Maybe it’s due to volatile gas prices, the bloodsucking economy, or perhaps a desire to downsize. Regardless, there’s but one SUV/crossover listed amongst the U.S.’s top ten best-selling vehicles – the small Honda CR-V. EPA figures suggest drivers will see up to 27 mpg on the highway, yet only 20 mpg around town. Every 2009 CR-V is backed by a 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty and 5 years/60,000 miles of powertrain coverage. Prices start at about $22,000 for an LX 2WD; my EX-L 4WD tester, complete with voice-activated navigation, rang up at $29,615.
Despite the dominance of large SUVs at the time, Honda launched the CR-V crossover in 1997 to attract buyers seeking utility and a commanding view of the road paired with greater efficiency and smaller dimensions. A 2002 redesign refined the styling, while also adding power and safety features. That iteration endured until Honda overhauled the CR-V in more dramatic fashion for 2007. Changes for 2009 are limited to new paint colors: Crystal Black Pearl, Alabaster Silver Metallic, and Urban Titanium Metallic.
In typical Honda fashion, the 2009 CR-V is available in a few distinct trim levels including the front-drive LX, EX, and EX-L. For an extra $1,200, each can be had with Real Time four-wheel drive, and the EX-L is available with a voice-activated navigation system. Chrome alloy wheels ($1,700) are the only other significant option.
The CR-V LX sports the usual power amenities as well as cruise control and an auxiliary audio jack. Starting at $24,165, the EX delivers a power moonroof, steering wheel audio controls, a six-disc CD changer, and a cargo cover. Step up with at least $26,715 and you’ll get the EX-L with leather upholstery, a dual-zone climate control system, a subwoofer, heated front buckets, and an eight-way power driver’s seat.
Equally important are the safety items that helped the Honda CR-V earn the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick award. Thanks go to four-wheel antilock disc brakes, front-side and side-curtain airbags, a tire pressure monitor, and stability and traction control technology.
In the Driver's Seat
When SUVs first rolled onto the scene, accolades were neither sought nor rewarded for levels of comfort that left travelers feeling all warm and fuzzy. Those beasts were meant to be tough and rugged. Want a heated seat? Light a fire under your… well, you get the idea.
Today, SUVs have transitioned into quasi-luxury rigs, and car-based rides like the CR-V have been dubbed “crossovers,” and buyers have come to expect a certain level of coddling. In the 2009 CR-V, drivers are treated to a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, fold-down center armrests, spacious chairs, easy entry and exit, and plenty of overall room. The front seats feel a bit firm at first, but prove supportive over the long haul. And, yes, they come heated on EX-L versions, so no need to carry a match and kindling. Back seat drivers are treated to a comfortable, reclining split bench that slides aft to maximize leg room; head room is sufficient, but your freakishly tall coworker may end up planting his melon against the headliner.
Besides comfort, crossovers also need to deliver on storage and convenience. With the rear seat tumbled forward, the CR-V provides 72.9 cu. ft. of cargo space; what doesn’t fit there can be stored in one of the two gloveboxes, the seatback or door pockets, or any one of the several cubbies. Two of those are located below the optional backup camera and voice-activated navigation system, which was even able to decipher my admittedly mumbling voice. All other controls were well-placed and easy to use.
On the Road
When it comes to power, competitors like the Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander offer four- and six-cylinder powerplants, while rides like the Nissan Rogue and the CR-V stick to a single four-banger. In Honda’s case, it’s a 2.4-liter, i-VTEC engine that generates 166 horsepower and 161 lb.-ft. of torque. Unfortunately, those figures don’t measure up against the listed competitors, and that’s not even taking into account the others’ V6s. Furthermore, in the case of four-cylinder variants, Toyota and Nissan pair more power with better EPA-estimated fuel efficiency.
Over the course of 700 miles of mixed driving, I averaged 24.8 mpg. That’s not too shabby when you consider that I needed to drive with a heavy foot to compensate for the indecisive five-speed automatic transmission. That gearbox has a tendency to upshift too quickly on hills, forcing the driver to depress the gas pedal enough to elicit a downshift to maintain speed. It’s a characteristic that could be negated by a manual or sport mode, neither of which is available. For its part, the refined engine delivers adequate power for passing and merging.
In contrast to the powertrain, the CR-V’s suspension responds well to driver input. The ride proved a bit stiff over the bumps along California’s I-405, but it was far from punishing. On the plus side, the CR-V feels stable in corners, as the standard Bridgestone Dueler tires do a decent job of holding the road. Steering is moderately responsive.
Numbers don’t lie. Since 2007, the Honda CR-V has outsold all other SUVs and crossovers. Given the expanding number of available competitors, that’s an admirable and noteworthy accomplishment -- one attributable to CR-V’s user-friendly, comfortable interior, capable handling and available features.
Clearly, buyers flock to this vehicle, though initially I didn’t quite know why. CR-V lacks the Toyota RAV4’s available V6 -- an engine that pumps out more than 100 extra horsepower, beats the CR-V’s 1,500-lb. tow rating by 2,000 pounds, and returns almost identical fuel economy. And look at that available third row seat in the Toyota, another feature not offered by Honda. For buyers who occasionally transport more than five passengers or want to haul heavier loads with ease, the CR-V loses out to RAV4 right off the bat.
What those points don’t consider is the CR-V’s main selling point: value. You’ll pay thousands more for a comparably-equipped, V6-powered RAV4, or about the same for a Nissan Rogue with fewer features and significantly less cargo space. And as a bonus, the CR-V typically retains its value better than RAV4 or Rogue, meaning you’ll see less depreciation at trade-in time.
In the CR-V, Honda offers buyers a vehicle that refuses to present itself as an all-capable, though shrunken, SUV. If that’s what you’re looking for, search elsewhere. However, if what you seek is a well-rounded crossover, one considered a great value, the CR-V just might fit the bill.