Comfortable runabout vehicle grows up.

by Tom Lankard

Base Price (MSRP) $18,800
As Tested (MSRP) $21,940

Honda is treading on tender parchment with its new CR-V. Is it a yet another mini-sport utility? Or is it a revisionist/retro station wagon? Actually, it's neither. Or it's both, depending on your aesthetic/measurement.

As such, it bests many of its immediate competitors in both qualitative and quantitative measures, while trailing in a few minor areas. At the same time, it faces off against a major, up-scale demi-ute bearing a logo more often seen on a squared-off 4X4 loping across sand dunes or winching a lesser vehicle out of a bog.

The new CR-V still isn't an off-road vehicle, but it is a major improvement over the previous model.

Model Lineup

The new CR-V is offered in two trim levels with a choice of two- or four-wheel drive.

Base is the LX 2WD ($18,800). In the middle is the LX 4WD ($19,200). On top is the EX 4WD ($21,500).

LX 2WD comes with a four-speed automatic transmission. LX 4WD and EX 4WD offer a choice between a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic.

Honda firmly believes simplicity is best: the fewer the options, the less a car costs to build. Four-wheel disc brakes are now standard on all models. Anti-lock brakes come standard on EX 4WD, but are not available on the other models. Front-seat side airbags are standard on the EX but are a $250 option on the LX.

Walkaround

The CR-V is growing up. When they were introduced in 1997, the Toyota RAV4 and the CR-V cemented the creation of a new class of vehicle in America: the cute-ute.

Not quite a sport-utility, but more than a car, both are built on car platforms but with sport-utility features. They are small enough to be considered cute. Their upright seating position, all-wheel drive and decent cargo space make them seem like small utility vehicles. Their highway-friendly suspension and handling make them feel like cars. This combination invited buyers who needed minivans but wanted something a smidgen smaller and more maneuverable, something that didn't look like a minivan

The first CR-V was introduced in May 1997. Like the first RAV4, the CR-V kind of faded into the background when other, powerful contenders responded. Working together, Ford introduced its Escape, while Mazda launched its Tribute. Chevrolet and Suzuki came out with their shared Tracker and Vitara, respectively. Hyundai launched the Santa Fe. Just recently, Land Rover introduced its luxurious and highly capable Freelander, while Jeep launched its highly capable and slightly larger Liberty. With all this competition, the CR-V and RAV4 appealed primarily to loyal Honda and Toyota customers. Not cars, but clearly not serious offroaders, the CR-V and RAV4 quickly became also-ran wannabees.

The 2002 Honda CR-V rebuts that characterization.

There's less activity in the body panels, which suggests a more robust persona. The front end is blunter and shorter, promising a more robust offroad presence.

The tailgate sports a rear window that opens on its own, which is good, but is still side-hinged on the right, which means you have to walk around the gate when you're parked at most curbs here in the good, ol', left-hand-drive U.S. of A.

Still, the overall look is a plus. You know it's a Honda CR-V, but it's somehow beefier, fuller, better proportioned; for lack of a better comparison, like a puppy that's filled out as it has grown up.

Interior Features

The interior is quite friendly.

Gauges are easy to read, white numerals on black background, avoiding the twilight wash-out afflicting the black-on-white array so much the fad today. Cruise control is standard, as is the adjustable steering column.

Seats are comfy. The rear bench has three-point belts and head restraints at all three positions.

Numerically, the new CR-V not only improves on its predecessor, but it also bests the competition in virtually every measure. Only the 2002 Toyota RAV4 beats the CR-V's 40.9-inch front seat headroom, and by less than half an inch. The '02 Ford Escape joins the RAV4 in providing more front-seat leg room, by 0.3 and 0.9 inches, respectively, over the CR-V's 41.3 inches.

Otherwise, the CR-V is the Emporer of the chart in roominess, including cargo space. Here, in every configuration, with the rear seat in whatever position, it's the champ by more than 7 cubic feet over the second-place '02 Ford Escape's 64.8 cubic feet, and by more than 26 cubic feet over the Freelander's 46.6 cubic feet. It also has 3.9 cubic feet more cargo space than the '01 CR-V.

There's a cool, collapsible tray table betwixt the front seats, with a couple of cup holders and a recess for a cell phone or whatever. The picnic table in back that does double duty as the cover for the spare tire bin has grown by several inches over the table in the original CR-V. Everything else is where it should be, blessed by 21 storage bins adroitly spread about the cabin.

Initially, we had trouble finding the emergency brake. It's subtly integrated into the vertical panel forward of the center console. It looks like a grab handle, until you decipher the icon in the grip. As odd as the placement might seem at first, over time it makes ergonomic sense.

Driving Impressions

Here's the fun part.

The simple numbers tell part of the tale. Horsepower is up to 160 (from 146 last year), torque to 162 pound-feet (from 133), Yet fuel economy remains essentially the same, giving up only 1 mile per gallon on the EPA's highway cycle.

The real story, though, is in what the numbers deliver. Horsepower makes for speed, and the new CR-V does fine in that regard. (So did the original; how often do you need to go 100 miles per hour?)

But torque makes for acceleration, and this is where the CR-V had been lacking. And the 2002 CR-V delivers its additional torque at 3600 revolutions per minute, significantly sooner than its predecessor's 4500 rpm. What this means is, when you push your right foot to the floor to merge onto the interstate or pass some dawdler, it's all going to happen much quicker and more safely than before.

Honda achieves these improvements with some seriously high-tech engine management systems spawned in the carmaker's highly successful ventures in Formula 1 auto racing. Virtually every aspect of the CR-V's engine, from valve timing and even duration and lift to fuel injection to spark is micro-managed by a computer. The system is called i-VTEC, for intelligent variable valve timing and lift electronic control. In addition to boosting power while maintaining fuel economy, i-VTEC also helps the CR-V qualify as a low-emission vehicle.

The 2002 CR-V's power figures put it well ahead of the competition on the charts, too. Only the optional V6 engines of the Ford Escape and Hyundai Sante Fe and the Land Rover Freelander's standard V6 register higher outputs than the CR-V's four-cylinder engine.

Handling is surprisingly reassuring. Despite the fact the track is essentially unchanged, the new CR-V feels more sure-footed through the twisties than the '01.

Honda says the suspension's dynamics are unchanged. So where's the credit due? Honda's engineers spent a lot of time putting the upper portions of the CR-V on a serious diet. Wherever possible, high-tensile metals were used in window frames and roof structures. Major masses, batteries, power motors and high-tech stuff, were located as low as possible relative to the platform, all with an eye to positioning the center of gravity close to the pavement.

It worked. No, the CR-V isn't a go-kart. But neither is it a top-heavy, sport utility.

Final Word

Finally, Honda has confronted the prospect of trying to catch up, a position the carmaker's competition has grown used to occupying for lo, these many years.

For the most part, with the CR-V, at least, it's managing. Yes, a V6 would be nice, but it's not necessary, given the carmaker's reputation for quality and durability. Besides, the four-cylinder has effectively raised that bar yet again.

With its expanded cargo and passenger volume and more mature styling, the CR-V has graduated to less cute, more ute.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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