Can a four-shooter thrive in a six-shooter world?

by John Pearley Huffman

From the mid-Eighties through the early-Nineties Honda sold an ugly lump of a Civic wagon that was bought in tiny numbers but was about as practical a machine that’s ever been marketed. It was tall, it was roomy, it got great fuel economy and it was available with Honda’s “Real Time” four-wheel drive system. But it was just so shaved-bulldog-butt homely.

The first ’97 CR-V was as much a successor to that misbegotten Civic wagon as a response to the challenge of Toyota’s ’96 RAV4. As such it brought a new level of practicality to the twerp SUV class and thoroughly conventional styling as far away from the Civic wagon’s as possible. Honda has sold a bazillion of them and if anything is clear about the all-new 2002 CR-V, it is that Honda wasn’t about to screw-up a winning formula. But since ’97 the CR-V’s class has grown increasingly crowded with competitors from virtually every manufacturer. Can a better CR-V expand the proven formula to compete in this jam-packed market?

Cue dramatic music. Heavy on the timpani please.

Familiar parts, familiar idea

The ’02 CR-V rides atop Honda’s current “Global Small Car Platform” and is, after the 2001 Civic and new Acura RSX, the third vehicle of that family to make it to North America (the fourth member of the family, the Stream minivan, won’t be sold in America). How global is this platform? While all initial 2002 CR-V production will come out of Japan, around mid-year up to half will be imported from a Honda plant in Britain. And despite being made in Japan and Britain, the CR-V’s biggest market will continue to be the U.S.

But while it will be sold alongside the Civic, the new CR-V is actually more closely related to the RSX sharing as it does the same derivatives of the same engine and transmission families in addition to the modified MacPherson strut front and double-wishbone rear suspension.

As usual, CR-Vs will come in both front-drive and four-wheel-drive versions with the full-time four-wheel drive system continuing to carry the almost nostalgic “Real Time 4WD” name. And as before Real Time means no low-range gear and limited off-road ability. Want to cross the Rubicon trail? Get a Jeep or Range Rover. Need something that handles a slushy parking lot or muddy road? Than the CR-V is more (but not much more) than adequate. Honda claims 8.1-inches of ground clearance for the new CR-V (the same as the original), but positions the engine way down in the chassis to lower the center of gravity. That’s great for on-road stability, not too wonderful for clearing boulders.

Honda’s “Toe Control Link” modified MacPherson front struts don’t sound exotic and the rear double wishbones aren’t new to Honda’s experience, but they work quite well and don’t get too discombobulated even when venturing across rutted paths. Standard four- wheel anti-lock disc brakes are aboard and the rack-and-pinion steering is mounted high in the nose. But the new CR-V benefits most from its wider track and lower center of gravity. The ride is controlled and relatively soft, the steering is quick, well-weighted and slightly uncommunicative, and the brakes inspire confidence. This is a chassis that can be driven with absolute precision, but doesn’t really encourage aggressive driving. How many aggressive drivers would make the CR-V their instrument of choice, anyhow?

The new CR-V hasn’t porked up significantly (the lightest two-wheel drive, CR-V manual weights 3201-pounds while a top-of-the-line, four-wheel drive, CR-V EX automatic peaks at 3347-pounds — between 75 and 102 pounds more than the 2001 model.) but it’s not really small either and the old 146-horsepower CR-V was strained almost all the time. So the 2002 CR-V is equipped with the largest four-cylinder engine Honda has ever sold in here – a 2.4-liter version of the all-aluminum, DOHC, i-VTEC four, first seen here as a 2.0-liter aboard the new Acura RSX.

Compared to the 2.0-liter RSX engine (which has a square 86-millimeter bore and stroke), most of the displacement bump comes from a long 99-millimeter stroke with some help from an 87-millimeter bore. And, as expected, the long-stroke engine is optimized for torque production rather than total horsepower. So even though the RSX base 2.0-liter and CR-V 2.4-liter are both rated at 160-horsepower (the RSX at 6500 rpm, the CR-V at 6000), the CR-V makes fully 21 pound-feet more peak torque (162 vs. 141) and makes it at a lower rpm (3600 rpm vs. 4000) while running a slightly lower compression ratio (9.6:1) that allows the use of any grade of fuel above Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill “wine.”

To fight any vibration invited aboard by the long stroke and large displacement Honda has installed to counter-rotating balance shafts low in the block. Those balance shafts work wonderfully; this is a velvety engine with a broad VTEC-enhanced torque band. So friendly is the torque that the engine actually seems to work better with the optional four-speed automatic transmission than the five-speed manual. The manual tranny will be quicker, but the automatic is sure-shifting, indomitable and quiet.

The big problem on Honda’s horizon may be the lack of a V-6 option. The Ford Escape for instance can be had with a 200-horsepower V-6 in its nose, and it’s hard to beat the allure of more power for a lot of buyers.

Slightly bigger, much better

Spanning 178.6 inches of total length, the new CR-V is just an inch longer overall than it’s predecessor. But virtually all the other dimensions have swelled as well. At 70.2 inches wide, the new CR-V is 1.3 inches wider and at 66.2 inches tall, it’s 0.3 inches taller. And all those incremental increases boost interior roominess. Front shoulder room, for instance, grows from 53.3 inches to 6.9 inches and front hip room swells from 53.4 inches to 54.5 inches. But the big gains are in rear leg room and cargo capacity. Even through the new CR-V’s 103.1-inch wheelbase is actually shorter than the original’s 103.2 inches, Honda has stretched rear legroom to 39.4 inches from the old vehicle’s 36.7 inches. That’s enough to make the rear seat comfortable for adults even during trips longer than a run to Wal-Mart.

The new CR-V has been drawn with razor-crisp lines and is defined by its thick black composite front bumper, multi-reflector headlamps and huge taillights. It’s more contemporary looking than the old CR-V, but awkward from some angles and downright weird from others. It’s obviously an SUV, obviously a Honda, still in the SUV mainstream, but no one will call it pretty. And all CR-Vs will carry their spare tires on the right-side hinged rear door.

While the exterior design provokes ambivalent reactions, the inside is clearly superior. Banished are the old CR-V’s inferior eccentricities like the dash mounted electric window switches and too-upright driving position. In their place are some solidly conventional designs (window switches on the door) and a few new oddities. Chief among them are a center dashboard binnacle that's framed on either side by what appears to be grab handles. But the driver’s side “handle” is actually the parking brake. Another fresh weirdness is that CR-Vs with the automatic trans put its controls lever on the dash. Combine the unique parking brake with the on-dash trans lever and the flat floor between the front becomes a minivan-like “walk-through.” Get the manual trans and the shifter is mounted conventionally on the floor, so no walk-through. And Honda deletes the front passenger seat-mounted folding center armrests from manual models too.

Covered in Honda’s usual abuse-resistant cloth, the front seats are well-shaped and accommodating. But it’s the rear seat(s) that makes the CR-V interior truly flexible. Split 60/40, the rear seat can take two passengers comfortably and three for brief periods with a shoulder harness for each of them. If there’s no one in the center, a large console folds out with two big cupholders. Beyond that the seat’s sections independently slide back and forth on their own tracks and recline for comfort.

Every other possible cubbyhole in the interior has been optimized for some cargo-hauling chore or another. And, as it did on the previous CR-V, the rear cargo floor removes to become a picnic table.

Bigger power

Honda will have to price the CR-V aggressively – the small SUV market is crowded now. Base “LX” CR-Vs arrive with cruise control, power windows and mirrors, air conditioning and an AM/FM/CD/Cassette sound system as standard. Stepping up to the EX – which comes only as a 4x4 — adds privacy glass, a remote keyless entry system, alloy wheels, side airbags, a moonroof and an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Will Honda’s reputation be enough to overcome the lack of a V-6 in this class? Probably. After all the majority of budget utes sold out are fours, even if a six is available. And among the four-cylinder SUVs, the CR-V is the best.

 

2002 Honda CR-V

Price: $17,500 (est.)
Engine: 2.4-liter in-line four, 160 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Length: 178.6 in
Width: 70.2 in
Height: 66.2 in
Curb weight: 3347 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 22/26 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, keyless entry, rear wiper/washer, power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise control, front fog lamps, foldout table
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

 

Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection

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