First Drive: 2012 Honda CR-V

By Charles Krome

It’s no doubt been an ugly year for Honda. The company has lost more than 200,000 units of production that would have otherwise ended up in U.S. dealerships, and it’s still waiting for some facilities to get back up to full speed. Sales are down more than 5 percent through October, at a time when the industry as a whole has grown by about 7.5 percent. Worse, the all-new 2012 Honda Civic has been affected by both those same production problems as well as surprisingly weak reviews, allowing rivals like the Chevy Cruze to gain a significant foothold in the highly competitive compact car segment. In other words, there’s an awful lot riding on the launch of the completely redesigned 2012 Honda CR-V—but after a recent media drive for the vehicle, I’m not expecting an awful lot of new customers to be riding in it.

Allow me to explain: The party line from Honda is that when it began developing the new model, its market research indicated people already thought the current CR-V was the class of the segment, and that the only vehicle that could out-perform it would be an enhanced version—and that’s exactly what the 2012 feels like: The 2011 version, but enhanced. That should deliver some extra sales, but the CR-V isn’t likely to attract a lot of buyers who don’t already have a Honda high on their consideration lists. Interestingly, Honda explicitly admitted at the press event that it didn’t expect any kind of significant increase in volume, although it pinned this on the increased number of new entries in the segment.

Some of this stems from the CR-V’s relatively underwhelming new exterior. The sheet metal itself is a huge improvement over the skin of the past-generation model, but I have to consider that I really didn’t like the looks of the last generation; it seemed clunky and disjointed. The new look strikes me as an enhancement of that same basic design language. It’s a nice enhancement, though, although I’m a bit distracted by that rear side glass that seems to have been lifted from the Chevy Traverse. And Honda also seems to have fallen back on the ol’ “parallel character line” treatment on the flanks of the CR-V, and that’s a design cue that’s been done to death at this stage. One clear change for the better is that the new CR-V seems to have had some orthodontic work done to rectify the underbite of the previous model, but now it reminds me of the Subaru Outback in the front.

The adjustments on the inside were more noticeable, and more effective. The basic changes here were to push the windshield further out and spread gauges, front vents, screens and what-not more horizontally across the dashboard, creating quite an airy space for the front-seat occupants. A single stripe of plastic trim is used to tie everything together visually, but it is a fairly stylish piece of plastic that doesn’t seem cheap or gaudy. There also was plenty of room in the second row, too, and Honda has borrowed some of the Fit’s “Magic Seat” technology to make cargo carrying much easier. The second-row seats fold/tumble—both together and separately—to create a flat load floor with a simple pull of a strap; cargo space with both seats folded has been improved by 1.5 cubic feet and Honda now claims best-in-class cargo area. There are quite a few ingenious storage solutions for water bottles and other personal items, but while the front console compartment is very generous in size, the cupholders aren’t.

An incremental approach also is evident in the CR-V’s new fuel-efficiency numbers. Well, it’s not so much that the approach was incremental, but the results are: Honda was able to squeeze a bit more fuel efficiency out of the CR-V, raising its EPA ratings from 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway to 23/31 in its front-wheel-drive configuration and from 21/27 to 22/30 for the AWD model. As I implied, Honda put a significant effort into achieving this, too, adjusting the vehicle’s exterior proportions and sheet metal for better aerodynamics, which then required adjustments to the CR-V’s interior so as not to lessen passenger/cargo room (in fact, there’s now more of both). Honda even did some underbody work to create a flatter floor and improve the flow of air beneath the CR-V. Engineers also put the CR-V’s powertrain through a comprehensive friction-reduction program as well. But what Honda did not do was add a cutting-edge engine technology like gasoline direct injection or even a six-speed transmission. In fact, the 2012 CR-V’s powertrain is essentially the same as the one in the 2011 model, only, you know, enhanced.

It’s hard to put an especially good spin on this, especially when one compares the CR-V to the equally all-new Ford Escape, which will offer two EcoBoost engines and the automaker’s (hopefully improved) SelectShift six-speed autobox, along with a not-insignificant fuel-economy advantage in its most thrifty configuration. That last is a telling point, too, since Honda made a lot of fuss about the CR-V’s best-in-class fuel efficiency—a claim obviously made before the numbers on the Escape began coming out. As informed by tech innovations like these, the Blue Oval’s new crossover is really the pachyderm on the premises here, with the kind of full-on, from-the-ground-up makeover that gives the perception of being light years ahead of the CRV’s.

But now let’s turn to where the rubber meets the road. I spent something over an hour in a 2012 CR-V with Honda’s new intelligent all-wheel-drive system, and that included a bit over 35 miles in the driver’s seat. Somewhat surprisingly, Honda had us traversing the kind of roads better suited to a sports car than a CR-V, but I suppose that was to showcase the latter’s driving dynamics. And it worked. The CR-V, of course, isn’t a sports car, or even a car for that matter, but it handled the test course’s wide range of curves and elevation changes with relative aplomb, delivering a notably enjoyable driving experience. You might not forget you’re in an entry crossover—although you might—but the CR-V was surprisingly well composed even in tight turns, thanks in part to its somewhat lower and shorter dimensions. There was relatively minimal body roll, too, and its engine, enjoying an enhancement of a few extra hp and lb.-ft. of torque, never seemed completely overmatched. On the other hand, the CR-V’s lack of a sixth gear showed up when the accelerator was pressed all the way down, exposing gear ratios tuned for fuel-efficiency and some unpleasant sounds. But, again, the CR-V’s powertrain did exceed segment standards, and my expectations.

Honda also did a lot of work on the CR-V’s suspension to improve rigidity while maintaining an upscale ride feel, and I’d say the effort paid off. Honda’s seat designers deserve kudos as well.

That being said, there were some weak spots: The CR-V’s standard hill-hold system allowed me to drift backward while I was at a stoplight, and the new electrically assisted power steering allowed the vehicle to start drifting off center soon after I took my hands from the wheel. Effort built up nicely, however, and road feel and responses were above average for the segment.

In addition, since I harped on the CR-V’s fuel-economy above, let me point out that I managed 28.1 mpg over 36.1 miles of road that weren’t too conducive to fuel savings. And this included zero miles of highway driving and barely more than that while engaging the CR-V’s requisite ECON mode.

A few more random pros/cons:

  • The CR-V benefits from a big upgrade in standard content, adding a multi-angle rear-view camera, Honda’s i-MID “intelligent multi information display” screen, Bluetooth functionality, SMS texting functionality and Pandora Internet radio; also, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system is now optional, as Honda is trying to bring more young families to the sales mix.
  • Expanded side-view mirrors are standard as well, helping shrink the CR-V’s blindspots; impressively, despite their larger size, their effect on road noise was fairly minimal—credit the CR-V’s extensive NVH improvements here.
  • A “conversation mirror” to help keep an eye on second-row passengers is standard.
  • The eco-coaching system, which features changing light colors around the CR-V’s speedometer, was much too subtle, especially in bright daylight.
  • The only way to release the back liftgate is by using the liftgate’s handle—there’s no remote release in the cabin or on the key fob, and, needless to say, there’s nothing like the Escape’s new system, which allows the hatch to be opened when you pass your foot below the rear bumper.
  • The CR-V passed my roof-rail test with flying colors, relying on actual roof rails and well-finished sealing.
  • Those integrated rear lights look pretty sharp.
  • Pricing was not released yet, but Honda claims MSRPs will reflect relatively minimal increases.

Overall, the 2012 Honda CR-V is a superior example of a small crossover, exhibiting the above-average ride, workmanship and features that you traditionally expect from a Honda vehicle. But although that positions it a rung above the new Civic, IMHO, Honda either has not attempted to break new ground or, more worryingly for the automaker’s future, was prevented from doing so as a result of a resources crunch caused by the disasters in Japan and Thailand.

Either way, the 2012 Honda CR-V should remain the top choice in the industry for customers who want a Honda CR-V. Which, since that seems to have been Honda’s goal from the beginning, means the new CR-V is a definite success.

Honda made this vehicle available at a media event for this review.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  2. I must wonder what Honda is thinking now about their market positions in the different segments of the American automobile market. I wonder if they are threatened or they feel everything is fine.

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