Honda CR-V: Original’s spirit rekindled

The latest generation CR-V suggests Honda is steering back toward the track forged by the highly-regarded original.


DEMAND for car-like crossover and sports utility vehicles is so strong now that many must wonder if it’s now inevitable that everything one day comes out looking like a quasi dirt-hopper.

With that being the case, it’s also probably only a matter of time before someone sits down to write up the history of these things. In which instance, chapter one would surely dedicate to the model here.

The original CR-V was not the world’s very first car-derived compact crossover SUV, but ran a close second to the trailblazing Toyota RAV4 and, in releasing here in 1995, actually did a better job of convincing a lot of people to jump ship to something that, in the day, seemed a bit weird.

But weird turned out to be wonderful. I certainly can recall being hugely impressed by Honda NZ’s media introduction day where, having first done the usual thing of getting us to drive the car around roads south of Auckland, we were on return to the distributor’s headquarters – a modest building in Wiri – invited to take the wee baby around the back and into an empty plot that was overgrown with weeds, full of household detritus and very, very muddy. As such, it was also deemed perfect to be Honda’s ‘off-road’ facility for the day.

Anyway, we bumped, scraped and bounced around the makeshift track for the next hour and, even though the conditions steadily worsened, and the cars were increasingly punished and filth-covered, not one ever got stuck.

It was an amazing demonstration of how not to judge a car like this by looks alone. Until we hit the dirt, everyone was of opinion that the most unique aspect of the ‘comfortable recreation vehicle’ was that the boot floor could transform into a picnic table. Afterward, we realised that it had real muck-in mettle as well.

As did the rest of the world. Two years later, Subaru was in the fray with another landmark, the Forester, and by the end of the decade most of the world’s carmakers were also cutting a track in this direction. Now, of course, this type is top of the world.

Honda must look back wistfully at that period. While the first and second generation CR-V were big hits, successive generations have not been as successful. Yes, the competition is much greater now. But it’s fair to say that the car also lost some of its mojo.

Reminder of how much it has changed is reinforced by the latest type, tested here in its most expensive format, the $47,900 all-wheel-drive Sport Sensing.

Like its predecessor, this gen five still visually imparts less like a Japanese car created to take on the world and represent Honda’s ambition to be seen as a sort of BMW equal than one designed to specifically appeal to bit that’s most important to Honda in terms of sales volume: North America.

While this model has a more interesting and less mid-Western styling, in overall dimension it’s definitely sized for Stateside, being one of the larger offers in the category, and the interior has something of an Ameriky-ambience, too.

Yet the more you see, the more there’s realisation that this first impression is not quite right. The trend toward low-rent plastics has been reversed, that awful foot-operated park brake has been eradicated and, gosh darmit, while the cupholder count hasn’t diminished, at least the diameter is no longer to super Slurpy size.

More to the point, it’s started to become interesting from a driver’s point of view. For sure, this is no by way the SUV equivalent of a Civic Type R, but at least some of the numbness that was all too dominant in the previous model’s suspension and steering has been removed.

All this is good. But is it good enough? Positive attaches to the engine. Going from a 1.8 in the last edition to a 1.5 this time might seem a downgrade, but in fact the new jigger is far more enlivening and involving than the old, with turbocharging and VTEC involving, the outputs of 140kW power and 240Nm torque are decent for the capacity. You need to work the gearbox and the throttle to keep it at full fizz, but there’s enough oomph to offset the porky 1642kg kerb weight.

All the same, you sense it would be even more inviting were married to an actual gearbox. Honda is fully in the thrall of cogless constantly variable transmission tech isn’t the best and while their’s is smarter than some – with seven simulated steps, an ‘S’ sport mode with more aggressive mapping that holds on to higher revs for more responsive performance, and a torque converter to help cut turbo lag it is ultimately just as prone to usual bugbears of odd noises and indecisiveness as any other CVT.

For sure, a CVT does allow for decent economy – on paper at least, as Honda’s claimed 7.4 litres per 100km not being reached – but I just kept thinking how much better served this effervescent engine would be by marriage to a torque-converter automatic.

Some cars in this sector are real hoots to drive, but the CR-V continues to take a more reserved approach, with engineers seemingly intent on delivering a smooth, grown-up ride as their priority. It’s quite different, then, the this latest Civic, even though they share the same MacPherson strut-style front and multi-link rear suspension design – though no components in the lower-centre-of-gravity chassis are shared.

The car’s compliance is very good. In fact, it does more than just cope well with bumps; the refinement as a whole is very impressive. But although the body control is quite well contained, and the steering is responsive and faithful, it never evinces as being overwhelmingly sporty. But, as I say, there are benefits from it having a big boy feel and a decent level of noise and vibration isolation. A stronger and more rigid body, smoother underbody area, sleeker A-pillars, more flush windscreen and wiper designs, better sealing and smaller gaps cut NVH significantly over the old CR-V too, mainly due to the better airflow management that results.

The all-wheel-drive part of the equation also figures in the driving mannerism, but because Honda has always gone for an on-demand rather than full-time system, it tends to come and go depending on how much traction it determines it needs. Grip is decent, nonetheless, and if you’re transitioning from seal to gravel – or full off-road conditions – it catches on pretty quickly. This CR-V is no more an outright off-road car than any of its predecessors, but it shouldn’t be too bad for light recreational fun. Ground clearance is decent and, as always, you can lock the drive to all four wheels for low speed stuff.

As always, occupants sit high, with clear views of a very comprehensively specified – if somewhat muddled – dashboard; the main instrumentation is entirely digital and quite concise, though the characters are quite blocky, but some of the sub-menus are a little quirky in their accessibility and presentation. The same comment goes for the huge central touchscreen, particularly in respect to the multimedia and trip info. It’s all just a bit too complicated to use at times.

That big screen also combines a camera view, which activates not only when you are reversing but also when turning (and indicating) left, as a doublecheck to ensure there’s nothing – a cheeky cyclist being the most likely culprit – lurking beyond the B-pillar. This lane watch is an extravagant assist that only Honda thinks of but I’m not sure if it is any better than any other kind of blind spot alert. Indeed, in some ways it can be too much of a distraction.

As you’d expect of a flagship, this edition is loaded. Indeed, there are no CR-V variants that could be considered stripped out. The only disappointment is that you have to buy into the premium model to buy the full gambit of active safety assists. That’s the ‘sensing’ part of the name.

But that aside, it is comprehensive in the kit level. Even the base model comes with 18-inch alloys, halogen projector headlights with auto function, fog lights, auto headlights, LED DRLs, parking sensors, an electric tailgate, sat nav, park assist, keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate air con, cruise control, speed alarm, trailer stability assist, tyre deflation warning system, and hill start assist.

Spend up more and you get stuff like an electric blind, auto wipers, leather, heated front seats, an electric driver’s and front passenger seat with memory function, paddle shifters, ambient lighting and rear controls for the AC.

The ‘sensing’ delivers adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, collision mitigation braking, forward collision warning, road departure warning, lane departure warning and an auto high beam support system.

There’s loads of space in the CR-V, with enough room on board this edition to comfortably take five average-sized adults. Legroom in the back is particularly good and headroom is excellent throughout. The boot is also generously sized and sensibly shaped, yet even though it is longer now, the capacity diminishes over the old one: 522 litres now against 556L before with the seats up, or 1084L seats down versus 1120L.

The main issue with the CR-V previously was that there’s not been a seven-seat option, but that’s resolved now – though, due to packaging constraints, if you buy a seven-seater you can only have front-wheel-drive. And you don’t get the sensing kit. Still, with well over a dozen rivals to face, having a seven-seater format is a real plus-point because that’s a box just a handful of those competitors tick off on.

What’s next? A diesel CR-V is not on the cards but there’s always potential that Honda could introduce the hybrid edition of this car.

That this new CR-V represents a brave new pitch is quite obvious from the new styling: A CR-V with an aggressive nose, pumped-up wheel arches and nice proportions represents a real glove throw down to the category. It’s a car that is on the way to a brighter new future – one that could allow it to achieve the glory years of that original.

However, it needs more polishing. Even if the CVT cannot be dropped, Honda should consider reconfiguring the shifter to provide a manual sequential operation. The new-look ergonomic conventions of that touch screen are also quite … well, annoying. The blind spot camera is a weird example, perhaps, of tech for tech’s sake. It seems like a smart idea. But so is adjusting your far-side wing mirror correctly. It’s a great, shame, too, that the full strength safety assist package has to be restricted to the top model.

All the same, the pluses are easy to enjoy: The engine itself is fantastic, the car has good ride, dynamics that suit the target market, fantastic refinement and the trade-off for it being bigger than some rivals is easily accepted when you consider the cabin’s roominess.

As things stand, the CR-V is not top of the pile. But neither is it anywhere near the bottom – and, from the quality of what is presented, surely the only way is up?