Thumbs Up: Quieter than the outgoing model, and less thirsty.
Thumbs Down: Suspension may be too soft now.
Buy This Car If: You want a five-passenger crossover that will likely deliver decades of reliable service.
The Honda CR-V (for Compact Recreational Vehicle, or Comfortable Runabout Vehicle, depending upon which story you believe) has been a perennial best-seller for Honda since hitting the market in 1995. It’s really no secret why, either: the CR-V delivers a reasonable amount of interior room, decent fuel economy and solid value for the money. Like anything with a Honda badge on the front, it’s likely to deliver decades of trouble-free driving, and the availability of all-wheel-drive gives snow belt state buyers additional peace of mind.
The CR-V has been through three generations, and is now entering its fourth version since launch. Honda’s had no trouble in selling CR-V’s, regardless of the competition, so you’d be correct in assuming that the differences between third and fourth generation models are evolutionary and not revolutionary. The automaker knows that too many changes in the name of market share can have the opposite effect, so it’s (wisely) treading carefully with revisions to the CR-V.
Outside, the nose of the new CR-V is a bit more tapered than on the previous version, to reduce drag, improve fuel economy and give the CR-V a more SUV-like appearance. The character line on the top of the doors is bolder, giving the new crossover a bit more personality than the model it replaces. Out back, the vertical taillights have more of a dimensional look, and wrap further around the side of the vehicle, tying the rear and side profile styling together. As before, there’s plenty of glass to deliver reasonable outward visibility, and the new CR-V’s C-pillars appear to be even less pronounced than on previous models.
Bucking the universal trend to make everything bigger, the fourth generation CR-V is just a hair smaller than the model it replaces, giving up an inch in height and a similar amount in length. Despite this, it doesn’t lose any interior passenger room, and we swear that cargo room is even improved over the previous version. If you’re looking for a crossover to tow a boat or a trailer, the CR-V isn’t it; as before, the sole engine option is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, bolted to a five-speed automatic transmission. That’s fine for hauling passengers and cargo, but not for hauling anything that requires a trailer hitch.
That’s not a slight, and Honda would be happy to sell you a Pilot SUV or a Ridgeline pickup if you need towing capability. Instead, the Honda CR-V is right-sized for every day use, as long as your expectations on its capacities and abilities are within reason. It won’t carry you across the Rubicon Trail (without a sizable amount of development work, anyway), but it will haul you back and forth to work in almost any weather, likely for decades and hundreds of thousands of miles, and continue to look good doing it.
Inside, buyers get a revised cabin design and more standard features, but don’t expect radical changes here, either. We’re fine with that, and give Honda an enthusiastic thumbs up for the CR-V’s dash layout. It’s layered design is visually appealing, and the dash-top infotainment display is well-placed to ensure your eyes stay on the road. Controls are logically laid out and come with oversized buttons, which means you can easily change radio stations or cabin temperature, even with gloves on. We’re not sure about the faux wood trim that splits the upper and lower sections of the dash, but least it isn’t the artificial orange color seemingly beloved by mainstream automakers.
We’re partial to the CR-V’s instrumentation, too. Central to the display is a large speedometer with a central trip information display. On the left, this is flanked by the gear indicator and tachometer; on the right, this is flanked by the warning light panel, the temperature gauge and the fuel gauge. On the outer edge of the gear indicator and warning panel, two “Eco Assist” light strips glow green when you’re driving in an eco-friendly manner. If they’re white, you could be doing a better job of saving fuel.
Front seats feature leather seating surfaces, and are heated on EX-L models. The driver’s seat is 10-way power adjustable and even features lumbar support, while the passenger must make do with a manually adjustable seat and no lumbar support. There’s plenty of head and leg room up front, but we’d only score the chairs “average” in comfort. They’re fine for a daily commute, even a long one, but they’d be sub-optimal for a cross-country trip on the superslab. Your opinion may differ, so be sure to try the seats for yourself.
Second row seats also feature a decent amount of head and leg room, but don’t offer heat for winter comfort. EX-L models can be ordered with a rear seat DVD system to ensure domestic tranquility, but doing so eliminates the option of a navigation system, causing buyers to choose one or the other. Portable navigation systems (or navigation apps for smartphones) are inexpensive and functional, so we don’t see this as a big deal.
Up front, Honda’s 2.4-liter inline-four engine is now rated at 185 horsepower (up from 180 horsepower last year), yet it returns 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, up from 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway last year. We saw an indicated 24.7 mpg in mostly-city driving, generally with the “Eco” mode deactivated for more power. To be fair, though, the CR-V isn’t about performance and there’s not a night and day difference between Eco and standard driving modes. If we owned a CR-V, we’d likely just leave it in Eco mode and forget about it. We’d bet that a six or seven speed transmission would boost fuel economy, too, and we’re a bit puzzled as to why Honda continues to use a five speed gearbox.
On the road, the CR-V delivers up reasonable acceleration, a comfortable ride and brakes that are up to the task of scrubbing off any speed the CR-V can generate. Steering is on the light side, but that doesn’t really impact driving. The trade-off for the CR-V’s compliant ride, however, is ample body roll in corners. Even a low-speed left-right-left maneuver produces more wallowing that we’re used to, as if the suspension needs a moment to compose itself between actions. We’re not engineers, but it seems like a combination of too-soft a damper and too-stiff a spring to us. While the CR-V’s handling is still plenty safe, it’s too soft to inspire confidence in our eyes. It wouldn’t keep us from buying or recommending a CR-V, but it’s an area that could definitely use improvement.
As with most Honda products, you buy a trim level with the features you need instead of adding on option packages. While the 2012 Honda CR-V LX starts at $23,305, an all-wheel-drive EX-L with navigation stickers for $30,805, about on par with others in the class. Our Honda-supplied front-wheel-drive EX-L, with the rear seat entertainment system, carried a sticker price of $28,555, including a destination charge of $810.
For comparison, a similar Toyota RAV 4 Limited would sticker at $29,834 and a comparable Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring (without an available rear entertainment system) would price at $28,565.