A success since its introduction in 1997, the Honda CR-V was the best-selling car-based compact utility vehicle in nine of the past 15 years, including five of the past six. If natural disasters in Asia had not disrupted production last year — about 20 percent of CR-Vs were imported and even the assembly plant in East Liberty, Ohio, was affected by parts shortages — it might well have been No. 1 again.
But Honda may find it tougher to continue its run of successes with this fourth-generation model. Since gas prices moved up five years ago, compact crossovers have become the best-selling utility vehicles in the country, attracting more, and better, competition. This year, Ford will introduce a new Escape, Toyota will unveil a new RAV4 and Nissan will bring out a new Rogue — not to mention the arrival of new competitors like the Mazda CX-5.
Honda is meeting this new competition with a carefully graduated step forward rather than a shoot-for-the-moon upgrade. Resisting the trend toward bigger and heavier, Honda has made the 2012 CR-V about an inch shorter in length and an inch lower than its predecessor, as well as about 50 pounds lighter. The lower profile, in combination with a more wind-cheating shape, cuts aerodynamic drag by about 10 percent. Both the lighter weight and better aerodynamics improve fuel efficiency, a top priority in this class.
But Honda has avoided significant powertrain improvements, declining to introduce direct fuel injection, downsize the engine or add a turbocharger. Instead, the CR-V uses an improved version of the existing 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with reduced friction and 5 more horsepower, for a total of 185.
The transmission remains a 5-speed automatic, albeit with upgrades and slightly taller gearing to reduce engine speed. But when even entry-level buggies like the Chevrolet Sonic and Hyundai Accent have 6-speed automatics, the CR-V's unit seems a bit of a relic.
Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency rates the fuel economy at 23 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway for the front-drive CR-V and 22/30 for all-wheel-drive versions. Excluding the handful of hybrid crossovers, those figures are either best in the class or tied for best.
I recorded nearly 28 mpg in suburban driving, so the efficiency improvements are real and they come with no downside. Despite the taller gearing, the 2012 model can hit 60 mph from a standing start in the mid-eight-second range, which is about as quick as its predecessor. In normal driving, the CR-V easily keeps up with traffic, although against other 2012 cars and trucks it would probably lose more drag races than it would win.
Peak horsepower is available at 7,000 rpm, and if you summon every one of the ponies the engine makes appropriately strident noises. But most of the time it is reasonably subdued, with only an occasional mild drone when accelerating around 40 to 50 mph.
The transmission is equally well-behaved, shifting unobtrusively up and down just when you want it to, with particularly crisp quick shifts at full throttle. In fact, this CR-V, much like its predecessor, feels connected to the pavement in a way that imparts great confidence. The electrically assisted power steering is very accurate and nicely weighted, and the suspension provides excellent control of body motions.
At the same time, the CR-V effectively soaks up bumps and dips, which are craggy and common in the Detroit area. However, road noise is ever-present on the highway, particularly on concrete pavement. Unfortunately, with their light weight and large, boom-inducing cabins, few vehicles in this class are particularly quiet on the Interstate.
On the other hand, those large cabins provide plenty of space and utility, and the CR-V excels in this regard. The front seats are comfortable and roomy, as is the back, where the floor is totally flat.
While the CR-V is only an inch longer than the Civic sedan, it has a much roomier rear seat. In fact, the CR-V's back seat is roomier than the one in a Honda Accord sedan, a midsize car 16 inches longer.
This packaging advantage increases when you're carrying cargo; the CR-V provides more than 37 cubic feet of space behind the rear seat — 10 cubic feet more than the combined volume of the Civic and Accord trunks. Fold down the split rear seat and this space expands to almost 71 cubic feet. Although the cargo volume is about the same as last year's model, the space is about five inches longer and the opening is about an inch closer to the pavement.
Honda has also come up with a new trick to avoid having to fold up the seat cushions manually before folding down the seat backs. Now, both operations are accomplished by simply pulling a lever in the cargo compartment. And unlike some other small crossovers, the CR-V still comes with a roll-up cargo cover to hide items from prying eyes — and it can also be mounted to the floor and unfurled, forming a handy compartment for grocery bags.
This highly versatile interior is wrapped in sheet metal slightly sleeker than the last CR-V's, and also a bit tougher-looking in the front. The triangular shape of the rear side windows make the roofline seem more rakish than it actually is, and it creates a blind spot. These days, almost every small crossover trades style for function this way, although Honda tries to make up for it by giving the driver an expanded-view outside mirror.
The pleasing interior looks much richer than it is. Other than the soft elbow touch points, just about every surface is hard plastic, but clever graining makes it look like more expensive squishy plastic.
My test car was a top-of-the-line "EX-L With Navi" model; leather upholstery, faux wood and aluminum trim gave the interior a pleasing ambiance. Among the appreciated thoughtful touches were cruise-control buttons on the steering wheel of varied shapes; you can easily distinguish them by feel alone. Useful features include large cup holders, double-decker door bins and a central console that looks as if it can swallow an oversize purse.
Electronics figure prominently in any new car and the CR-V comes standard with a five-inch screen for the rearview backup camera that has three selectable fields of view, a Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, Pandora audio and voice-controlled text messaging. But despite the large screen, it wasn't easy to navigate through the numerous contacts in my phone book. Dialing numbers by voice command was a cumbersome multistep process.
To many CR-V owners, safety is perhaps more important than convenience. Traction control, stability control, antilock brakes and hill-start assist — it keeps the car stationary while you move your foot from the brake to the accelerator — are all standard. The stability control now coordinates with the electrically assisted power steering to help the driver maintain control on slick surfaces. On all-wheel-drive models, the system that sends power to the rear axle is electronically controlled, rather than hydraulically, and can allocate power even before the wheels slip.
The 2012 CR-V hasn't yet been crash-tested, but Honda says it expects top marks from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Prices are up about $500 from last year, ranging from $23,105 for the base front-drive LX to $30,605 for the EX-L with all-wheel drive and a navigation system. Still, this represents good value for excellent all-purpose, all-weather transportation that gets decent fuel economy. But with strong new competitors lining up, we'll see how long the new CR-V can stay on top.