First Drive: 2012 Honda CR-V

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The Honda CR-V is a respectable, classless sort of vehicle. It’s the sort of car anybody from any social stratum can purchase and not be ill-thought-of by one’s peers. Unless, of course, one’s peers are Toyota RAV4 die-hards. It also stands as the best-selling SUV-type-thing in the United States during the final year of its lifecycle, a testament to its usefulness, price and relative frugality, hallmarks of the machine since its stateside introduction in ‘97. Since then, the car’s grown from a funky, practical runabout into a mature pillar of suburban life. And until this newest CR-V, it had also consistently grown in size.

Optically, the 2012 iteration of Honda’s most popular tall-wagonoid seems as if that growth trend has continued unchecked, but the ruler tells a different story: the new car’s actually marginally smaller than the previous model. Honda’s chipped away at the original car’s upright look over the years, and the new model’s certainly the most streamlined yet. As is the current vogue, the company’s also shaved weight. Despite the reduced length and lower roofline, passenger volume is up. Honda refers to this as “Man Maximum, Machine Minimum,” which sounds as if it could be an overly-earnest industrial punk album from the Minneapolis or Chicago circa 1992.

Regardless of whether your musical tastes tend toward Big Black, Clint Black, or Black Uhuru, the cabin’s a plenty-pleasant environment. The seats are road-trip comfortable and being relegated to the second row is no punishment at all. Speaking of the 60/40 split aft chairs, they fold down quickly in one motion, leaving a nearly-flat cargo floor, a la the CR-V’s econobox stablemate, the Fit. Up front, all CR-V owners are treated to Honda’s i-MID infotainment system, which, when connected a number of BlackBerry phones or the Droid Bionic, can read incoming text messages aloud and allow you to send a canned response. As the lack of support for other phones is a hardware issue rather than a software incompatibility, fans of the iPhone or other Android devices will have to wait until the proper chipset’s included in their phones of choice. On the other hand, iPhone users can take advantage of their Pandora accounts, controlling their streaming music through the vehicle’s interface. Nav-equipped models come with an additonal, larger screen mounted lower in the dash which takes on some of the i-MID screen’s workload, displaying texts and Pandora tracks.

The CR-V has always been solid dynamically, and if the current car isn’t quite as playful as it was in its infancy, it’s certainly smoother and quieter. The electric power steering is about average as these systems go. One turns the wheel and one’s CR-V heads in the intended direction. No muss, no fuss. The new all-wheel-drive system engages the moment the utelet leaves the line — in previous generations, the system waited until the front wheels began to slip before the rears kicked in to provide additonal traction. While CR-V drivers won’t suddenly be tackling the Rubicon Trail due to the revision, it’s still a nice refinement. Ground clearance on the AWD models remains the same, while FWD vehicles see nearly a half-inch drop, in conjunction with the vehicle’s primary mission as a suburban runabout.

Given its role as a small-family hauler, small families considering the CR-V will be pleased to know that the AWD version sees an improvement in fuel economy over the outgoing car. It’s up one in the city and three on the highway, turning in figures of 22/30, respectively. The FWD car does one mile-per-gallon better in each category. The CR-V also features Honda’s ECON mode, which according the company, offers no benefit on the EPA cycle, but in real world driving offers a measurable benefit when it comes to around-town mileage.

While Honda was once known for innovation on a grand scale, these days, the company seems content to refine its existing technologies. To wit, the CR-V makes do with a five-speed autobox while others have upgraded to six or even eight cogs. Hyundai and Kia have added direct injection, while Honda soldiers on with more traditional port fuel injection. Whether that’s stick-in-the-mud thinking or Honda’s simply being able to coast after having spent so much time at the front of the envelope is in the eye of the beholder. At any rate, the company seems confident in its product: according to Honda’s Large Product Leader Akio Tonamura, “Only the CR-V can top the CR-V!” He goes on to add, with pie-eyed wonder and gravitas, “This is the fourth-generation CR-V! The Super CR-V!” I’m sure plenty of families will find it exactly that — after its aesthetically gawky-yet-endearing childhood and adolescence, Honda’s cute-ute is all growed up.

Class

Compact Crossover

Capacity

Five passengers

Engine

2.4-liter inline-four

Transmission

Five-speed automatic

Horsepower

185 hp

Torque

163 ft-lbs

0-60

9.0 (est.)

Mileage

23/31 (FWD); 23/30 (AWD)

Base price (incl. destination charges)

TBA

Remarkable features

One-touch near-flat-folding seats