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Honda's family SUV gains plug-in hybrid power for its all-new sixth generation

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Honda is churning them out at the moment. It soldiered on for years with an ageing range, but in just the past three years, it has given us a new Jazz, a new HR-V, a new Civic and two completely new additions to the line-up: the e:Ny1 electric crossover and the Civic-on-stilts ZR-V. And it’s still not done, because now comes the turn of a new Honda CR-V.

Together with the Toyota RAV4, the CR-V was a bit of a trailblazer for ‘soft-roaders’ when it arrived in 1995. Almost three decades later, it’s onto its sixth generation.

European-market CR-Vs were produced in Swindon for generations two, three and four. Now, production has moved to China, thanks in part to the proximity of battery suppliers.

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DESIGN & STYLING

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Honda CR-V 2023 002 panning side

This model may be all-new, but if you’ve kept up with Honda’s recent launches, the mechanical package will sound very familiar. The regular hybrid uses the same e:HEV-badged powertrain as in the ZR-V and Civic, where the 2.0-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine mainly drives a generator to provide energy for an electric motor to drive the wheels, but with a lock-up clutch for direct drive at higher speeds.

There are a few key differences, though. A second, lower transmission ratio now lets the ICE help out at lower speeds as well, which is particularly useful when you’re towing; and there’s four-wheel drive on the regular hybrid, through a normal clutch-based mechanical four-wheel drive system.

The new CR-V sure looks sharper and more chiselled than the outgoing one. But there's no attempt to disguise that it's a bigger car than the last one; and there's more than a bit of X1 about those rear lights.

What’s more, there’s also a plug-in hybrid version of the CR-V, named e:PHEV. It has a 17.7kWh battery, giving it an official electric-only range of 50 miles, meaning company car drivers will pay only 8% benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax.

But choosing the e:PHEV has a number of other consequences, not all of them entirely obvious. Instead of losing boot space to the battery, it actually gains 72 litres, for a total of 635. That’s because the battery is under the cabin floor, rather than under the boot as it is in the e:HEV (due to differences in how they’re cooled). Having the battery there also precludes a propshaft, so the PHEV is exclusively front-wheel drive.

It doesn’t gain any extra power, since it uses the same motor as the e:HEV; but because the drive battery is larger, there’s enough juice for the motor to run at peak power for longer, so Honda has rated the e:PHEV to tow 1500kg, instead of just 750kg with the e:HEV. Both CR-Vs gets a dedicated towing drive mode that uses sat-nav data to know when to save battery power or even recharge it from the engine so that there’s always enough in reserve for uphill or motorway sections.

INTERIOR

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honda c rv review 2023 007 interior

Inside the CR-V, the relation to the Civic is immediately obvious, as the dashboard looks much the same. This will be a positive for some people, because everything feels indestructible and is easy to use, but if you’re stepping out of a Kia Sorento or a Hyundai Santa Fe, it won’t feel luxurious, expensive or special at all, with coarse and scratchy materials never far away. It’s a cut above the drab Toyota RAV4 for material allure, however.

The seats are very comfortable – in the high-spec test cars we got to try, at least – with decent support in all the places you want it, and plenty of adjustment in the steering column. Unlike in the ZR-V, you don’t sit curiously low – the CR-V just offers an SUV-appropriate tall seating position.

Satisfying, clicky buttons everywhere. Huzzah!

The rear seats slide and recline, and have very generous leg room. The boot is competitive for volume; it’s deep rather than long, but can be made longer by sliding the rear seats forward, of course. The e:PHEV (which has an even deeper boot, remember) gains a step when the rear seats are folded down. However, the variable-height floor evens that out.

For the time being, there’s no seven-seat option, unlike with most rivals.

Infotainment system

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The CR-V’s 9.0in multimedia screen is a familiar one, as we’ve seen it before in every other Honda launched in the last few years. The screen is relatively small and has a fairly low resolution, but it responds well, and the layout is easy to understand.

Physical home and back buttons help with that. Apple CarPlay works wirelessly, while Android Auto needs a cable. You’ll be grateful for the phone connectivity, since the 2005-era graphics of the built-in nav can be quite unclear. The head-up display on Advance-trim cars is rather rudimentary, but the digital gauges are crystal clear and easy to control.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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honda c rv review 2023 018 motor

Honda’s product presentation used terms like ‘exhilarating’ and ‘sports car’ when describing the driving experience of this family SUV. You will be shocked to hear that the CR-V is neither of those things, we’re sure. What it is instead is nicely set up for a smooth and unobtrusive drive.

Despite the addition of an extra gear in the transmission, Honda’s hybrid drivetrain is quite familiar by now, since we’ve experienced the 2.0-litre iteration in both the Civic and the ZR-V. Curiously, it impressed more in the Civic than the ZR-V.

At certain throttle openings, the gearbox rattles off pretend gear changes like a WRC car with a sequential box. Odd, but it's better than a screaming CVT.

The good news is that the CR-V feels mostly like the Civic. The electric motor takes the strain most often, and when the petrol engine needs to kick in it’s usually pretty quiet. The overall performance level is good at low speeds, when the electric motor's got plenty of torque to lean on; becoming a little bit weedy as you pass 50mph, when you need to rouse the combustion engine to put on speed with any urgency.

When you ask for a lot of performance, the 2.0-litre Atkinson engine does get a little bit raucous – and it’s a coarse, tortured noise rather than a sporty one. But with only a bit of care, you can usually keep it in the background, the wider driving experience remaining perfectly pleasant.

Honda has approached the plug-in hybrid differently from other manufacturers in that the e:PHEV doesn’t gain any electric motors or any extra power. It’s simply the same engine, motor and gearbox, with a bigger battery. As a result it looks slightly weedy next to the 302bhp Toyota RAV4. We reckon that doesn’t really matter in a car like this, though.

With 181bhp pulling 1916kg, it’s not fast, but the performance is perfectly adequate. What’s more important is that it feels effortless. Because the battery is bigger than in the regular hybrid, the PHEV can drive on electric power for longer. So while it isn’t any faster (in fact, it’s 0.1 sec slower to 62mph than the 4WD e:HEV), it feels more effortless because the engine can remain at rest for more of the time. Another benefit of Honda’s unusual system, where most of the power comes from the motor, is that it isn’t much slower in EV mode.

RIDE & HANDLING

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honda c rv review 2023 020 cornering front

Apart from some slight underlying firmness over broken paving, the CR-V rides smoothly, whether you get the regular hybrid on its passive frequency-selective dampers, or the PHEV on its standard adaptive dampers. Both are fairly well damped over rough surfaces, while remaining supple over big bumps, stopping short of floatiness.

Whatever the powertrain, you wouldn’t call any CR-V remotely sporty. This generation is a fairly wide, large-feeling SUV, with a pretty gentle rolling character. Both versions have got a weighty elasticity to the steering, which you might initially mistake for feedback. In fact, there’s none of that, and you’ll know you’ve gone into a corner a bit too hot from the front tyres’ vocal protestations.

Like all newly homologated cars, the CR-V is burdened with Intelligent Speed Assistance, aka a speed limit nagging device. It's a faff to turn off, but the bong has the tone of a friendly suggestion rather than an impending calamity, so you're less inclined to turn it off.

Chuck the CR-V into a corner, and you’ll feel it flop over the tall tyre sidewalls before melting into understeer. A bit more front-end grip would be welcome for ultimate confidence, but the safe and steady balance is absolutely fine for a big family SUV. And the brakes are perfectly progressive – not a given with electrified cars.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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Honda CR-V 2023 001 tracking front

Prices for the new CR-V start at £45,895. By comparison, Toyota wants just £38,880 for a RAV4.

Honda UK may be playing a dangerous game here, since it has chosen to only offer two high-grade trim levels on the e:HEV, and to skip the front-wheel drive version entirely. All regular hybrid CR-Vs in the UK will have four-wheel drive. The reason is that most customers of the outgoing CR-V ticked the four-wheel drive version.

But the truth is that, unless you frequent visit muddy fields or snowy mountains, all you’re achieving with four-wheel drive in a road-going family SUV is wasting fuel. Indeed, on our test drive in the four-wheel drive CR-V, the car indicated an unspectacular 43.5mpg.

Honda expects more than 80% of e:HEV and 70% of e:PHEV sales to go to retail. Given the plug-in seems made for the company car market, that seems odd.

We’re sure Honda has done the maths, but with no unhybridized versions, standard four-wheel drive and no entry-level trims, it leaves people who are looking for a slightly more affordable family SUV out in the cold.

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Relatively speaking, things look better on the PHEV side, which only comes in one trim level and exclusively drives its front wheels. Its fuel consumption will of course be heavily dependent on how much you charge it. More relevant is its electric range, which is quoted as 50 miles, comfortably putting it in the 8% BIK bracket.

We had a limited amount of time with the car so couldn’t run the battery dry for a proper range test, but with a full battery, it predicted 41 miles of electric-only, real-world range. When driven in Save mode, which is equivalent to running with an empty battery, it returned an indicated 49mpg and still felt powerful enough.

The e:PHEV costs £53,995. That’s about midway between the Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV and Kia Sorento PHEV, although their shorter electric-only ranges mean they incur more BIK tax. The equivalent Toyota RAV4 PHEV is a little cheaper, while anything with a vaguely premium badge will be significantly dearer.

VERDICT

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honda c rv review 2023 022 static front

The new Honda CR-V has a fresh new look, trading its slightly peculiar one-box design for a more confident SUV style. At the same time, it certainly doesn’t compromise on interior space, as it’s impressively comfortable whether you’re sat in the front or lounging in the back. There’s no shortage of boot space, either.

It rides well and handles about as competently as you need a big SUV to. And with the latest updates, Honda’s unique hybrid system proves well suited to a big relaxed family bus.

The multimedia feels like it could do with a freshen-up in a few years, and we’re not convinced by the mandatory fitment of four-wheel drive and its ill effects on price and fuel economy on the e:HEV version. But as long as you can charge it, and especially if you plan to run it as a company car, the plug-in hybrid seems like the one to have, with impressive EV credentials and flexible power.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.