VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Route 99 from Squamish to Vancouver clings to cliffs high above Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia in Canada's way-west province of BC -- British Columbia. Mile for mile, BC 99 ranks as one of the world's most spectacular scenic highways, steep fir-studded hillsides and cascading waterfalls to the inland side and the coastal side overlooking green mountainous islands dotting the deep Pacific blue waters. By contrast, it's also a narrow strip of rough and bumpy pavement usually cluttered with road construction crews and clogged with commuter traffic.
Our passage on the 99 is a lucky cruise, however, with scant traffic and no construction delays. The trek is also easy on one driver because we're steering a smooth-riding and comfortable runabout vehicle. Actually, that's the name -- Comfortable Runabout Vehicle. For simplicity, Honda abbreviates it to the initials of CR-V.
This agile five-door crossover utility vehicle (CUV) which rides on a car's chassis scores a make-over for 2007 with an expanded structure, bold new body styling and the passenger compartment laced with more safety equipment and fancy features. Concepts for the original CR-V that rode like a car and functioned like a practical minivan came out of the Japanese marketplace, where a small vehicle navigating Japan's crowded and narrow streets was far preferable to a big one, and perks for comfort were in keen demand. Honda brought the CR-V to America in 1997 and it became an instant hit as a sport-ute which was comfortable and easy to drive.
By 2002, Honda allowed the CR-V to grow up by casting evolutionary designs which elevated the wagon in size, style, comfort and performance. Now, the re-do of 2007 goes further by pitching the CR-V as a substantial CUV for the compact class with a passenger compartment enhanced in terms of comfort, convenience and quietness. Foundation for the new treatment is a unit-body platform that shows the extensive use of high-tensile steel.
Compared to the previous edition, CR-V rises to roughly the same height at the roof but it has a lower center of gravity with wheel track stretched wider by 1.2 inches in front and 0.8 inches in the rear. Working in favor of a dynamic vehicle is the independent suspension -- tuned MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in back -- with larger 17-inch wheels (either steel or aluminum) capped by 225/657 all-season tires. There's a computer-managed vehicle stability control system aboard labeled Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), along with a four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS) coupled to electronic brake distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (BA) units.
And the steering is crisp and true, as derived from a rack and pinion design with speed-sensitive hydraulic power boost. A front-wheel-drive (FWD) powertrain for CR-V consists of a four-cylinder engine linked to a five-speed automatic transmission. The dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) 2.4-liter in-line-four is made from aluminum with a drive-by-wire throttle and Honda's special i-VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse torque across a broad band.
It produces 166 hp at 5800 rpm and torque of 161 lb-ft at 4200 rpm. It also earns respectable fuel-burn scores with EPA mileage estimates up to 30 mpg. Honda's automatic four-wheel-drive (4WD) system is also available on the CR-V to improve tire grip.
Note, though, that the absence of protective undercarriage plates and a lockable differential with low-gear range signify that CR-V's four-wheeling intent is directed at improving traction on rain-slick pavement or in winter weather rather than for off-road forays. Take a walk-around tour of the CR-V and you'll discover a streamlined body posing in hunkered stance that makes it appear ready to roll. There's a low hood line to enhance forward visibility for the driver, with the stubby prow featuring thick fascia which wraps upward to resemble skid plates.
Oversized headlamp clusters crown the front corners and continue into flared fenders over the tires. The roofline slinks rearward over a band of arched windows with black-capped pillars. At the rear long red lamps define edges of a new top-hinged tailgate, which curves down and fits flush against the bottom bumper.
In the cabin there's room for five riders with supportive bucket seats in front of a bench for three and a rear bay for cargo. Unconventional designs make creative use of the space and add to comfort. For instance, the two front buckets are separated by a flat floor and the transmission shifter extends directly from the dashboard center spot. That eliminates the need of a console so it vanishes (expect on the top trim), leaving the flat floor free to function as walk-through space.
Likewise, the rear seats perform tricks. Split in sections, the seatback reclines or folds forward and the folded seats tumble forward, all to add flexibility in carving out space for people and cargo. The dashboard poses large analog instruments beneath a binnacle brow, while the center stack of controls for audio and climate systems has audio gear mounted high on the dash for easy access with the climate controls down low using large round rotary knobs.
Honda builds the CR-V in three trim grades -- well-equipped LX, deluxe EX and a top level EX-L lined in leather. CR-V LX stocks air conditioning, power windows and programmable power door locks, power side mirrors, a fold-away tray table housed between the two front seats plus a sliding storage bin under the right bucket, a remote entry system and an audio system with AM/FM/CD plus MP3/WMA and four speakers. MSRP figures for the new CR-V begin at $20,600 for the LX 2WD and cap at $28,000 for the EX-L 4WD.