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One of the first 'soft-roaders' returns for a new generation, but while upstarts like the Mazda CX-5 and BMW X3 have moved the segment on, does the Honda bring anything new?

"You were the future once," was a comment famously hurled at the once boyish but now grizzled Tony Blair by the fresh-faced young upstart called David Cameron – and he could just have easily been talking about the Honda CR-V.

The CR-V was no more the first ‘soft-road’ recreational 4x4 than was Blair the first Labour PM. But like Blair, it introduced a degree of apparent user-friendliness never seen before among its kin.

The original CR-V helped set the mould for the class

Perversely, and just like the man who kicked the Tories out of power, the appeal of the Honda stemmed from compromising the very things it was meant to do best.

The result was a more populist product, more than happy to alienate the traditional hardcore if it meant appealing more broadly to those of a more middle-of-the-road persuasion.

And it worked beautifully. So beautifully that three successive generations garnered five million sales between them, business a traditional off-roader could not possibly hope to have imagined. But such success rarely comes with no price attached. When the CR-V made its debut in 1995, its only serious and direct opposition was the Toyota RAV4.

But the rest of the world was hardly likely to sit back and let them clean up. Slow out of the blocks though some have been, now almost every self-respecting mainstream and even large-volume premium player is in the market. From Korea's Hyundai and Kia to Germany's Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the marketplace has never been more crowded.

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Nor does it look likely to thin out any time soon. The formula of providing a car that makes its owner look more adventurous than he or she actually is while coping with all the clobber of daily family life has captured the public imagination like no new class of car since the invention of the hatchback in the 1970s. Which means for old stagers like the Honda CR-V, sales that were once presumed now need to be fought over from first to last.

That said, the CR-V does come with one or two quite compelling factors in its favour. Honda is a brand that still commands worldwide respect for the quality of its engineering and, with a return to supplying engines in F1, a new Honda NSX and a tenth-generation Honda Civic and Honda Civic Type R looming, its strength looks likely only to improve. Not content with playing catch-up a second time, Honda took the initiative and gave the CR-V a thorough facelift in 2015, and has unveiled what its next generation range-topping SUV will look like.

And it’s built right here in Britain, just north of the M4 in Swindon. If you want an SUV and believe in supporting your local car constructor, a CR-V may still be what you need.

For everyone else, though, it will need to compete on ability alone, and that is what we are here examine.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Honda CR-V rear

The current Honda CR-V may not look that much different to the car it succeeds, but that’s because Honda is following Volkswagen’s cue and not messing with a winning formula any more than it has to. Besides, the fourth generation car is far more changed than first acquaintances might suggest.

It is, for example both lower by 30mm and shorter by 5mm than the last car. However, it suffers no reduction of interior space, says Honda, thanks to smarter packaging. It’s torsionally stiffer, too. A longer roof and flatter floor have smoothed out the airflow both over and under the car and combine with more efficient engines to provide some useful gains in fuel economy and falls in CO2 emissions.

You can opt for a powered tailgate, operated via the key

Another throwback to the CR-V’s history is that two-wheel drive is the exception rather than the norm. Many newer rivals retain an all-wheel drive model just because of the credibility that would be lost if an off-roader was produced with literally no off-road ability. By contrast, four-wheel drive remains very much a CR-V staple and is available on all models save those fitted with the entry-level 1.6-litre diesel.

The extensive mid-life facelift gave the CR-V sharper looks, which correlates with Honda's design language, with the front grille, headlights and rear lights all getting a refreshed look. It was also made wider and given a quicker steering rack and new suspension components, while refinement was improved with thicker door seals.

However, just two engines were available at first, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol and a 1.6-litre diesel engine available with a nine-speed auto' box, replaces the long-in-the-tooth 2.2-litre diesel that has taken the lion’s share of sales in the UK. Doubtless Honda could have installed a higher-output engine – in the US the mainstay is a 185bhp 2.4-litre petrol – but in Europe, demand for such a thirsty, tax-inefficient powerplant would be negligible.

The CR-V sits on a bespoke platform that uses McPherson struts at the front and a multi-link rear end.

INTERIOR

Honda CR-V interior

For a car intended to appeal as much to fashionistas as traditional off-road devotees, Honda appears to have missed a bit of a trick. You can see what it was trying with its dashboard design but the truth is, it doesn’t quite work.

In certain circumstances, form can take precedence over function and still result in a driving environment that’s cohesive and not so difficult to use that it becomes counter productive. In the Honda CR-V, while the idea of a large central speedo flanked by smaller gauges for revs, fuel and water temperature is sound, more minor controls are less sensibly arranged. And if you choose the optional sat-nav, it may not be long before you wished you’d just bought a TomTom and slapped that in the window instead.

The Econ button alters the Honda's throttle mapping to encourage a more economical driving style

Elsewhere, the CR-V finds itself on surer ground. There is of course the obligatory raised driving position without which no SUV is worthy of the name, and you can count on Honda not to mess up the fundamental relationship between the driver, pedals, steering wheel and gear shifter.

Those condemned to life on the back seat may notice and appreciate the absence of a tranmission tunnel, though the 38mm drop in the H-point may be more difficult to spot. No matter, with a large and airy glasshouse the Honda CR-V provides one of the better views of the world as it passes by the window.

The boot is sensibly shaped and of competitive capacity for the class while your friends will marvel at the mechanism for dropping the rear seats: one tug of a handle and the seat bottom shuffles forward, then the back flops down and the headrest tucks into it.

It may even be a neat enough solution for you not to notice that the Honda's total loading capacity is somewhat smaller than that offered by many rivals.

Then there is the multitude of trim levels to decipher too. The entry-level S and S-Navi models come with 17in alloys, dual-zone climate control, cruise control and Bluetooth connectivity, while the latter also gets a 7.0in touchscreen Honda Connect infotainment system complete with sat nav. The SE and SE-Navi models also get parking sensors and front foglights, although the former foregoes the sat nav.

Choose the SR trim and you get high density headlights, half leather and half Alcantara interior and bigger alloys, while the range-topping EX models gets a full leather interior, panoramic sunroof and keyless entry and start.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Honda CR-V side profile

Why would anyone choose a petrol-powered Honda CR-V? Actually there have been some grounds, none more compelling than the fact that, model for model, the petrol car is more than £900 cheaper than the 1.6-litre diesel.

If, therefore, you were a low-mileage user, wanting the elevated seating position of an SUV but as little of the expense as possible, a petrol CR-V may have made a great deal of sense. However, all this was before the dawn of the 1.6-litre diesel. It asks for another second and a bit to get to 62mph, but it will reward you by travelling more than 20 miles further on each gallon of fuel while chucking in a free tax disc for good measure.

In this class you want predictability and security, which the Honda delivers

For many, however, the obsolete 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel motor would found under a majority of used CR-Vs bonnets. As we shall see, it is not only more frugal than the petrol version but also, less predictably, given that it has more weight and less power, offers better performance.

That sounds like a mathematical impossibility, but it’s not. The petrol motor may have three extra horsepower but that paltry advantage fades to total nothingness when you consider that it develops just 141lb ft of torque at 4300rpm compared to the substantial 258lb ft made by the diesel engine at fewer than half the revs.

Not only does that make the diesel fractionally faster on paper (0-62mph is 9.7sec compared to 10.2sec for a petrol all-wheel drive CR-V), in the real world there’s really no comparison. While you’re wondering just how many gears you may need to drop to clear some traffic in the petrol CR-V, the diesel has already gone.

On the subject of gears, the five speed automatic transmission is determinedly old-school and, like all such gearboxes, therefore extracts a heavy price for its installation not only when you buy but every time you put you foot down or pull up to the service station. Acceleration to 62mph for the 2.2-litre diesel increases by almost a full second to 10.6sec with a commensurate increase in fuel consumption.

RIDE & HANDLING

Honda CR-V rear cornering

You may remember that the previous Honda CR-V was one of our favourite soft-roaders. The reason was that, for all its SUV-credentials, it didn’t feel like one when you drove it.

On the contrary, the manner in which it attacked the open road felt closer to that of a conventional car. So here was one recreational off-roader that offered the configuration that makes these cars so popular in the marketplace, with the driver appeal to make it work properly out there in the real world, too.

The Honda CRV's ride is acceptable, but there's no great finesse

No longer. We will not be the first to remark that Honda seems at present to have lost something of is once enormous engineering mojo, and you can feel it in the CR-V as well as anywhere else.

By the somewhat modest standards of its class, it doesn't actually have a bad chassis, but it is disappointing, particularly if you’re stepping into it from a car of the previous generation. Nor do you need an open and empty road to feel it.

The ride quality no longer sits near the top of the class. Instead, the car feels like someone charged with reducing development costs has put a big red pen through the previous model's shock absorber specification and mandated something rather more prosaic instead.

So now it fidgets a little and offers body control that’s merely fit for purpose rather than genuinely impressive. It rides like most other SUVs do: well enough, but nothing like as well as a properly developed conventional saloon or estate.

It’s not much fun to drive hard, either. The steering is still accurate, but the car’s poise is now nothing special and its attitude to be thrown around is now one of benign indifference rather than positive enthusiasm. Is that why people buy such cars? Clearly not, but it was once a clear differentiator for the CR-V and we’d not be Autocar if we let that pass without comment.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Honda CR-V

If you want to minimise your outlay and maximise your return, a modestly dressed Honda CR-V would seem the way forward. All versions come with a three-year, 90,000-mile warranty with servicing according to how you drive it.

Fuel consumption varies from a really rather impressive 62.8mpg for the 1.6-litre diesel to the somewhat disastrous 37.7mpg of the 2.0-litre, all-wheel-drive petrol model with an automatic transmission that offers inferior performance to every other model in the range, 1.6-litre diesel included.

On CO2 the CR-V is competitive, but far from class leading

So unless you’re a one-legged man or woman with a pathological aversion to diesel, it’s very hard indeed to see why you’d bother. A standard 4WD 2.2-litre diesel manages just over 50mpg, a similar result to that achieved by the likes of the Toyota RAV4 and Kia Sportage when equipped with similar engines.

 

VERDICT

Honda CR-V rear quarter

If you were marched blindfold to both this and the previous Honda CR-V, sat in disguised cabins and allowed to drive both, you might wonder from their dynamics which is the newer car.

Relative to its rivals at the time, the old CR-V was a real achievement, a breath of fresh air blowing through the turgid ranks of its classmates with enough of a spring in its step to make you pleased you didn’t splurge the extra on a Land Rover Freelander 2.

The CR-V languishes behind the Freelander, Santa Fe and X3

At best, this new model has trodden water while all the time its rivals have advanced. When new, the 2.2-litre diesel was a groundbreaker; at launch it seemed merely adequate, and by 2015 it was deemed redundant.

While the old CR-V also possessed ride and handling that really raised the eyebrows, now it’s not bad, but nor is it outstanding in any notable way – and falls behind the likes of the Mazda CX-5 and BMW X3.

And that is an effective metaphor for the CR-V as a whole. It gives the impression that wrapping it up in fresh new looks is somehow enough and that the rest of the car does not need to be similarly renewed. That said, the addition of a 1.6-litre diesel is timely and should ensure that CR-V sales stay strong.

But it is no longer a car about which we can get at all excited. You might wonder why we ever thought it a possibility in this class of car. To which we’d point out its predecessor and that Honda badge on its nose, a sign that still speaks of engineering excellence far beyond the run of the mill.

Sadly, and in the Honda CR-V at least, there is little evidence of that mindset at all.

 

Honda CR-V 2012-2018 First drives