Predicting the future direction of Honda’s compact CR-V would have been difficult based on the Civic-derived model that first arrived on our shores for the 1997 model year. The newcomer, selling alongside the body-on-frame Passport (a hastily rebadgedIsuzu Rodeo), was a cute compact crossover with four doors and an awkward curb-side hinged tailgate thanks to its Japanese home-market design. The five-passenger CUV offered generous interior room, but its wheezy 2.0-liter four-cylinder, with an output of just 126 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque, required 11.7 seconds to bring the 3,153-pound vehicle to 60 miles per hour. Rear drum brakes didn’t help much in the stopping department, butHonda offered safety-minded consumers optional anti-lock brakes on the premium trim.
Nearly two decades after its introduction, the CR-V has matured in spectacular manner. The refreshed 2015 Honda CR-V, now in its fourth generation, is dimensionally within two inches of its ancestor in overall length and nearly identical in height and wheelbase. That consistency of dimension is impressive in this age of size and segment creep, and it stands as a testament to how ‘right’ Honda engineers got the model’s original packaging. Of course, the CR-V hasn’t stood still – nearly everything else about the best-selling compact CUV has improved in leaps and bounds.
But Honda is not the only player in this hotly contested segment today, so the automaker has taken the unusual step of updating its fourth-generation model just a few years after its introduction in an effort to keep it seated on the podium. To learn more about the automaker’s improvements, and form our own impressions, we spent a day driving the CR-V in sunny Southern California.
Ask Honda folks whether they consider the 2015 CR-V to be “refreshed” or simply “updated,” and they will tell you the makeover is internally called a “minor model change.” A moment later, they will further explain that many more things happened to the crossover than usual for such exercises, so the transformation is actually a “major minor model change.” Yet they contradict themselves in the press release, where it is termed a “mid-model cycle redesign.” Whatever terminology the company uses, there’s one thing we do know: the 2015 CR-V has a new look inside and out, a new powertrain, new technology and new features – this is a big deal.
The refreshed (that’s the term we are sticking with) compact crossover has a pretty new face that is brighter and more uplifting, a result of a new front grille, available LED running lights, plenty of additional chrome and styling that ties all of the elements together very cohesively. The sides are defined by new wheel packages, with redesigned 17- and 18-inch alloys. The front looks good, but we are less impressed with the rear, as the new bright chrome bar at the base of the rear window and a thick brushed aluminum lower fascia make its tailgate appear heavy and cumbersome. Thankfully, the automaker has retained the CR-V’s attractive signature reverse and brake lights, which are mounted high on the roof pillar to keep them cleaner and improve visibility.
Inside the five-place cabin, occupants will note improved textures and materials throughout – think premium. The center console armrest is now standard, as are telescoping sun visors that slide to cover the length of the side windows and rear-console ventilation ducts. Honda’s new seven-inch capacitive touchscreen Display Audio telematics interface is also a new offering, which can be bundled with the next-generation of Honda Link, the automaker’s web-based infotainment interface.
There are dozens of improvements to the refreshed CR-V, but don’t think that the changes are all tactile or purely cosmetic. According to Honda, its next-generation Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure received over 60 alterations to improve chassis stiffness and collision performance – the ride is improved and the 2015 CR-V is expected to earn a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (testing commences next month, with results likely announced in December).
The most important news is found under the hood, where Honda has replaced last year’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder with its Earth Dreams2.4-liter engine, a newer powerplant already found under the hood of the Accord. While the displacement may be identical, the new engine features direct injection, a forged-steel crankshaft and a pair of chain-driven, counter-rotating balance shafts that offset the four-cylinder engine’s typical harmonic vibrations, allowing it to run smoother. Horsepower is identical (carried forward at 185), but torque jumps from 163 pound-feet to 181 pound-feet, improving both responsiveness and acceleration.
In years past, the engine was mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, but the crossover is singing a new tune with the introduction of a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is lighter and more compact than the automatic gearbox it replaces. It addition to offering unsurpassed smoothness, it has a 33-percent wider overall ratio spread than the outgoing five-speed to improve efficiency and drivability. As has always been the case, buyers are offered a choice between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive.
The new engine and transmission pairing has done very good things for the compact CR-V in terms of fuel efficiency, meaning the 2015 model jumps a few points in both its city and highway ratings (FWD EPA rating is 27 miles per gallon city and 34 mpg highway, while the AWD EPA rating is 26 highway and 33 highway – on regular unleaded fuel). Owners – and Honda salespeople – should be pleased, as those figures launch it comfortably ahead of most of the competition.
Honda is offering ten different versions of the CR-V divided among five trim levels (LX, EX, EX-L, EX-L Nav and Touring) with FWD or AWD offered on each. To ensure its continuing competitiveness, all trims have been upgraded with even more standard equipment, but with minimal pricing increases. Those familiar with the brand will note the CR-V’s new Touring trim. It connotes Honda’s top-of-the-line offering, which adds the most aggressive wheel/tire package and the most comprehensive suite of electronics and safety equipment.
The entry-level LX FWD model starts at $23,320 (all prices exclude Honda’s $790 destination charge), but our flagship model will set buyers back $32,770, which is new pricing territory for the CR-V. Our thought entering the Touring was that Honda can probably afford to let its CR-V wander upmarket a bit, as the small CUV segment is growing so rapidly that sales will likely be found across a wider pricing bandwidth. Further, with Honda also about to launch its all-new Fit-based HR-V crossover for 2015, there ought to be room for the big-brother CR-V to mature, right? Seeking to answer our own questions, we grabbed the keys to a Touring AWD in new-for-2015 Copper Sunset Pearl paint.
Don’t let its “compact crossover” designation deter you, as the CR-V’s interior is unexpectedly cavernous. Short or tall, thin or wide, drivers and passengers of all stature will find the cabin very comfortable and accommodating, whether they sit in the first or second row. Our Touring model arrived with a new 10-way power and heated driver’s seat (with memory) that was a cinch to adjust. Another nicety is the new perforated leather, which adds a premium feel to the natural upholstery.
All of the competitors in this segment offer a lifting tailgate and folding second-row seats, but a key selling point in the Honda is its very low cargo floor, which eases loading and increases capacity. The 60:40 split second row is a cinch to fold – the pull of a lever, located just inside the rear cargo area, collapses the headrests, moves the lower cushions out of the way and drops the seatbacks. It really doesn’t get much easier.
Honda has made every attempt to silence and isolate the 2.4-liter engine in the refreshed CR-V. Its door seals are twice as thick as last year’s, the coverage and thickness of sound-absorbing material was increased and there is now full coverage of sound insulating carpet. At idle, there is no audible exhaust note in the cabin, but someone paying close attention may notice a slight vibration, a characteristic of every four-cylinder on the market.
Full confession reveals that we never actually launched the CR-V from a standstill to measure its 0-60 sprint – compact crossovers don’t get our hearts racing – but we estimate it will deliver the goods in the eight-second range, which is about what all of the others do in this segment. Acceleration delivers a familiar numbing CVT drone from under the hood, but the soundtrack is accompanied by a reasonable push back into the seat cushion.
The 2015 Honda CR-V’s driving dynamics aren’t going to surprise anyone – the mannerisms of its front MacPherson strut and rear multi-link suspension are more predictable than the phases of the moon. The new Motion-Adaptive Electric Power Steering (EPS) system works well, too, with decent feedback and confidence-inspiring responsiveness. The all-wheel-drive system sends nearly all of the power forward unless the wheels slip, meaning the nose-heavy FWD and AWD models handle and drive nearly identically.
Our all-wheel-drive model didn’t throw us any surprises, whether in stop-and-go traffic, cruising at freeway speeds or being tossed into corners. The vehicle’s Achilles’ heel is the all-season tires (225/60R18), which lose grip and force expected understeer. Eventually, the automaker’s standard Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) jumps in to save the day. Interestingly, VSA will also provide a limited-slip differential effect by applying braking force to a spinning wheel, thereby sending the power across the axle.
Stopping the 3,624-pound CR-V is drama-free, thanks to disc brakes at all four corners. The somewhat heavier – about 120 pounds – AWD models wear slightly large rotors. For 2015, Honda’s engineers have increased the servo ratio on the brake booster to decrease the pedal effort by six percent and provide a more solid feel underfoot. We were unable to feel a difference in the brakes, but the pedal effort was good during our urban driving and a few simulated panic stops were straight. The CR-V can tow a modest 1,500 pounds when properly equipped.
Opt for the Touring model, and it comes loaded with the automaker’s Honda Sensing suite of safety and driver-assist features. These include Forward Collision Warning (FCW) for vehicles and pedestrians, Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS), Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Lane Keeping Assist (LKAS) and Honda LaneWatch. The ACC works well on the highway, but it is not a full-range system, meaning it won’t work in stop-and-go traffic (Acura offers a more sophisticated version on its vehicles called Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-Speed Follow). The CMBS will utilize all of the vehicle’s braking capability, including ABS, in an attempt to slow or stop the CR-V if it senses an impending collision.
Thankfully, we didn’t have occasion to really test any of the safety systems, but we did use Honda’s Lane Watch system countless times. The camera-based technology, which provides an 80-degree view of the passenger-side of the vehicle to help uncover the blind spot using the navigation screen, is offered for the first time on the CR-V (it’s standard on EX trim levels and above). It takes a few lane changes to become comfortable with the system, but then its use becomes completely natural and helpful – it’s a technology this author would like to see across the industry.
The first-generation Honda CR-V needed only endearing charm and an attractive sticker price to move itself out of showrooms – the bar, set by the Toyota RAV4, Suzuki Sidekick and its Geo Tracker twin, was quite low. But fierce competition in the mushrooming compact crossover segment is forcing every automaker, not just Honda, to shorten product lifecycles and strive to raise the bar far above anyone’s early expectations. The process is expensive, but increasingly necessary to stay at the head of the pack.
We really like what Honda has done with its compact crossover. It may not be particularly daring or innovative, but methodical market research combined with fanatical communication with current CR-V owners has focused the automaker’s energy on improving the product to suit its family-friendly audience. The 2015 Honda CR-V won’t release the automotive enthusiast buried within anyone, but it will enhance driving comfort, increase utility, improve efficiency and elevate safety – and that’s exactly what crossover shoppers in this segment are seeking.