Minivan utility, Honda reliability in an SUV suit.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $18,650
As Tested $20,265

Honda's CR-V was not designed to tackle tough terrain. Honda knows most sport-utilities rarely leave the pavement, let alone venture into real rough stuff. For most of us, a little extra ground clearance and four-wheel traction are enough to satisfy our SUV needs: running family errands, battling winter slush.

The Honda CR-V offers utility, car-like driveability and full-time four-wheel drive. These first two are attributes minivans are designed to address and the CR-V offers the usefulness of a minivan.

Model Lineup

CR-V is available with front- (2WD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 146 horsepower powers all models.

Two trim levels are available, LX and EX. Retail prices: 2WD LX ($18,650); 4WD LX ($19,050); 4WD EX ($20,550). The 2WD LX comes with a four-speed automatic transmission. The 4WD LX and EX models come standard with a five-speed manual gearbox. Automatic transmission adds $800 to the bottom line.

CR-V LX models come standard with air conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette stereo, cruise control, map lights, a rear window washer-wiper, and power windows, mirrors and locks. To this, EX models add ABS, remote keyless entry, dual power color-keyed mirrors, CD stereo and alloy wheels.

Walkaround

Honda's CR-V is similar in concept and execution to Toyota's RAV4. Unlike most SUVs, these two mini sport-utilities are based on passenger car platforms. The CR-V is based on Honda's subcompact Civic line. The RAV4 is based on the Toyota Camry. The CR-V is considerably bigger and roomier than the RAV4, however. In fact, its dimensions are close to those of the four-door Jeep Cherokee, and it packs about the same cargo capacity.

Though it has the familiar Honda grille work and a steep windshield rake, the CR-V's exterior design has the boxy look of a sport-utility. There are two reasons for that: First, it's what buyers keep telling manufacturers they like. Second, it maximizes interior volume.

Interior Features

Like all Hondas, the CR-V's interior is subdued, comfortable, thoughtfully designed, and nicely finished. Front bucket seats are well contoured and spacious, and split-folding rear seatbacks can be reclined, a rare feature in any vehicle. Big mirrors provide excellent rearward visibility.

The instrument panel is straightforward and logical, with secondary controls that are instantly recognizable, particularly to anyone who's ever driven a Honda. An exception: Power window switches, located on the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel, are a bit awkward when underway.

The column-mounted shifter seems out of place in something that calls itself a sport-utility. On the other hand, putting the shift lever on the steering column allowed Honda to create a convenient minivan-style pass-through between the front seats. The manual transmission shifter takes up a bit of that space.

A handy tray with integrated cupholders flips up between the front seats. Two more cupholders slide out below the climate controls on automatic transmission models. An abundance of storage pockets and bins are located throughout.

For all its engaging detail touches, though, the most endearing trait of the CR-V interior is its roominess. There's lots of front headroom and legroom and plenty of rear legroom if the people in the front seats cooperate. There's a sizable cargo space behind the rear seats. The rear seatbacks flip and fold individually to expand cargo space. The CR-V even comes with a picnic table that stows in the rear floor. Pop it out, flip down the legs and it's party time.

Like the RAV4, the CR-V carries its spare tire on a rack mounted on the tailgate. Unlike the RAV4, and a lot of other external mounts, the CR-V's is low enough so that it doesn't interfere with vision to the rear. The tailgate on the Honda CR-V is a two-piece affair. The glass upper portion lifts up, while the lower portion swings open like a door. Both functions are operated by the key, which it is not the handiest arrangement if you're juggling an armful of groceries or cargo. The operator must first unlock the window portion, flip it up, and then swing the door open. Also, there's no release inside the car, which means the driver has to turn the car off, get out, walk around back and unlock the door manually.

Driving Impressions

Good ride quality is a CR-V strong suit. It's supple enough to absorb the nasty little irregularities of rough pavement without excessive compromise in handling response.

Part of that is due to its relatively long wheelbase. At 103.2 inches, the CR-V wheelbase is long for its overall size. Its wheelbase is a little longer than the Jeep Cherokee and a significant 8.3 inches longer than the four-door RAV4. That's typical of current Honda designs, and it's one of the reasons for Honda's success with ride quality.

The CR-V isn't quite as quick on its feet as the RAV4, but it is thoroughly competent. Low-end torque, the force that gets you up and running when the light turns green, isn't particularly abundant in the CR-V. The torque peak doesn't come until 4500 rpm. As a result, standing-start getaway is sluggish. The 5-speed improves performance in this area considerably. Once it builds up a head of steam, though, the CR-V is quicker than a RAV4. Honda powers the CR-V with a 2.0-liter dual overhead cam 16-valve aluminum four-cylinder hybrid from the Civic inventory rated at 146 horsepower and 133 pounds-feet of torque. That's a little more power than the RAV4's 2.0-liter engine, but the CR-V is a little heavier, so power-to-weight ratios are similar.

CR-V's engine is relatively quiet, less noisy than the RAV4, at most operating speeds. But both vehicles come with a fair amount of wind noise.

The CR-V's all-wheel-drive system primarily drives the front wheels. When system sensors detect loss of traction to the front wheels, it feeds torque to the rear wheels until proper grip is restored. The CR-V does not offer a locking center differential, low-range set of gears, a limited-slip rear differential or traction control. This limits the CR-V's capability in areas with steep climbs, limited traction, or deep sand. So be careful about driving the CR-V on the beach.

Overall, the CR-V drives like a compact station wagon, which is essentially what it is. There is nothing remotely truck-like about its behavior. Steering is precise and feeds plenty of road feel back to the driver. Honda's effective four-wheel double wishbone suspension is independent at all four corners. Its variable-assist rack-and-pinion power steering offers high boost for easy steering at parking lot speeds, low boost for better feedback at higher speeds.

EX models come with an anti-lock braking system (ABS), which allows the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency braking situation. Front brakes are discs, but the rear uses drum brakes.

Final Word

The Honda CR-V is an excellent piece of work. It's much roomier than the RAV4. Even with more than 8 inches of ground clearance, the CR-V is not a good choice for off-road use. But it is loaded with nifty features and, for the kind of duties that most sport-utilities perform most of the time, its all-around practicality and comfort deserve high marks.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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

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