your choice of rear seat entertainment or in-dash navigation. Our EX-L tester was equipped with the latter, which made it the most expensive CR-V in the lineup.
What's it up against?
The Toyota RAV4 grew a while ago, so it isn't as natural a CR-V rival as it might seem.
Instead, we'd square this five-seat-only crossover off against the Mazda CX-5
, Ford Escape, Volkswagen Tiguan
and Kia Sportage
, among others. Each truly brings something unique to this fast-growing segment.
How does it look?
Undoubtedly more distinctive than its rather mushy predecessor, the CR-V finally has a face of its own. A jutting front bumper gives it a rather pouty look, while swept-back, black-finished headlamps are aggressively angry in their execution.
From there, CR-V retains the "rugged" (and also inexpensive) black cladding seen on many rivals, but the biggest side profile feature is certainly its pointy D-pillar. Although it significantly reduces rear visibility, this design does give the CR-V a flavor of its own that's carried through on the tailgate. Tall tail lamps hark back to the first CR-V, not to mention the Volvo XC60
, but the high beltline only succeeds to give this crossover an oddly narrow look from the rear that isn't echoed up front.
And on the inside?
Ever since the first CR-V, we've been rather impressed with Honda's thoughtful attention to detail. This latest model hardly disappoints. At first, its wide dashboard with high-mounted controls and less-than-convincing fake wood (we think?) trim appears just average in its execution, but a few minutes behind the wheel reveals a myriad of conveniences.
Consider the high-mounted gear lever, which frees up center console space for a gigantic center box (with a retractable lid), several small pockets for maps and nicknacks and well-designed cupholders. Further storage spots adorn the door cards, giving drivers and passengers plenty of space for their must-haves
. In comparison to rivals that offer a small bin in the center console, the CR-V feels like it was designed during a corporate retreat for Container Store employees.
And passengers need not consider themselves contained thanks to excellent front and rear space, which bests most midsize crossovers in terms of real-world roominess. So too a tall and nicely carpeted cargo area, which happily swallowed a pair of mountain bikes after the second row was folded.
All this goodness is, unfortunately, offset by a number of let-downs. Assembly quality on our tester felt top notch, with nary a rattle nor a creak, but soft touch plastics were similarly missing. The gathered leather seats were comfortable, but their hide could have come from a Rubbermaid cow. And the optional navigation system was quick to reroute us but decidedly low-tech in its display quality and its lack of a tune knob. Skip the nav option and buy a portable unit.
But does it go?
Honda took the ultra-conservative (read: cheapest) route for 2013 by recycling the outgoing model's 2.4-liter four-cylinder and its five-speed automatic transmission.
Despite being down a gear compared to many of its freshest rivals, the CR-V nonetheless manages to make the best of its 185 horsepower (at a high 7,000 rpm) and 163 lb-ft. of torque (at a still rather high 4,400 rpm). Thanks to its exceptionally lithe 3,545 lbs. curb weight as-tested, the CR-V rarely feels down on power. The five-speed shifts quickly and smoothly - and rather often at highway speeds, when passing requires a kickdown or two to find the power band. To save fuel, an Econ mode accessible via a green button "coaches" better fuel economy through lights on the gauge cluster and increased gas pedal resistance. We found it made the CR-V feel frustratingly slow unless we pushed the skinny pedal to the ground; with the mode left off, acceleration felt much stronger.
We noticed an un-Honda-like vibration at idle in our tester, but noise, vibration and harshness was otherwise kept to class-acceptable levels. A little more wind roar than was expected did slightly sour our high-speed driving experience, however.
CR-V uses an electronic steering system clearly set up for maneuverability over sportiness. Although the steering is generally precise, the wheel itself offers little road feel and an ultra-light level of resistance. So too the chassis, which feels taut and robust but hardly encourages sporting behavior. Grip, thanks to the all-wheel-drive system, is always there, but the CR-V felt out of place on our winding road test loop.
Clearly, this compact crossover is set up for the way average drivers use their crossovers: Around town, where its suspension was comfortably composed, and on the highway, where netting the advertised 30 mpg proved feasible. We saw 24 mpg combined, which is just a tick below the EPA's estimate. Either way, those figures aren't at the top of their class, but they're still pretty good for all-wheel-drive.
Why you would buy it:
The CR-V is brilliantly thought-out inside and out and it provides all of the capability most people seem to want from a small crossover.
Why you wouldn't:
Those interested in an engaging driving experience should look elsewhere.
Leftlane's bottom line
The Honda CR-V is the quintessential crossover we'd recommend our neighbors to buy. As car people, we're left with respect but nothing approaching enthusiasm for this most competent of compact crossovers.
But for most buyers, that'll be just fine. We would have liked to see Honda continue its tradition of class-leading fuel economy, but 30 mpg and a tick over $30,000 for something that puts decent power to all four wheels and comfortably seats a family of four and their luggage certainly makes a strong case for itself.
2012 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD (with navigation)
base price, $29,795. As tested, $30,605.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.