Honda CRV has room, with a view

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 09:24 16/07/2012

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We "invented" the first CRV in New Zealand. When I say "we" I'm referring to a contingent of New Zealand journalists who happened across the first CRV by accident in Japan. It was October 1994, and Honda was very apologetic, explaining that the car was merely an engineering exercise, a part-time project experimenting with a new Honda all-wheel-drive system, an Integra-donated engine and transmission and the Civic/Ballade platform.

It was clad with a body that was a little crude, but you'd definitely recognise it as a CRV, all square set and not high on detailing.

We each managed to elbow our way into the driver's seat and give it a go, remarking almost as one, that it would be perfect for New Zealand – a family wagon cum holdall – the acronym SUV wasn't much in use at the time. I had a few misgivings about the double-pump system that seemed a little slow to react and feed power to the rearwheels on Honda's dirt testing area, but the car handled well, offered a tonne of room – as thousands of New Zealand owners have found – and though it didn't look ready for production we all saw the potential.

The Japanese didn't. Honda didn't even have it on the list for future domestic availability, never mind export.

But they were impressed that we were impressed, and after a few other independents got behind the wheel, and expressed their own positive remarks, Honda was forced to consider the car for sale.

The rest is history. Honda did put it into production, with that engagingly ordinary almost generic bodystyle, a better executed interior and a quicker-reacting version of the drive-system. That New Zealand was the first export market was something of a compliment, though it was only able to occur if a huge order of several hundred units was placed, if my memory serves me well. An order like that probably put then New Zealand Honda general manager Rob Elliot's job on the line.

He needn't have worried. The car took off like a rocket and hasn't really stopped since. That first batch was sold in no time. To such an extent that Honda Australia, who had turned its nose up at the car – because they said it wasn't tough enough – ordered the CRV a year after we started importing it. It went, as it did in New Zealand, straight to the top of the light SUV market slot. The same thing happened in the US, and Britain when they ordered the CRV, and it has stayed at the top or close to it in most markets right through three generations.

The arrival of the fourth CRV promises to return the model to its halcyon days on the New Zealand market, because Honda has managed to negotiate a starting sticker of $39,900 for the model, by offering a two-wheel-drive version of the car, recognising that in many cases, possibly the majority, space, a good view and a nice drive are stronger priorities than four-by-four and a big engine. The market has started to reflect this with several other makers doing 2WD Crossovers, something the US market has insisted on putting on its SUV makers' manifests for 20 years or more.

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The new starter car is a 2.0-litre front-wheel-drive CRV S model, which uses the same 2-litre engine used in some Civic sedans. It offers 114kw and 190Nm torque, and fuel economy of just 7.7 L/100km, offering medium hatch running costs in a large SUV package. The nice thing about this base offering is that unless you spot that the AWD 2.4-litre model has a dark tinted glass sunroof and a couple of auxiliary lights in its chin area, no-one need know you could only afford the Captain Sensible car in the range – the 2-litre front drive one.

The $48,900 4WD 2.4-litre CRV Sport, as it is known, even has the same smart 17-inch alloy wheels as the S model, and every CRV is well-equipped, with a reversing camera, iMID Bluetooth phone and music streaming, front, side and curtain airbags, iPod integration, and magic seats that fold automatically flat at the tug of two levers.

Otherwise, the Sport version replaces the S model's faux suede trim with leather, adds the power sunroof, automatic wipers, heated front seats, a power driver's seat, steering wheel shift paddles, fog lamps and an auto dimming rear view mirror. The Sport's engine is a refettled version of the previous CRV's 2.4 litre engine which now offers 140kW instead of 124kW, 222Nm of torque, up from 218Nm, and thanks to better aerodynmic efficiency, longer gearing, a lower, shorter and slightly lighter all up weight, the new Sport gets 8.7 litres per 100km an improvement of 1.3L/100km on the old car.

CRV owners can be encouraged into economical driving habits by Honda's so-called ECON operating mode, which, softens throttle responses and improves the vehicles' fuel efficiency when activated. Both CRVs come with a 5-speed automatic transmission, which offers slightly higher overall gearing (1950rpm/100kmh in top gear) to aid fuel economy. The Sport also includes steering wheel mounted shift paddles.

Having got rid of the previous car's awkward "Civic hit up the backside by an Audi Q7" styling and replacing it with a much more muscular look, the CRV IV looks bigger than the old car. But it's actually shorter by 30mm, thanks to less prominent front and rear overhangs and 30mm lower over all, with a much flatter roofline. The passenger floor and seat bases are 40mm lower than before, but still offer that panoramic SUV view that many buyers look for, with the rear passengers mounted just a few millimetres higher than the front pair.

Load space has improved from 512 to 589 litres with the seats up, while maximum – up to the roofliner – volume has gone from 1522 to 1669mm.

For all this extra space, Honda has managed to reduce the coefficient of drag by 8 per cent, with, like its recently launched Civic five-door, an underpanel that aids airflow and reduces lift.

From a brief drive in the two new CRVs, this driver can report a dramatically improved car in terms of ride and refinement. The driving position is more car-like than before, but still offers that view people are fond of. Honda has reprofiled the front pillars for better driver visibility too, which is a must with our reversed turning rules and the cabin feels more airy than before.

On the open road, there are times like on steep hills and when overtaking when you'd like to be able to call on the extra grunt offered by the 2.4-litre Sport model, but the 2.0-litre S has its plus points too. It's a sweeter, smoother and quieter engine. Without the all-wheel drive system's weight and mechanical drag, it appears to ride better too, with noticeably less road noise – not that either car is exactly noisy.

Handling and ride is above average for an SUV, and though the car's steering is electrically assisted rather than hydraulic, Honda has been using such systems since the 1990s and I was impressed with the cars' turn-in accuracy and cornering balance. On the cars' Auckland launch programme, there was no real dirt component, though the usual wet roads presented no problems and the cars didn't mind gravel surfaces or bumps too much.

The CRV still uses that double-pump traction sensing all-wheel-drive set-up. It reacts to lack of purchase within a fraction of a turn of the road wheels, so slip and loss of traction should be almost undetectable.

In day-to-day use, I preferred the S model's charcoal faux suede seating to the leather-timmed Sport's. I didn't slide on it. I liked its luxurious feel and though leather might be easier to wipe clean, I thought the matte finish of the fabric trimmed car was nicer to look at than the hide.

I'm excited for Honda with the new CRV. With most similarly sized Japanese SUVs costing more and offering less, the S model will sell very well, at $39,900, but I can't help thinking that the AWD 2.4 CRV Sport at $9000 more is a big jump to make, even if it's only a couple of grand more expensive than its base model 4WD predecessor. I'd like to see some models in the middle, specifically a non-leather trimmed Sport with no sunroof, or perhaps a 2.4-litre version of the 2WD S model.

Honda says it will sell 700 examples of the new CRV in its first full year, but is openly looking at fleet sales, and sold previous models at the rate of up to 1200 units a year.

True there are a dozen more offerings in this segment than the two-horse race the first CRV had with the RAV4, but at $39,900, the 2WD CRV is a genuine no-brainer.

HONDA CRV

Powertrains:

2WD CRV S - 2.0-litre 16v i-VTEC, five-speed automatic.
4WD CRV Sport - 2.4-litre 16v i-VTEC, five-speed automatic.

Performance:

CRV S - 114kW at 6500rpm, 190Nm at 4300rpm, 7.7L/100km, 179g/km CO2.
CRV Sport - 140kW at 7000rpm, 222Nm at 4300rpm. 8.9L/100km, 202g/km CO2.

Chassis: MacPherson struts at front, multi-link double-wishbones at rear, electric power steering. 17 inch alloy wheels.

Safety: ABS, ESC, VSA traction control, multi-stage front airbags, front side airbags and front and rear side-curtains, 5-star NHTSA safety rating.

Dimensions: L 4534mm, W 1820mm, H 1685mm, W/base 2620mm, Weight 1518-1587kg, Fuel 58L.

Pricing: CRV S $39,900, CRV Sport $48,900.

Hot: CRV S superbly priced, roomy, flexible, great magic seat arrangement, styling has grown up.

Not: There needs to be an "in between" model at about $43k-$45k. No diesel option – yet.

Verdict: Great pricing and high specification will return CRV to the sales numbers of 10 years ago.

- Stuff

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