MONT TREMBLANT, Quebec -- Hook a hard right through the wrap-around ramp leading into Autoroute 15, which points northward out of Montreal toward the fir-clad mountains in Canada's French-flavored province of Quebec, and a compact-class crossover utility vehicle (CUV) from Honda hugs the tight curve in an aggressive manner which denotes a playful driving disposition.
Now step on the go-pedal in a run-up though five gears of the electronic automatic transaxle and power builds as we scoot along the multi-lane freeway.
We're quickly bumping against the legal speed limit in a rush out of Montreal, with all signs in French directing us northward toward St. Jovite and the ski resort of Mont Tremblant. Time to settle into the padded bucket of a feature-loaded cockpit and assess all nuances of this latest rendition of Honda's best-selling CUV.
The motoring trek seems quite easy for one driver, however, because we're steering a smooth-riding and comfortable runabout vehicle.
Actually, that's the name of this CUV -- Comfortable Runabout Vehicle. For simplicity, Honda abbreviates it to the initials of CR-V.
The agile CUV rides on a car's chassis with an expanded structure, bold body styling outside and a five-place passenger compartment laced with an extensive list of safety equipment and downright fancy features.
Original concepts for the CR-V which drives and rides like a car and functions like a miniature minivan came from Honda's Mother Country of Japan, where a small vehicle navigating narrow and congested streets seemed far preferable to a big one, and perks for comfort were in keen demand.
The CR-V became such a sales sensation in Japan during its debut year that a decision was made to ship to North America for model-year 1997 a single-trim LX version outfitted with left-hand drive for the American market.
By 2002, Honda allowed the CR-V to grow up by casting evolutionary designs which elevated the wagon in size, style, comfort and performance. Then the re-do of 2007 went even further by pitching the CR-V as a substantial CUV for the compact class with a passenger compartment enhanced in terms of comfort, convenience and quietness, while restyling in 2010 produced a smoother exterior package and more controls and more stock conveniences in the cabin, plus increased power yet improved fuel economy ratings.
For model-year 2011 Honda adds a new trim level -- CR-V SE (Special Edition), which joins the price-leader LX, upscale EX and top-grade EX-L (the L signifies leather).
Foundation for the CR-V is a unit-body platform which shows the extensive use of high-tensile steel. The unit-body platform merges chassis and superstructure to forge a single framework that's extremely strong and rigid.
It has a low center of gravity and a wide-track tread to enhance vehicle stability when set to motion.
Working in favor of a dynamic vehicle is CR-V's independent suspension -- tuned MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in back -- with double-spoke 17-inch wheels (either steel or aluminum) capped by 225/65R17 all-season tires.
There's a computer-managed vehicle stability control system aboard labeled Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), along with a four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS) coupled to electronic brake distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (BA) units.
And the steering is crisp and true, as derived from a rack and pinion design with speed-sensitive hydraulic power boost.
The front-wheel-drive (FWD) powertrain for CR-V consists of a four-cylinder engine linked to a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission.
The dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) 2.4-liter in-line-four is made from aluminum with a drive-by-wire throttle and Honda's special i-VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse torque across a broad band.
The four-cylinder plant generates 180 hp at 6800 rpm and torque of 161 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
It also earns respectable fuel-burn scores with EPA mileage estimates rising to 28 mpg.
Honda's automatic four-wheel-drive (4WD) system is also available on the CR-V for every trim to improve tire grip.
Note, though, that the absence of protective undercarriage plates and a lockable differential with low-gear range signify that CR-V's four-wheeling intent is directed at improving traction on rain-slick pavement or in winter weather rather than for off-road forays.
Take a walk-around tour of the CR-V and you'll discover a streamlined body posing in hunkered stance that makes it appear ready to roll.
There's a low hood line to enhance forward visibility for the driver, with the stubby prow featuring thick fascia which wraps upward to resemble skid plates. The upper grille features a single chrome blade housing Honda's H-logo also coated in chrome.
Oversized headlamp clusters crown the front corners and continue into flared fenders over the tires.
The roofline slinks rearward over a band of arched windows with black-capped pillars.
At the rear long red lamps define edges of a top-hinged tailgate, which curves down and fits snugly against the bottom bumper.
In the cabin there's room for five riders with supportive bucket seats in front of a bench for three and a rear bay for cargo.
Unconventional designs make creative use of the space and add to comfort.
For instance, the two front buckets are separated by a flat floor and the transmission shifter extends directly from a protrusion at the center spot of the dashboard. That eliminates the need of a console so it vanishes (expect on the top trim), leaving the flat floor free to function as walk-through space.
Likewise, the rear seats -- split 60/40 on bottom and 40/20/40 on top -- perform tricks. Seatbacks recline or fold forward and the folded seats tumble forward, all to add flexibility in carving out space for people and cargo.
Honda creates a precise price list for 2011 CR-V models beginning at $21,695 for the CR-V LX FWD and $22,945 for CR-V LX AWD. The new trim CR-V SE FWD lists for $22,395, with the AWD version at $23,645. Top model CR-V EX-L Navigation FWD goes for $28,645 and the AWD EX-L Navigation hits $29,895.