Back in the 1990s, the Ford Explorer, with its powerful V6 and V8 engines, defined and led the SUV market. It was based on a truck platform. Today, with more concern about fuel consumption and the environment, the compact, four-cylinder Honda CR-V is the one to buy. It’s been the leading SUV sold in the U.S. for four years running.
The original mid 1990’s CR-V was tall and boxy, like a compact Explorer, with a flat hood, upright hatch and smooth sides interrupted by modest wheelwell bulges. It was smaller and more efficient than the Explorer, and more pleasant riding on its car platform. Now in its third iteration, it has softened, with a number of styling cues borrowed from BMW sedans. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular.
Freshened for 2010, the CR-V carries over to 2011 with no significant changes. The news this year is the debut of the SE model, which fits between the base LX and the upper-level EX. The base LX offers a lot: standard air conditioning, keyless entry, tilt-and-telescopic steering column, cruise control, power windows with auto-up/down driver’s window, power door and tailgate locks, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system, and a fuel economy gauge.
The SE brings in alloy wheels, an upgraded audio system with six speakers and rear privacy glass.
The EX upgrades the vehicle further, with a power moonroof and security system. The EX-L adds leather seating and armrests, XM satellite radio and a USB port for your iPod, among other things.
The interior makes for some comfortable and efficient travel. The easy-to-use dash features two gloveboxes. The smaller upper one is perfect for carrying your iPod out of sight-and in my top-level model, a USB port, on a short cord, was in there. You control the stored iPod from the dash, just like a radio station.
As an EX-L, my car had comfortable and fragrant leather seating. The plastic dash and door trim mimicked brushed metal, and overall the feeling was slightly upscale. The heated front seats in the EX-L feature attractive stitching along their edges. The shifter projects from the dash, leaving plenty of floor space. I was surprised to discover a six-disc CD player in the center console.
The rear seats fold in a 60/40 ratio, but the upper cushions are 40/20/40, meaning you can fold down one side and still retain comfortable passenger seating. You have the option of folding down only the seatbacks or folding and tumbling them forward for a roomy flat floor.The rear seat also slides forward to make more cargo capacity if you need it.
Every CR-V comes with the same efficient engine-a 2.4-liter Inline 4 with 180 horsepower and 161 lb.-ft. of torque. Interesting that the original Explorer’s V6, pulling a significantly heavier car, was only good for 155 horsepower! A five-speed automatic transmission is the only choice for selecting your gears.
EPA fuel economy numbers are 21 City, 28 Highway, averaging 24 for the two-wheel-drive models. For 4WD models, Highway and average numbers drop by one. My Tango Red Pearl test car, a top-of-the-line EX-L with navigation system, averaged 20.6 mpg. That was a little disappointing, but despite being a junior SUV, the CR-V does weigh a substantial 3,400 pounds.
EPA Green Vehicle Guide ratings are 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas. Those are middling numbers, and the car doesn’t quite make it into the SmartWay designation.
All models come standard with front-wheel drive, which is more than adequate for most things. If, however, you want a bit more traction in rain, snow, dirt and sand, the optional Real Time 4WD all-wheel-drive system automatically transfers power to the rear wheels when needed.
Thoughtful touches are not surprising in a Honda. Storage behind the rear seat is improved by a dual-deck cargo shelf (in EX and EX-L models) that can hold items on two levels, such as a folded baby stroller on the lower level and grocery bags on the upper level. The shelf pulls out easily if you want to use the rear cargo area for one large object.
Prices start at $22,495 for the LX with two-wheel drive and work up to $30,675 for the EX-L with four-wheel-drive and the navigation system. Both prices include a $780 destination change.
All CR-V models bring Honda reliability and that feeling on the road of having more control, thanks to sitting higher up than in a standard sedan. The driving experience is smooth, quiet and annoyance free. Like Honda’s other high-volume American vehicles, the CR-V is built right here in the U.S., in this case, Ohio.
Although there are more new competitors for the CR-V every year, it is still the reigning champ.