The Honda CR-V is one of those cars that manages to be an enormous success without being particularly noticeable. Honda dominated the mid-size ‘soft-roader’ market last year, and the CR-V easily outsold the Toyota RAV4, yet it barely registered on many people’s radar. The majority of CR-V owners couldn’t care less, because in the CR-V they find an ideal companion for their daily lives and outdoor pursuits. ‘Compact recreational vehicle’ might sound corny, but it’s pretty apt.

Until now, the lack of a torquey turbodiesel has been the only chink in the CR-V’s armour, but the fitment of Honda’s award-winning diesel engine must have the opposition very worried. This is traditionally a petrol-powered market sector, but the real growth in recent years – as is so often the case – has been in diesels. Honda wants to capitalise on this, so it’s bringing over the Japanese-built 2.2-litre i-CTDi unit to slot into some of the 105,000 CR-Vs it builds in Swindon every year. Towards the end of the year, the engine will be built in Honda’s Swindon factory, too.

Under the bonnet Although it is said to be retuned for the CR-V, the all-aluminium 2.2-litre diesel powerplant produces the same 138bhp at 4000rpm and 251lb ft of torque at 2000rpm as it does in the Accord. We’ve already heaped praise on this engine for its cleanliness, refinement and heavyweight torque punch, and most of those attributes are present in the CR-V.

But channelling such considerable torque through the drivetrain is, you sense, something of a shock for the CR-V. The rear squats down and the whole car squirms slightly as it springs forward under full throttle in the lower of the six forward gears. The CR-V now has a surprising turn of pace. It feels quicker than the 0-62mph time of 10.6sec would suggest. Even at motorway speeds, the Honda can to some extent defeat the limitations of its aerodynamics and accelerate keenly in fifth and sixth gears. Alternatively, it will cruise at 70mph in sixth with only 2340rpm showing on the rev counter. And with all that torque and four-wheel drive, the CR-V diesel should make an able towing vehicle.

The level of refinement is slightly disappointing, though. We’re not talking about the usual diesel complaints of a chuntering engine note and bone-shaking vibrations: as in the Accord, the i-CTDi engine is effortlessly smooth, revs cleanly and possesses a soft-edged note that only lapses into a mild diesel clatter around idle speed. But while the characteristic cambelt-like whine and zizz in the Accord is subdued, in the CR-V the whining rise and fall of this noise does get tiresome. At steady throttle openings – on a motorway, for example – it’s barely noticeable, but when accelerating or decelerating it makes its presence felt. You could live with it, however.

Cleanliness is still very much a virtue of the i-CTDi: it emits just 177g/km of CO2 (the RAV4 2.0-litre D4-D emits 190g/km) and it meets Euro4 emissions regulations, putting it in the 22 per cent tax bracket for company car drivers, while the Toyota is rated at 27 per cent. And with fuel consumption of 42.2mpg on the combined cycle, the CR-V is admirably frugal for a mid-sized 4x4.

The CR-V was facelifted last year, but the differences are hard to spot. They include a subtly reprofiled front and rear and a hard spare wheel cover.

On the road It’s not a vehicle for the enthusiastic driver. The slow-witted steering requiring some mental readjustment the first time you drive it, but the car generally rides well, requires minimal effort to drive and is an undemanding way to travel.

The intelligent four-wheel-drive system only kicks in when it senses the need to and was also upgraded during the facelift last year to make it smoother. Honda doesn’t pointlessly hype up the CR-V’s off-road abilities, describing it as ideal for ‘grass and gravel terrain’. In reality, it has more than enough ability for most users.

The cabin is typically solid, although some of the materials feel a little cheap – notably the so-called leather steering wheel on this high-spec Executive model. At least some effort has been made to give the dashboard some rugged 4x4 design cues, with its grab handles and flamboyant upright handbrake. This Executive model also has plenty of standard equipment, including climate control, satellite navigation, heated leather seats and a sunroof.

Practicality is still the CR-V’s strongest suit: there’s loads of elbow room up front and a small table that can be raised between the front seats, while the rear seats slide fore and aft and recline by up to 45 degrees. With the rear seats up and forward there’s 628 litres of boot space, rising to an impressive 952 litres with the seats down.

At £22,800 this Executive SE i-CTDi is £1400 more than the same spec with a petrol engine. That, and the typical ownership profile of the CR-V, leads Honda to believe that the petrol model will still eventually outsell the diesel at a ratio of 57:43. But the diesel CR-V covers an emerging and important gap in the market, and should ensure Honda continues its massive success in this market. Quietly.

Adam Towler

Our Verdict

Can the Honda CR-V bring anything new to a crowded arena?

Driven this week

  • 2015 Audi RS Q3 review

    2015 Audi RS Q3 review

    First drive
    18 November 2014

    More of an expensive oddity than a range-topping performance SUV, and an ultimately unsatisfying oddity at that

  • 2015 Bentley Mulsanne Speed review

    2015 Bentley Mulsanne Speed review

    First drive
    18 November 2014

    The fastest luxury saloon in the world is also one of the very best

  • 2015 Fiat 500X review

    2015 Fiat 500X review

    First drive
    17 November 2014

    Decent styling, a well-judged interior and good practicality means Fiat's 500X is a worthy entrant on your compact crossover shortlist

  • 2015 Hyundai i20 review

    2015 Hyundai i20 review

    First drive
    17 November 2014

    The new i20 is a very spacious, well-kitted and keenly priced addition to this competitive segment, but it’s let down by weak engines

  • 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 GTS PDK review

    2014 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 GTS PDK review

    First drive
    14 November 2014

    This sporty 911 Carrera plugs the gap between the standard Carrera S and the hardcore GT3 successfully