The Good: Great pricing, innovative interior, perfect proportions, fuel economy
The Bad: Funky nose job, tumble-forward seats
The Bottom Line: The perfect crossover cocktail, not a drop extra
Crossovers may be getting a lot of play this year, but such vehicles have been around for over a decade. Now in its third major revision, Honda's all-new-for-2007 CR-V, for one, is a perfectly blended crossover cocktail: one part sedan-like fuel economy, one part SUV-like practicality, one part sensible proportions and pricing—all spiked with a dash of creative innovation.
Honda (HMC) thought it was playing to a relatively narrow market when it developed a small sport-utility vehicle based on the Civic sedan in 1996. But the model starting flying off U.S. dealer lots when it was introduced here in 1997, and it was obvious engineers had struck gold.
The CR-V has sold well ever since, becoming the company's most popular light truck and even outpacing competitors like Toyota's RAV4 (TM) (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/15/06, "Toyota's Prince of Practicality") and Ford's Escape (F). According to Automotive News, last year Honda sold 170,028 CR-Vs, growing sales from the year before by a handy 12%.
For the 2007 redesign, Honda bucked the trend to go bigger with its second-smallest SUV. The RAV4 has grown and is now available with a powerful V6 and, thanks to some voodoo engineering, a third row of seats. But the CR-V's proportions stayed pretty much the same. It grows slightly wider but shrinks in length by 3 in.; no third row of seating in sight.
That less-is-more philosophy extends to the price as well. A basic two-wheel drive CR-V starts at just $20,600. The three trim levels go up from there, but the gulf between bare-bones and tricked-out is narrow. The tip-top of the line all-wheel drive EX-L trim I tested weighs in at $28,595 with $595 destination charge.
That model comes with every possible option including leather seats, satellite radio, sophisticated navigation system, rearward backup camera, and on and on—all for well under 30 grand. That's impressive since it's easy to take the price of competitors into the stratosphere by piling on similar options.
Behind The Wheel
Honda's sticking with an ultra-efficient four-cylinder too, rather than upsizing to a six. Only one engine is available, the 2.4-liter i-VTEC four that produces 166 horses. It doesn't feel underpowered, though, even if 0 to 60 in nine seconds isn't likely to impress anybody. The upside, of course, is stellar fuel economy. The basic models earn up to 30 mpg, but even in all-wheel drive models, mileage ranges from 22 to 28 mpg. In largely city driving, I averaged an impressive 26 mpg.
This newest version of the CR-V doesn't share much with the previous versions—its Honda sedan or Acura SUV siblings—but the vehicle handles just as well as all of them In fact, this CR-V drives better than any of its predecessors. Relocating the spare tire under the floor has lowered the car's center of gravity, giving it an even more car-like ride and better handling. The steering feels well-weighted and much more substantial than the first generation's did.
The CR-V's new look moves upscale, away from its boxy predecessor. Though it's more distinctive than competing vehicles from Toyota (TM) or Ford (F), I'm not a great big fan of the CR-V's new overbite. Still, overall the look is easy on the eye.
In one of the biggest design changes, the rear door opens up instead of to the side as in previous versions. But, surprisingly, the door takes with it a significant chunk of bumper molding, making loading and unloading a snap. A built-in drawer creates a hidden trunk and also helps diminish road noise.
The CR-V's interior is a study in smart thinking. In fact, it's probably impossible to catalog the many ways in which this cabin is smarter than other small 'utes.
For one, the interior feels incredibly spacious for so tiny a vehicle. It has significantly more passenger and cargo volume than most of its competition.
There's no doubt the CR-V is a mom (and dad) magnet, especially given its sensible pricing and modest sizing. An innovative use of a convex mirror built into the sunglasses compartment provides a handy way to quickly assess kid status without turning your head away from the road. Toyota has a similar feature in its minivan—but anything that adds to "momnipotence" is a good thing.
Honda's navigation system, which comes standard in the $28,000 model I test drove, is a winner. Touch-activated and easy to use, switching between entertainment and navigation functions is simple and safe. The display can be customized with different visualizers that change to the beat when you're listening to music.
The press of a button on the front of the unit flips the screen down to give drivers access to a PC card slot that can be used to store digital music files—impressive on so tight a budget. A six-CD changer is stowed conveniently in the center console between the driver and passenger seats.
The lack of a third row of seating is acceptable—the vast majority of third rows go largely unused. Less acceptable are the tumble-forward seats that limit the amount of room in the back when the seats are down. You'd think in a vehicle so ergonomically intelligent, engineers would have figured out a way to hide the seats flat into the floor.
Safety results are impressive. In all of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's crash tests, the vehicle earned the maximum five stars. Front side air bags, side curtain airbags, traction control, and ABS brakes are all standard safety equipment.
Buy It or Bag It?
Honda's advertisements play on the initials of CR-V with the tagline "something new to crave." Like most auto advertising, that's a bit of a stretch. The CR-V isn't the kind of car that fills a long, anguished yearning. But it is the kind of car that's overwhelmingly winning for its sheer smarts.
Get ready to hear a lot more about small crossovers throughout 2007 and into 2008. Nissan (NSANY), Volkswagen, Volvo—everyone is climbing on the bandwagon. But even the costliest of these is going to have a long way to go to match the third generation CR-V.
Click here for the slide show to see more of the 2007 Honda CR-V.