Honda CR-V — Staying the course

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Don’t mess with success. That seems to be the current mantra of Honda with the introduction of its all-new, hugely conservative version of its best-selling vehicles for 2012. 
The Honda CR-V, which has for several years been the best selling SUV in America, has been improved in some key areas, but styling changes and drivetrain updates are minor. Honda has embarked on a “stay the course” strategy despite a host of new stylish competitors now on the market or awaiting 2013 introductions in the compact SUV segment. Only time will tell if this strategy of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” will work.
The 2012 CR-V first showed up in showrooms around mid-December so early sales results are still to be determined. Since the third generation introduction in 2007, the CR-V has been the top selling sport utility in the country therefore a radical remake was not in the cards. If you liked the previous generation Honda you will surely be pleased with the all-new 2012 model. As before, it remains without a V-6 option and there is no third-row seat.
What will sell the Honda is its pleasant nature, its pleasing drivability whether around town or on the freeway, it’s comfortable and stylish passenger compartment and its friendly controls and gauges. 
One of our usual riders, who owns a 2009 model crossover, spent five miles behind the wheel and his assessment — “This car is a winner. It’s just a pleasure to drive. I didn’t expect it to be this good”
Those familiar with the CR-V probably won’t detect much difference in performance, and the styling evokes the same theme as the third generation. The powertrain is a carryover, but the 2012 Honda is decidedly more sophisticated with numerous technology upgrades, more standard equipment, a quieter interior and a smoother ride.
Honda has elected to retain the familiar 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. It has upped the horsepower by five to 185 and increased gas mileage between one to four miles per gallon depending on front wheel or all-wheel drive. That’s very competitive in the segment.
But we came away after about 150 miles of mountain driving and highway cruising near San Diego last fall feeling that we were behind the wheel of the previous generation model. Much of this perception had to do with the carryover five-speed automatic. We kept thinking that an upgrade to a six-speed transmission, which has become the standard of the industry in virtually every segment, would have given the CR-V better performance in certain situations and surely would have added a mile or two in fuel economy.
A couple months later after living with the CR-V for more than a week, we became a bit more appreciative of its refined nature and performance attributes. Granted, a five horsepower gain — together with between 20 and 80 pounds of weight loss — does not turn middle-of-the-road performance into a dragster, but we found the new CR-V more confident in gaining highway speeds and conducting such maneuvers as quickly passing on a two lane road.
Perhaps because of some tweaking to the transmission, the CR-V proved quick from the stoplight up to about 25 mph, sometimes a necessity when attempting to get a jump on your neighbor to change lanes before the next light.
The engine and transmission tweaking has resulted in an EPA rating of 23 mpg city and 31 highway for the front-drive models, and 22/30 for all-wheel drive. That’s near the top for the segment. By comparison, the Toyota RAV4 is rated at 19/27, Jeep Compass at 23/29 and Hyundai Santa Fe at 23/28. 
For those choosing all-wheel drive, the system has been upgraded, no longer needing to wait for the front wheels to lose traction before torque is sent to the rear wheels. This should prove advantageous in slick-road situations.
The new CR-V looks every bit as big as its predecessor, but in fact it’s about an inch shorter. Nothing is lost in passenger and cargo room, however, which is very adequate for the compact segment. Cargo space is up to current standards with 37 cubic feet of luggage capacity behind the seats and a generous 71 cubic feet with the rear seat folded.
Those current CR-V owners who purchased their vehicle because of its refined interior and outstanding greenhouse that offers a good view out from all sides will find nothing has changed in this regard for 2012. However Honda has upped the ante for 2012 with a more stylish cabin, and controls and gauges that are extremely intuitive. There are more available features including a backup camera, which is standard equipment on all models. Also available is a USB port, Bluetooth, Pandora, SMS text-to-speech and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
One neat feature developed for the new CR-V is a spring-loaded auto-fold rear seat. Pull a couple of straps in the cargo bay and the seat bottom folds up and the seat backs flop forward to instantly open up the cargo area. Unfortunately, it forced elimination of the fore/aft sliding rear seats, which we liked. Also missing with the new vehicle is the rear cargo shelf, which was perhaps the top small crossover cargo-carrying innovation of the last decade. 
The CR-V comes in five trim levels. The base LX in front-wheel drive, starting at $23,105, comes well equipped and may be all many people need. Standard safety includes the aforementioned backup camera, antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, active front head restraints and a host of airbags including side curtain.
The price rises through the trims levels to $30,605 for the all-wheel drive EX-L with navigation. That was the vehicle we drove.
We found the new CR-V to be a very engaging compact crossover, a definite improvement over the previous vehicle. But it remains to be seen if Honda went far enough against a new crop of vehicles. 
Base price: $23,105; as driven, $30,605
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 185 @ 7,000 rpm
Torque: 163 pound-feet @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches
Length: 178.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,545 pounds
Turning circle: 37.3 feet
Towing capacity: 1,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 37.2 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 70.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.3 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 mpg highway, 22 mpg city
0-60: 9.4 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe
The Good:
• Excellent interior space
• Stylish interior
• Segment-leading gas mileage
The Bad:
• No more sliding rear seats or cargo shelf
The Ugly:
Continues with outmoded 5-speed transmission