Nine per cent increased body rigidity, 13 per cent greater fuel efficiency, slightly improved useability, up to 122kg lighter – the fourth-generation Honda CR-V is a compact SUV of slight but consistent improvement.
At its local launch through the rolling hills outside of Adelaide, the latest CR-V combined that bunch of improvements to prove decidedly impressive. It simply builds on what was already one of the best models in the segment.
Based on the same platform as the previous generation car, which launched in 2006, the new Honda CR-V runs a strut-front/multi-link rear suspension design.
For the first time, Honda will offer a $27,490 front-drive model, tagged VTi (above), although anyone who has driven a previous CR-V on sand may think this is nothing new – the small Honda has always pulled from the front, with the barest of help from the rear axle. Alloy wheels with a full-size alloy spare, a reversing camera, and cruise control are standard.
Unfortunately – and let’s get the bad bits out of the way first – the VTi starter follows the folly of the Mazda CX-5 by offering a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. Producing 114kW (same as the Mazda) at 6500rpm and 190Nm (10Nm less than CX-5) at 4300rpm, what those figures translate to on-road is ‘not nearly enough to shift a 1460kg wagon’.
Ditching the rear drive shafts may have saved weight, but tearing 0.4-litres from the engine negates the benefits, particularly in the case of the $2300-optional five-speed auto variant we tested. The engine itself is wonderfully smooth, keen, and quiet, a superior unit to that in the Mazda. Performance feels decent in a straight line, and the auto is keen to drop gears to avoid losing speed on hills, but the front-drive Honda CR-V VTi needs to be worked to maintain country-road speed.
The cumulative result of throttle prodding and revs flaring is … a hardly-earned thirst. On our drive through the hills, the trip computer showed 16L/100km, before settling at 9.5L – Honda claims 7.7L/100km combined for the VTi auto front driver.
It’s wise to spend the extra on the all-wheel-drive models, which continue with the carry-over 2.4-litre engine the Honda CR-V deserves.
Now available with a five-speed auto only, the VTi 4WD costs $32,790 (and adds paddle shifters, alarm and roof rails over the front driver), rising through the $36,290 VTi-S 4WD (above - including parking sensors, sat-nav, dual-zone climate control, auto lights, a leather tiller and fog lights), and $42,990 VTi-L 4WD (below - with 18s, sunroof, leather trim, auto entry and HID lights).
Like the 2.0-litre, and most Honda engines, the 2.4-litre is a gem. It revs with verve to 7000rpm, where its 140kW is produced. That’s a 12 per cent increase in power over the last CR-V, and the same figure the Accord Euro produced back in 2003. But it doesn’t absolutely need revs, because the 222Nm provides good tractability. That said, maximum torque is made at 4400rpm, so the excellent auto rarely allows the engine to hang at the bottom end of the tacho. The five-speed may be one ratio short of fashion, but it’s smarter than many six speeders (including that in the CX-5, which needlessly chases tall gears). Honda claims 8.7L/100km combined, down from 10L in the old model.
With a 1580kg kerb weight, the all-wheel-drive variants drop 20kg compared with the previous generation. They retain an ‘on demand’ four-wheel-drive system which only enlivens the rear axle when the fronts begin to slip. The CR-V still lacks a ‘4x4 lock’ button, which on Kia Sportage and Hyundai ix35 rivals, locks drive at 50:50 between the axles. A front-drive variant with the 2.4-litre engine would be an ideal combination, but it doesn’t exist…
Inherent to all Honda CR-Vs is a brilliantly packaged cabin. In a family car application, boot space is crucial and here the Honda trumps its rivals. Its 556-litre cargo area is 100L bigger than before, 153L larger than the Mazda CX-5, and 206L bigger than the Volkswagen Tiguan. Particularly impressive is that the capacious boot is achieved with a full-size alloy spare underneath - the previous model was the first to shift the spare from the tailgate to underfloor.
Replacing the previous CR-V’s sliding rear seat, and flip and tumble-fold function, is a smarter system. A single lever in the cargo area downs the headrests, tilts the seat base against the front seats, and drops the backrest to create a flat floor. The seat no longer slides, but it extends cargo-bay length by 140mm, and expands capacity by 148L.
At the launch, Honda provided a previous-generation CR-V to directly compare with the new one. Only with the old car’s rear seat at its furthest back was legroom about par with the latest CR-V. Headroom is much more generous in the new generation. This is despite a 30mm reduction in exterior length and height.
Rear air vents have been added (like Tiguan, unlike CX-5), the two-tier reclining backrest retained, and legroom is among the best in its class. A flat floor means the centre-rear rider doesn’t impinge on the foot space of outboard passengers.
The Honda CR-V now gets a full centre console, with a central colour screen and different dash appliques. Although plastics are of the hard variety, finish is excellent and seat comfort fine.
Driving the old CR-V first, it still impresses with surprisingly sharp hydraulic power-assisted steering, and a flat cornering stance. Obvious road noise and restless ride quality expose the wrinkles in this six-year-old model.
Honda says it worked hard to improve the ride and refinement of the new fourth-generation CR-V, and it shows. The greater expanse of dashboard – the A-pillars have been pushed forwards 60mm – makes the new CR-V feel like a bigger car, and that’s supported by a feeling of sophistication in the way it drives. There’s still some intrusions, both jiggling over craggy bitumen and roar from the wheel arches over coarse chip tar, but nothing like the previous model – it’s good, rather than average.
Unfortunately, the new electro-mechanical steering system is a retrograde step – but it’s an easier one to accept in a compact SUV than, say, a Porsche 911. There’s a vacancy on-centre that doesn’t exist with the old car, and a nervous reactivity just either side of it. The system is at its best when exercising through the full rotation, where it’s consistently light and reasonably direct.
It’s particularly disappointing when the steering connects to a fine chassis. Despite the increased ride comfort, the CR-V remains one of the most keen-handling SUVs in the class. It isn’t soggy like the Subaru Forester and Mitsubishi Outlander, nor harsh and bouncy like the Sportage and ix35 cousins. Instead, it feels agile at the front end. Brake deep into the corner, and it’s possible to feel the rear shift slightly to help with front-end point. Most impressively, the stability control completely trusts the chassis; the electronics understand that inherent suspension composure is the first line of active-safety defence.
Few buyers will need a Sunday scratch from their compact SUV. But we’d like to think that even a parent who once owned a sporty car, but is currently dealing with domesticity, would occasionally seek enjoyment from their family car.
It’s the ability to lug people and loads better than most rivals, and provide a healthy dose of driving enjoyment, that marks the Honda CR-V as one of the best sub-$45K offerings. The CX-5 and Tiguan class leaders now have a fine rival, and the new Outlander, which launches next month, will need to be good…