The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4 were the first of the cute-utes, small vehicles based on cars that delivered the cargo versatility of a sport utility, an upright seating position, and all-wheel drive.
The CR-V shares its basic structure with the Honda Civic, giving it the ride quality and handling of a car. Besides being less expensive, the CR-V is smaller and more maneuverable than a full-sized SUV. Most important, it doesn't look like a minivan.
The CR-V isn't much good off-road, but it's available with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the latter giving it good winter weather capability.
This second-generation CR-V was launched as a 2002 model and the styling was revised for 2005. For 2006, the CR-V carries over with virtually no changes except for two new paint colors.
Honda CR-V LX 2WD ($20,395); LX 4WD ($21,595); EX 4WD 5M ($22,850); EX 4WD 5A ($23,750); SE 4WD (25,450)
The rear glass opens on its own, separately from the tailgate, which is good. However, the lower part of the gate is side-hinged and opens to the right, so you'll have to walk around the tailgate when you're loading cargo from the curb, inconvenient at the airport.
The SE is the best looking model because of its body-colored trim in place of the gray bumper covers on the other models. The SE makes the CR-V look more like the Honda Pilot, a midsize SUV.
In terms of crashworthiness, the CR-V rates highly. It earned five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for front and side impacts, the highest ratings possible. Remember, though, that NHTSA's tests compare cars in a given class rather than across all categories, so a five-star compact SUV isn't necessarily as safe as a five-star full-size SUV.
The front seats are excellent. And it's roomy, with generous headroom and leg room up front. The moonroof reduces headroom by nearly two inches, however, and taller drivers will notice.
The rear seats offer space and comfort as well. The rear bench is neither too soft nor too hard, and all three rear positions have three-point belts and head restraints.
The driver gets gauges that are easy to read, with traditional white numerals on a black background. Cruise control is standard, as is an adjustable steering column. We loved the stereo and six-disc in-dash CD changer that come standard on the EX and SE. Honda does not provide a compass, however. The parking brake is disguised, subtly integrated into the vertical panel forward of the center console. It looks like a grab handle until you spot the icon in the grip. As odd as the placement might seem at first, using the hand brake gets more comfortable in short order.
A convenient, collapsible tray table is provided between the front seats with a couple of cup holders and a recess for a cell phone. The center console accommodates CDs and cassettes. Almost everything else seems to be where it should be, and there are no less than 21 storage nooks spread through the cabin. Coat hooks are provided above the rear seats. The cover for the spare-tire bin does double duty as a folding picnic table.
The CR-V hauls cargo well. It offers 72.0 cubic feet of cargo space with the back seats folded, 33.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in place. The 60/40 split rear seat slides forward and back over a range of six inches to maximize either passenger or cargo space when the seat is up.
Power isn't a problem here. Put your foot to the floor and acceleration comes on quickly, important when passing on two-lane roads. Torque, that force that propels you away from intersections and up hills, peaks at just 3600 rpm and remains strong over a broad swath of the engine's range. In other words, the CR-V is responsive at all speeds.
The four-cylinder engine isn't as smooth as a V6, however, and because it revs higher it sometimes seems like it's working harder. It isn't really, and you can be sure Honda's big four-cylinder is sturdy. So don't be afraid to rev it. Honda is a leader in engine technology, and the CR-V's 2.4-liter, 16-valve, double overhead-cam engine benefits from intelligent variable valve timing, which Honda calls i-VTEC. This system allows the engine to generate lots of usable power while keeping fuel economy at an impressive EPA-estimated 22/27 City/Highway miles per gallon. Like all Hondas, the CR-V is a clean-running vehicle. It meets the LEV-II low-emissions standards, meaning 10 CR-Vs generate fewer pollutants than a similar single car did just 10 years ago.
As four-cylinder/automatic combinations go, the CR-V's is first rate. The five-speed automatic is fairly responsive and helps keep the four-cylinder engine in the right rev range for power or fuel economy. Downshifts come quickly, and full-throttle upshifts come smoothly just before redline. Nonetheless, if obtaining the best performance and economy is your priority and rush-hour commutes aren't part of the daily ritual, we recommend the five-speed manual available on the EX.
The CR-V rides well whether the roads are smooth or rough. It rides more smoothly than most sport utilities, which makes for pleasant motoring beat-up city streets. It feels sure-footed on twisting roads. Even when driven hard, the CR-V handles reasonably well. It doesn't push excessively at its front end or slide at the rear, and the tires offer good grip. In short, the CR-V drives more like a car than a truck. It's maneuverable in tight parking lots, thanks to its tight turning radius (33.8 feet).
Vehicle Stability Assist, standard on all models, uses sensors at each wheel and the anti-lock brake system to modulate the electronic throttle and apply brake force to individual wheels as needed to maintain traction and avoid skids on slippery pavement and in tight turns.
The all-wheel-drive system that comes on the 4WD models operates full time, with the bulk of the power directed to the front wheels. It's a great aid when winter snowstorms hit, adding vastly improved stability and traction in slippery conditions. Called Real Time AWD, Honda's system is not designed for serious off-road duty, but it is suited for snow.
The Honda CR-V is a versatile family vehicle that's reasonably priced. Its interior is roomy and stuffed with convenience features. On the road, the CR-V offers a nice, smooth ride and decent handling, and Honda's four-cylinder engine delivers good power and excellent fuel economy with low emissions. The 4WD models are capable vehicles in wintry conditions.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard reports from Northern California.