The all-new 2012 Honda CR-V is the fourth generation of Honda's popular and widely acclaimed first venture into the SUV market. The original, according to Honda lore, was conceived to fulfill a need the company perceived for a Comfortable Runabout Vehicle. A four-door, five-passenger, entry-level sport utility vehicle, the CR-V is comfortable and is quite useful for running about. The new version is improves on the previous generation though only slightly.
The Honda CR-V comes packed with features such as Bluetooth-enabled hands-free capability and streaming audio. The audio system comes with the ability to function as a control head for the internet radio site Pandora. Not only is there a rearview camera, but it's a multi-angle unit that lets the driver choose between a top view and either a 130-degree or a 180-degree view. Automatic climate control, leather, heated front seats and a premium, 328-watt audio system with a subwoofer and XM satellite radio are available. Optional on the top model is a GPS-based navigation system with turn-by-turn directions.
There is only one engine offered, an upgrade of the previous CR-V's 2.4-liter four-cylinder, and one transmission, an upgraded version of the 2011 model's gearbox. Those upgrades, though, eke out four more horsepower and two more pound-feet of torque and with better fuel economy, a 10-percent improvement.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimate 23/31 City/Highway mpg on the front-wheel drive CR-V, 22/30 mpg with all-wheel drive. Those figures split the difference between the segment's major players.
New on the 2012 CR-V is the Eco-Assist system, which will adjust transmissions shift points and gently retard acceleration to improve fuel economy. Eco-Assist can be switched on and off by the driver. Honda has given the new CR-V some equally new drivetrain technology.
The 2012 CR-V gets hill-start assist, which applies the brakes when the car is stopped on an incline and releases them when the driver touches the accelerator. The clutch that sends power to the rear wheels on the AWD models has a pre-load function that prevents any initial slippage when moving off from a stop. On freeways and surface streets, the ride and handling is solid without being overly firm and stable with little body lean in corners even at elevated speeds.
The 2012 CR-V's styling definitely falls more toward evolutionary than revolutionary. Most of the changes are minor, leaving the visuals in familiar territory. Headlight housings are sleeker. The roofline is an inch lower, and the side sculpting is more pronounced. The most remarkable difference is something only following drivers get to enjoy, as the liftgate and taillight assemblies have received a complete re-do and look remarkably more contemporary than those on the 2011 CR-V.
Interior finish is Honda-spec, with everything fitting snugly and pleasantly styled panels and trim pieces complimenting each other and showing a consistent theme. Controls are functional and for the most part intuitive. The screen on the optional navigation system is large and easy to read, though the system takes a long time to start up. Honda's decision to go with hard plastic surfaces everywhere but the door armrests is disappointing. The lower roofline means occupants lose an inch of headroom. The rear cargo compartment is slightly larger when the rear seats are folded, but the cargo compartment is no longer perfectly flat.
Changes to the 2012 CR-V from the 2011 are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. All essential styling cues remain the same, with marginal adjustments to dimensions more than anything else.
Front view is a little sleeker, rounder, with a more rakish shape to the headlights. The grille still sports three horizontal bars but wider spaced. The lower valance follows the same general outline, but it's more pronounced. Fog lights are pretty much the same place as on the 2011. The hood sculpting reverses from convex to concave. Fender blisters are bolder, giving the new CR-V a stronger stance.
Side silhouette is almost identical, for the most part, save for a one inch lower roofline and a one inch shorter overall length. Sculpting across door lowers is less linear, more recessed with a slight coke bottle-ness. Wheel arches are fuller and more sharply defined. The rearmost side window pinches down to a tapered trailing edge, accenting the rear taillight and backup cluster that now wraps around into the rear quarter, breaking up somewhat the added sheetmetal in the C-pillar (the vertical body panel between the roof and lower body behind the rearmost side window). Full round door handles over oval recesses easily accommodate gloved hands.
The rearview of the 2012 CR-V looks complete, like the stylists knew where they wanted to go when they started and finished the job. The 2011, in contrast, showed a generic backend for smaller SUVs, with a piece of glass sandwiched between the trademark CR-V vertical taillights and perched on top of an uninspired, conventionally stamped sheet of metal bracketed by basic backup lights and reflector elements. Drooping suspension and spindly drive mechanicals visible to following drivers may well have been sufficiently robust, but were somewhat short of reassuring visually. The 2012 CR-V leaves all that behind, if you will. Proportions are right, with the backlight (rear window) fully integrated into the liftgate's lower half. A thin strip of brightwork tops the license plate recess that itself snugs into the upper half of a scalloped recess spanning the liftgate from one fender to the other. The vertical taillights each look to be a single piece and are inclusive of the backup and running lights. Tires properly positioned relative to the rear fenders match the front end's solid stance. The matte-finished lower valance masks all but the beefiest of the rear suspension underpinnings.
At first blush, the 2012 CR-V interior comes across as an elegant upgrade from the 2011's. Some buyers might be disappointed, however, when they get in touch with some of the materials Honda has used in apparent cost-cutting efforts.
Seats are comfortable, with adequate if not remarkable thigh support. The leather is a little short of luxurious but no less so than what trims seats in competitively priced comparatives SUVs. Door armrests are padded. Door-mounted map pockets are molded to hold a beverage can or water bottle, but aren't especially deep, so no cups, please, unless topped with sipper caps.
That one inch lower roofline, though, as helpful as it might be for slipping through the air, also means occupants lose an inch of headroom from the 2011 model and fall behind the primary competitors, the Toyota RAV4, the Hyundai Tucson, the Ford Escape and the Chevrolet Equinox, by at least that much. Occupants hold their own in legroom, however, except for the Equinox, which gives occupants around an inch more than the new CR-V.
The center console now extends forward all the way under the pod holding the shift lever, adding usable storage space in the form of a longer and deeper, covered storage bin, one large enough, the Honda folk promise, to conceal a good sized handbag. Small trays are tucked into each side of the lower part of that extended console. The lower portion of the dash curves outward from the more subdued shift lever pod in graceful arcs toward the doors, which themselves repeat the arc cues.
The screen that serves either as the control panel for the audio or the nav system display parks front and center in the upper dash directly below a deeply recessed, smaller screen that handles the duties of the onboard computer and the rearview camera on the EX-L with the nav system. Not only is there a rearview camera, but it's a multi-angle unit that lets the driver choose between a top view and either a 130-degree or a 180-degree view. All views have superimposed guidelines to aid the driver when backing up, although they are fixed and don't bend to indicate track at the current steering wheel angle as they do on some systems.
On each side of the large circular speedometer that dominates the instrument cluster is a thin light strip that glows green to signal when the engine is optimizing fuel economy. It's attractive, looking like a giant parentheses around the speedometer. Mostly intuitive knobs, buttons and rocker switches on the dash and steering wheel manage audio and climate control functions. The automatic climate control system on the EX-L works well. Pressing a Sync button resets the two-zone system to one temperature, which is useful, but the indicator light showing this minor issue has been fixed is so bright as to be distracting, the sort of thing we'd expect to see in a cheap compact car.
As new and fresh as the dash looks, it also hints at Honda's efforts to shave costs on the 2012 CR-V. Nearly all surfaces are hard plastic. The surfaces are visually pleasing, with upscale-looking graining and metallic-like finishes, but the feel is, shall we say, maybe not cheap but clearly low cost.
On the other hand, Honda spared little when it came to engineering the rear spaces. The cargo area, which by the way holds more foot-square boxes than all the competitors but the RAV4, sports four tie-downs and a very thoughtful, molded-in bracket down near the floor at the rear for storing the EX's and EX-L's retractable cargo cover when it's not in use. Honda also managed to give the rear seats true, one-step fold-down systems, activated by pulling either a lever on the sides of the cargo area or a strap on the outboard side of the rear seat bottoms. However, the bad news is that when the rear seats are folded the cargo area is no longer perfectly flat as it was on the previous-generation model. This may make the CR-V less attractive to dog owners. The previous-generation CR-V led the class on this feature, but the new-generation model does not appear to do so. Last but far from least, the backs of the rear seats are beveled on the outboard edges so the shoulder straps on the seatbelts naturally slip around the seatbacks when they're raised from their folded positions. This is such a simple yet elegant solution to this perennial gripe about folding rear seats that it's amazing it hasn't been thought of before now. Kudos to Honda's engineers for making life just a little easier.
Honda hasn't pushed the performance envelope with the 2012 CR-V, but it has polished and refined the central ingredients of a very competent powertrain and peripherals, again apparently with some concern about development costs, most notably as regards the transmission.
The engine's mechanicals in large part are unchanged from 2011. The displacement is the same, at 2.4 liters. So is number of camshafts, at two, and valves per cylinder, at four. Through modifications to some internals to reduce friction and re-coding the engine management computer, Honda has found an additional five horsepower and two pound-feet of torque.
The transmission remains a 5-speed but with upgraded mechanicals and in the front-wheel-drive models slight changes to gear ratios, the new CR-V betters its predecessor's highway fuel economy estimates by 10 percent, where it also strikes a middle ground with its primary competition. All of this combines to deliver an impressively linear rate of acceleration, although not on a scale to compete with its competitors' V6 models. Gear changes are so smooth they sometimes register only in the tachometer's indications of changes in engine speed. One barely notices that there are only five gears, while most of the competition has moved up to 6-speed tranmissions.
The new CR-V gets an Econ mode, which driver's can select by pressing a green button emblazoned with a leaf. This system imposes a more restrained shift pattern on the transmission and a less aggressive acceleration mode. We felt the difference on the test drive at the launch. Honda won't say how much of an improvement driver's can expect in fuel economy with the system activated, only that it's noticeable. In other words, your mileage may vary.
Ride quality is well controlled, with pavement irregularities mostly masked and minimal body lean in corners, even at speeds that activate the stability control system. This is clearly a marked improvement over the 2011, which Honda credits in part to its Motion-Adaptive Electric Power Steering, a system shared with the 2012 Civic. This system complements the electronic stability control system by helping stabilize the CR-V during heavy braking and introducing a degree of corrective steering input to mitigate understeer (when the vehicle wants to go straight instead of turn) and oversteer (when the vehicle wants to turn more than the driver intends).
Road and tire noise are decently muted, although pavement type plays a huge role in this gauge. Some credit for the relative quiet goes to the CR-V's body rigidity, although Honda also notes the 2012 gets more sound deadening material than the 2011.
Honda has added hill-start assist to the new CR-V. This engages the brakes when it senses the CR-V is stopped on an incline, then releases them as the driver presses the gas pedal. The AWD system also knows when the vehicle is stopped and primes the hydraulics that send power to the rear wheels to quicken response by lessening slippage during engagement when the driver accelerates.
The 2012 Honda CR-V remains a solid and competent player in its niche while avoiding the teething that often accompanies major changes. Honda has metered its response to market pressures by improving instead of radically overhauling or replacing an already stand-out entry-level SUV. Although some might question whether such conservatism is wise given today's hyper competitiveness.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Carlsbad, California.