A decade ago the idea of a SUV based on a car was unheard off. After all a SUV was supposed to be a rugged truck-like vehicle capable of going off-road and hauling boats.
However, even the largest SUVs ended up hauling kids around town and rarely if ever seeing any dirt roads. Owners started wanting a more car-like ride and a smaller size for easier driving in town, but they did not want to give up the increased ride height or the versatility of folding seats and the like.
Honda, a car company that has always prided itself in designing fuel efficient small cars, became one of the first companies to make a car-based SUV by taking the platform of the Civic and designing the CR-V.
The CR-V was first introduced in 1997. It immediately drew rave reviews as it was over a foot longer than the Toyota RAV4, its closest rival. Better yet it was about a foot shorter than the top-selling mid-size Ford Explorer making it much more practical for most people.
The 1997 and 1998 CR-V models were powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, producing 126 horsepower. In 1999 the horsepower rating jumped to 146, but with a minimal increase in the all-important torque rating. With an automatic transmission the performance was barely adequate. A manual transmission worked better, in terms of getting power to the road.
For the first year the CR-V was only available with a permanent all-wheel-drive system. It automatically delivered power to the front wheels, only directing power to the rear wheels if the front wheels started spinning.
A less expensive front-drive only version was introduced in 1998 although the 4WD version remained more popular until 2001.
Within a year of introduction, the CR-V was the top-selling vehicle in the growing segment of small SUVs Thus proving that people wanted smaller vehicles with the utility of bigger SUVs for use as commuter cars and around-town driving.
In 2002 Honda introduced a new generation CR-V without changing its size. Although it appeared remarkably similar, it looked sturdier with more solid metal door pillars and less glass area. A larger 160-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine helped improve the performance, otherwise the drivability and utility of the vehicle was pretty much unchanged.
1. 1998 Honda CR-V EX, AWD, Automatic, 57,000 miles. Asking price: $11,500 (Sept. 2004)
It’s amazing how some people manage to keep their vehicles looking like new. This six-year-old CR-V was a prime example. The inside was immaculate and the engine compartment looked as good as one on a showroom floor. I was not surprised when I discovered that Linda, the 30-something driver, had owned the car since new. She proudly told me how she had looked after the car and made sure it got regular maintenance. It even had new BFGoodrich tires that had been fitted within the past two thousand miles.
The autotrader.com advertisement described it as "immaculate," and that’s just what the car proved to be. A brief drive also confirmed that the vehicle appeared to be mechanically perfect. It ran well, and even with three people inside, it pulled well around town at low speeds. There were no signs of leaks or odd sounds emanating from the engine. It braked smoothly, and there were no squeaks or rattles.
Linda’s only complaint, echoed by her husband, was that it was “underpowered.” He said that going up a steep grade the engine sounded rough as the transmission shifted down a gear and the engine revved hard. However, they both said it was an ideal car for camping as it carried a lot of stuff and the rear foldout picnic table was a neat feature.
You might well ask why Linda was selling a car she liked so much and had taken such great care of? She was being given her mother’s Lexus RX 300 and felt it was a move upscale. She seemed kind of sad to see the CR-V go, but at least the person buying this CR-V was getting a really good vehicle that would undoubtedly give them many miles of great service.
2. 2001 Honda CR-V LX, 2WD, Automatic, 34,600 miles. Asking price: $14,990 (Sept.2004)
This CR-V had been sitting on the dealer lot for several weeks when we drove it. The window sticker said its price was $16,425 yet the newspaper ad had a price of $14,990. Why it had not yet sold was a mystery. Perhaps it was because it was only a 2WD version, which is less popular. Perhaps it was because the history was unknown?
Nonetheless it appeared to be in good condition with no obvious signs of damage. It drove well although pickup was slow despite having more horsepower than earlier CR-Vs. At speed on the freeway it felt stable and the brakes were fine. The engine buzzed a bit at 65 mph. Going around one corner it felt as if it had one tire with low pressure. Visually it was not noticeably soft looking, but it did have mismatched tires with Bridgestones at the front and Sumic tires on the rear wheels, so perhaps that was the problem.
Overall the car was a reminder that this is a practical utility vehicle. It’s not too big, yet it has plenty of space, even with the rear seats in use. Entry into the rear is a little tight as the doors have a narrow opening. The rear tailgate is also split so one has to open the glass portion first before the lower gate can be opened.
3. 1998 Honda CR-V EX, 4WD, Automatic, 61,000 miles. Approx. value: $9,500
Leslie, the 30-something owner of this CR-V, is a schoolteacher who enjoys camping. She had owned the car for a couple of years and had experienced no mechanical problems during the 19,000 miles she had driven.
As the car was not for sale, it had not been cleaned or tidied up. It was obviously a daily driver with plenty of stuff tucked away in each storage pocket and the usual grime on the body from lack of a recent cleaning. Nonetheless a peek underneath the seat covers revealed there was no wear on the seats themselves.
A look at the body showed no signs of any problems other than a few nicks and door dings. However Leslie did admit the vehicle had been in an accident, but it had been well repaired. I could not tell where it had been damaged, which was a good sign. Also, once I drove the vehicle it seemed fine, with no untoward pulling to the right or left, which can occur if the suspension on a damaged vehicle has not been reassembled and realigned properly.
Her previous car was a Honda Civic, and she loved the CR-V for its interior space. She said that the fuel economy was not as good as she expected. Although she did notice the lack of performance, it didn’t bother her.
Overall Leslie was happy with the vehicle for its reliability, which was the main reason she bought it in the first place, and its versatility for camping.
For a long time the Jeep Wrangler and ultra-small vehicles such as the Suzuki Samurai, and Chevrolet/Geo Tracker were the only small SUVs on the market. Toyota first introduced the RAV4 in 1996, and it caught on. However a year later Honda introduced the bigger CR-V, and it quickly became the most popular small SUV, overtaking RAV4 and Wrangler in its first full year on the market.
By 1999 Honda was selling about 120,000 CR-Vs in the US each year. Initially they were all 4WD models, but by 2001 only 25 percent of buyers opted for the real time 4WD version. Similarly over one third had manual transmission in the early days, but by 2001 the rate of installation had dropped below 10 percent.
This was obviously a reflection of the market that few were being purchased for even light duty off-road use, and the CR-V was viewed more as a commuter car for around town driving where an automatic is so much more practical.
The CR-V lost its title as top-selling small SUV in 2001 when the Ford Escape rose to the top of the sales charts. The new version of the CR-V, introduced in 2002, has continued to be highly regarded, and Honda actually sells more of them per year than ever before, even though it is outsold by the Escape and Jeep Liberty.
Anyone who likes the increased ride height and utility of a SUV but doesn’t want a gas-guzzler should consider a used CR-V. The overall feel is one of a semi-rugged wagon that delivers on the promise. It’s not suitable for anyone looking for serious off-roading or for any performance driving. However it has a good safety rating, making it a good deal for young drivers.
As gas prices increase, fuel economy is becoming an issue again. A CR-V offers most of the utility of a larger vehicle coupled with fuel economy that’s not much worse than a mid-size car.
Like all Honda’s the CR-V has a good reliability record. There do not appear to be any specific problems to look out for when shopping for a used one, other than the usual signs of leaks or obvious body damage that one should be cognizant of when purchasing any used vehicle.
©2005 AutoTrader.com L.L.C.