2005 Honda CR-V

Not big and brawny, but maybe just right

If you were looking for a compact, car-based SUV back in 1997, things were a lot simpler than they are today. There were only a handful on the market to choose from in those days, with the major players being Toyota's just-launched RAV4, the Subaru Forester, and the Honda CR-V.

These little runabouts offered buyers a way to get many of the desirable "real world" attributes of a compact SUV, including higher ride height, versatility, and the availability of a sure-footed all-wheel-drive system, without the gas-pig appetite for fuel and clunky handling of a traditional, truck-based sport-ute. It was a great idea, and others quickly caught on.

Since '97, the market for these user-friendly "crossover" SUVs has grown like well-tended kudzu in a Georgia hothouse. Today, there are more than a dozen of these things available to choose from. Some, like recent entries from Kia and Hyundai, are a lot less expensive (or better-equipped for the dollar) than the CR-V, which starts at $20,195 for the entry-level LX with front-wheel drive and runs to $25,250 for a Special Edition with heated leather seats and all-wheel drive. Others, like the hugely popular Ford Escape, offer more interior room, as well as brawny V-6 engines and decent pulling ability, which the four-cylinder-only, light-duty CR-V simply can't match. But the CR-V remains true to the basic concept that started it all: a fuel-efficient, agile, and easy-to-drive cross between a traditional small sedan and a compact (but gas-thirsty and clumsy handling) SUV.

Civic pride

The CR-V's Accord-sourced 2.4-liter engine may "only" offer up 160 hp, but it's enough to run the CR-V to 60-mph in about 8.5 seconds. And it can tickle 30 mpg on the highway. Many buyers don't realize that a modern four-cylinder engine such as the CR-V's has power comparable to what a much larger six-cylinder engine put out in years past. If you haven't driven a new vehicle lately, don't dismiss the CR-V because it "only" has a four-cylinder engine. This one's more than adequate for normal driving and decently responsive, as well as fuel-efficient.

You have your choice of front-drive or full-time all-wheel drive, with a new five-speed automatic transmission available that gives the '05 CR-V a bit more snap through the gears than the '04s, which had wider-ratio four-speed automatics (a five-speed manual is still standard).

All models (LX, EX and SE) come with A/C, power windows and locks, cruise control and 16-inch wheels (another new-for-'05 feature) already included. The step-up EX adds an electric sunroof, keyless entry and secondary steering wheel-mounted controls for the audio system. Top SE versions add heated leather seats, body-colored bumpers, and a hard plastic spare cover for the tailgate-mounted spare.

The CR-V's second-row seats can be dropped down to create 72 cubic feet of space, so it'll cart home a surprisingly large payload (just don't try sacks of concrete or a skid of bricks). Like previous models, close-quarter agility is exceptionally good. It is as easy to park in a crowded shopping mall lot as it is to maneuver through city traffic. And it's got just enough size and mass to avoid feeling out of place on the open road; a passing semi's slipstream will not blow you into the next lane, and it'll maintain 70-plus easily, without giving you that spooky, powerless feeling we all get when Donald Trump enters the room.

The Forester and RAV4 are also essentially similar in terms of features, equipment, versatility and driving experience. You may not like the funkier styling of the Forester nor the wavy lines of the RAV4. Both of these vehicles, frankly, seem more college-kid-oriented than the CR-V, which has a more adult-looking upright and traditional profile; the Honda's conservative look may simply be more your thing. And the CR-V's a bit less expensive than the Forester, too, which starts at $21,295 (although this does include AWD, which is extra-cost on the CR-V).

Being a Honda, the CR-V also has a well-earned reputation for bulletproof engineering and reliability to justify its higher price point relative to the less expensive newcomers from Korea. These vehicles seem tight and come with impressive 100,000 mile warranties, but until we get about ten years down the road, we won't really know how well they'll hold up. Maybe they'll live up to their promise, but maybe not.

On the other hand, you just know you can put 150,000 on the CR-V before it even begins to get tired, just like the endlessly durable Civic on which it's based. Also, resale/depreciation rate is going to be more in your favor, too.

The only real downsides of buying a new CR-V are its lack of flash and driving excitement. Though eminently competent, it's a bit on the vanilla side; not the car to express your inner child, let alone cause much of a stir among valets.

But if you're a Honda person and need a vehicle like this - and nothing more - the CR-V remains a safe, solid bet that will likely meet all your expectations.

2005 Honda CR-V

Base price: $20,195; price as tested, $25,250

Engine: 2.4-liter in-line four, 160 hp/162 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 181.1 x 70.2 x 66.2 in

Wheelbase: 103.3 in

Curb Weight: 3318 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 23/29 mpg (w/automatic)

Safety equipment: Dual front airbags; side impact airbags; anti-lock brakes; stability and traction control; electric brakeforce distribution

Major standard features: Air conditioning; manual flip-up tailgate window; intermittent rear wiper and defrost; 40-60 split bench seat; power windows/door locks/mirrors; 120-watt AM/FM stereo with single CD player and four speakers

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles