By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Relativity – it’s not just a concept in physics. It applies to horsepower (and performance) too.
On the one hand, the just-updated 2012 Honda CR-V is still a bit underpowered and a bit slow relative to competitors because it still has nothing mightier than a 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine under its hood (same as last year).
But relative to how traffic flows – and how most people drive – the CR-V is (usually) powerful enough and quick enough.
It all comes down to your perspective, relatively speaking.
Besides, people shop the CR-V for other reasons, too.
How’s it stack up on that score relative to the others in this segment?
WHAT IT IS
The CR-V is a medium-compact five pasenger SUV – available in either FWD or AWD versions. Relative to other crossovers in its class, it is more conservative in styling and less aggressive in driving demeanor.
It’s also a bit smaller than mid-sized, but slightly larger than a current compact.
Prices start at $22,295 for the base FWD LX and top out at $27,045 for an EX-L with AWD.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
A subtle but significant skin job (most exterior panels are all-new), heavily (but subtly) revised interior, upgraded roster of standard equipment and the same 2.4 liter engine/5-speed automatic drivetrain, but tweaked a bit to improve output (now 185 hp vs. 180 in ’11) and fuel economy (23 city, 31 highway vs. 21 city, 28 highway in ’11).
No radical changes to a traditional (and strong-selling) favorite.
More standard equipment for base LX trim, including rearview camera and Pandora Internet radio with text messaging ability plus Bluetooth. A rear seat DVD entertainment system is now available, too.
A safe bet.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No upgrade engine available.
Automatic (and five-speed) only transmission.
Pricey relative to appealing newcomers like the Kia Sportage ($18,500 to start).
UNDER THE HOOD
It looks the same, but it’s slightly different. It’s still a 2.4 liter four – the same basic DOHC i-VTEC four that’s been the CR-V’s heart for several years – but up-rated 5 hp from last year to 185 hp and 163 lbs.-ft. of torque.
It’s still not a lot of power – relative to what’s available in competitor models, including the Toyota RAV4 (optional 3.5 liter V-6, 269 hp), Kia Sportage (optional turbo 2.0 four, 260 hp) or Chevy Equinox (optional 3 liter V-6, 264 hp) but it’s as good or even slightly better than the output of these competitors’ standard engines (2.5 liters, 179 hp for the RAV4, 2.4 liters, 176 hp for the Sportage and 2.4 liters, 182 hp for the Equinox).
A max-effort 0-60 run takes about 9.4-9.5 seconds. By the numbers – relative to the performance capability of others in this class – this is on the slower side and remains the CR-V’s most noticeable weakness (more on this below).
The only transmission choice is a five-speed automatic. It features what Honda calls Grade Logic programming, a computer algorithm that detects and reacts to changing driving conditions, such as ascending or descending grades. It’ll hold a lower gear longer in such situations, which improves vehicle performance and also vehicle feel by dialing back premature upshifting.
A six-speed would be even nicer – and more technologically par for 2012.
You can, however, choose either FWD or AWD. And the CR-V’s AWD system is significantly updated for 2012. It is now controlled electronically rather than hydraulically. Honda claims the new system reacts more quickly to slippage and that by eliminating the hydraulic pump used previously, the engineers were also able to drop almost 20 pounds of deadweight from the car and reduce driveline friction losses by 60 percent. The latter two items are likely the reason for the uptick in fuel-efficiency of the 2012 CR-V vs. last year’s CR-V.
The increase is significant: 23 city/31 highway for the 2012 model (FWD) vs. 21 city/28 highway last year.
Max tow capacity remains the same at just 1,500 lbs.
ON THE ROAD
If you face off against a V-6 RAV4 or a turbo Sportage SX, they’ll have their way with you without even trying. V-6 (and turbo) versions of competitor crossover SUVs are capable of 0-60 runs in the 6-7 range, as much as three seconds quicker than the CR-V.
On the other hand, that zero to sixty stuff is – mostly – bench racing. Not many drivers actually race – at least as far as I can tell. So, the question becomes: Is the CR-V sufficiently powerful to be comfortable during everyday routine A to B driving? And the answer is – yes. The i-VTEC four has a broad and even power curve – without any flat spots or sudden bursts of coffee-spilling thrust. It revs snappily right up to its 7,000 RPM peak, feeling neither weak nor strained and sounding happy doing it. Like just about any modern car other than a (not-so) SmartCar, it will easily – and comfortably – hold 80 MPH, which is certainly speedy enough for American roads and American drivers.
So, while some competitors are potentially quicker, unless you actually need to get to 60 in 8 seconds or less, the CR-V probably won’t disappoint you as far as how it accelerates.
The handling, though, is a little less than what I expect from Honda. Not the body roll (minimal) or the actual grip in a corner – but the Motion Adaptive Electric power steering, which feels like it’s playing catch-up right about the time you start cornering a little faster than the posted speed limit. The usual (for Honda) immediacy and linearity isn’t there – at least, not when you’re moving significantly faster than your fellow Medicated Americans. The system is actually a new form of electronic idiot-proofing that starts making course changes for you – and predictably, it is set up to err on the side of extreme caution, assuming the worst about the abilities of the person behind the wheel.
There is also a lot of understeer built into the CR-V, which is actually a good thing for timid/inexperienced drivers since it helps them avoid getting in too deep going too fast – but it’s a drag if you do know what you’re doing behind the wheel. The CR-V lets you know sooner than most that it does not enjoy hot laps.
Here again, though, it’s a relative thing. Honda is not going after the leadfoot crowd with this model. It’s a conservative vehicle for a conservative buyer – who will likely never notice the understeer but will appreciate the extremely light steering effort and compliant (and quiet) ride quality.
AT THE CURB
Almost every panel is new for 2012 but the changes are extremely subtle – so much so that you may not realize it’s a ’12 unless it’s parked next to an ’11. You might not otherwise notice, for instance, that the door pulls on the ’12 are now in the side pleats (or bone lines, if you prefer) rather than just above them, as before. Or that the tail-light stacks look a bit more like a reversed “L” than last year’s “I.” The rear quarter glass shape, meanwhile, is more angular than elliptical. And up front, the lower lip curls up a bit more aggressively – which along with narrower headlight stacks gives the ’12 CR-V a slightly more scowly face than it had before.
It’s inside, though, where the changes are most obvious.
A new dash tapers to a “V” at the gear shifter, then flows into the center console – replacing the previous box-on-box theme (even the air vents in the ’11 CR-V were square). The center console itself has been built up – to make the storage cubby much deeper. And instead of a flip up (or sideways) lid, the storage area is accessed by a folding cover that makes getting at things much easier and also looks cleaner, too.
To the left of the steering wheel is a green “Econ” button, which when activated slightly decreases throttle inputs (electronically, via drive-by-wire) and also cycles the AC for greater efficiency. The typical buyer will probably like this, too. Also the modern version of the fuel economy gauge – green LED lighting on either side of the speedometer housing that glows cheerily green when you back off the gas.
Roominess wise, it turns out the physically smaller Kia Sportage has about the same front seat head and legroom (and second row head and legroom, too) even though it’s about 3.5 inches shorter overall (178.3 inches for the Honda, 174.8 for the Kia). But, the CR-V makes up for that behind the second row, with 37.2 cubic feet of cargo space vs. 26.1 for the Sportage.
The Toyota RAV4 has a third row, which neither the CR-V nor the Sportage have – and so it can technically advertise “7 passenger” capability. But as they say in The Family, forget about it. The only passengers who’ll be sitting in the RAV4’s third row will be sitting swami-style, with their legs bunched up underneath them. Honda (and Kia) to their credit don’t try to put seven seats in a space made for five. Interestingly, the physically larger (and supposedly seven passenger) RAV4 has a bit less cargo space than the CR-V: Just 36.4 cubes. And even with its third and second rows folded, the RAV4 has only a bit more total cargo space (73 cubic feet) than the CR-V (70.9 cubic feet).
First and second row head-and-leg room in the Honda (39.9 and 41.3 inches up front, 38.6 and 38.3 inches in row two) is about the same as in the physically bigger Toyota (40.8 inches and 41.8 inches in the first row, 39.7 and 38.3 inches in the second row).
Arguably, the Honda makes better use of the available space. It’s also a nice overlap between the maybe-too-small Sportage and the slightly-too-big RAV.
The optional seat heaters in the EX-L I tested are really just warmers. They don’t get very hot – but caliente is not what the CR-V is all about.
Historically, people have cottoned to mass-market Hondas not for showiness or driving excitement but rather for their safe-bet qualities. The CR-V is not a visual or functional standout but it is extremely competent all-around and has an established record for being durable and trouble-free.
That’s the best definition of safe bet I can come up with.
I do wish the 2012 updates had included at least a six-speed transmission – even if it’s not a manual six speed transmission. The extra gear (or tighter spacing between gears) would make the CR-V feel a little peppier – and probably notch up the MPGs by 1 or 2, too.
Also, the basic warranty (three years/36,000 miles) is mediocre. On this score, at least, the Koreans are the safe bet.
On the other hand, the CR-V is equipped with something I’ve never heard of before – a lifetime fuel filter. It must be a really big filter. Or something. Most cars need a new fuel filter at least once every 30,000 miles – not because of anything having to do with the car but because gas has impurities in it. Silt and other stuff you don’t want your engine to eat gets pumped in along with the gas you buy. Eventually the filter fills up. How Honda can promise that the CR-V’s fuel filter will last a lifetime is beyond me. Unless “lifetime” is not synonymous with “forever.” I’d ask about this, before you buy the CR-V. It might be that the CR-V’s “lifetime” fuel filter needs to be changed out after 10 years or “x” miles – and it might be an expensive job.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Vanilla is a perfectly fine flavor. Not everyone wants rocky road – or fudge sauce.