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First Drive: 2012 Honda CR-V

November 16th, 2011

The “Perfect Size” Crossover Wants Its Sales Crown Back

     Of all the vehicles in need of a redesign Honda’s CR-V isn’t one of them. The current generation of the entry-level crossover went on sale as a 2007 model and won the sales crown for its class every year through 2010, averaging about 200,000 sales per year. The streak would most likely be in place this year had Mother Nature not put on a shocking show of force first with the earthquake in Japan and then devastating floods in Thailand. Honda says it has lost more than 200,000 units of production for the U.S., including significant shortages of the ever-popular CR-V, which spelled an end to the little crossover’s sales reign. But despite the vehicle’s continued popularity anyone who knows Honda knows they plan five year lifecycles for their vehicles, which means we should see an all-new CR-V for 2012. And despite the aforementioned significant supplier and R&D interruptions, come December 15th, we will. After a day spent with the Honda team learning everything there is to know about the new CR-V one thing is clear: they want their sales crown back.
     Unlike the so-subtle-it’s-not-noticeable redesign of the latest Civic, Honda designers actually gave the new CR-V a comprehensive work over. The front end is much improved thanks to the banishment of that awkward gaping grille-beneath-a-grille setup that always looked to us like Honda sent the thing out of the factory missing a section of bodywork. Honda has added a bit of chrome detailing around the 2012 that successfully classes things up a bit. We particularly like the brightwork that forms the non-functional “roof rails”. The rear continues with the trademark high-mounted vertical brake lights that finally look well integrated and appropriately modern here. Base LX models will roll on 16” steel wheels but most models will feature attractive 17” alloys. If we were disappointed in anything it was the lack of a nicely integrated exhaust. The top-level Kia Sportage, for example, has attractively finished bright tips. The CR-V mostly seems to be trying to hide the fact that it has an exhaust at all, which, knowing Honda, it probably is. Still, the makeover is a completely successful one and should take the CR-V well into its five year lifecycle.
     The product planning folks say customers tell them the number one reason they bought a CR-V was because “it’s the perfect size”. When that many people tell you something you listen and as a result the latest model keeps the outgoing generation’s wheelbase and shaves only an inch off of the height and length. At the same time they managed to extend the cargo floor more than five inches while lowering it almost an inch and found 1.5 cubic feet more storage space behind the back seats. Folding either part of the 60/40 split second row is now as easy as pulling a lever in the side panel of the cargo area and the rear seat folds completely flat. You’ll then find 70.9 cubic feet back there compared to the Ford Escape’s 67.2 cubic feet.
     The second row is actually quite comfortable with a surprising amount of legroom for my six foot frame to sit behind where I would adjust the driver’s seat. The prototype we drove was equipped with a moonroof but headroom was never an issue and finding a comfortable driving position was no problem thanks to a tilt and telescoping steering wheel and more seat adjustment travel than the outgoing model. Visibility was well above the class average with the side glass reaching almost all the way back to the D-pillar and a helpful expanded view driver’s mirror that adds a curve to the tip of the mirror which effectively reduces the size of the blind spot. To aide visibility even more Honda has made a wide-angle backup camera standard equipment on every model. Even if you don’t order the navigation system you’ll see the image on a 5” color screen at the top of the dash. Actually Honda must have been feeling generous when they spec’d out the lineup because they are also including USB Audio input, Bluetooth, Pandora integration and SMS Text Messaging capability as standard across the board. That’s a lot of technology for a CUV starting in the low $20k range. We’re glad to report that interior materials quality, long a Honda forte, is stellar as ever.
     Mechanically Honda focused on increased fuel efficiency through refinement using largely carryover components. The 2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder picked up 5 hp along the way for a total of 185 hp at 7,000 rpm and 163 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 rpm. Curiously, for a company so focused on fuel efficiency the 5-speed automatic sticks around. We won’t dwell too much on the fact that the class average is six gears since Honda has claimed class leading fuel economy numbers of 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway for front-wheel drive models. Adding all-wheel drive subtracts a mile per gallon in each test. That’s a small penalty to pay for the surefootedness of Honda’s completely new Intelligent Control all-wheel drive system. Unlike the old mechanical system that required the front wheels to slip before sending power the back wheels, the new electronically controlled system keeps torque “primed” at the back differential to turn the rear wheels the instant slip is detected.
     We didn’t get to test the new system on our short drive but the engine and transmission were responsive and the handling was composed in typical Honda fashion. The electric power steering was numb but nicely linear and weighted appropriately for the class. The ride was quiet and wind noise was very minimal. Honda claims to have made significant improvements in interior quietness and we can testify to that. We’ll have to spend more time in the new model to decide if the ride quality is as improved as Honda claims but several sets of rail road crossings were comfortably traversed so we’re optimistic. Of course the usual Honda attention to safety is present and accounted for with engineers expecting to earn class-leading safety ratings.
     After a few hours behind the wheel of the new CR-V we were impressed with what Honda is offering for 2012. Despite strong new competition from Kia and Chevrolet and even with a new Ford Escape on the horizon we wouldn’t bet against Honda’s latest little crossover picking up right where it left off: at the top of the sales charts.

Photos courtesy of Honda

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