1999 Honda CR-V Photo
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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas Spend seven days scooting around town in the typical sport-utility vehicle, and you, too, may conclude from the experience that you've spent a week struggling to push a too-cumbersome truck around in traffic for a too-little reward.

Now, these glorified wagons stand tall and look tough. But behind their intimidating facades are the innards of a pickup, along with all of the unwieldy handling traits of a truck. If you want to venture off-pavement through the bush, all the better. If not, an SUV can be a chore.

By contrast, a week of driving around town in the CR-V, Honda's compact four-door sport-utility vehicle, is a no-hassle experience in traffic, mostly because of its easy-driving characteristics, which seem more like a car than a truck. The name explains it all: Comfortable Runabout Vehicle, which Honda abbreviates as CR-V.

What sets the CR-V apart from most of the other SUVs traces to its underpinnings, which come from a conventional sedan rather than a truck. Honda's small wagon uses a platform borrowed from the Japanese version of the compact-class Civic, with a wheelbase of 103.2 inches.

A carlike steel unibody forms a rigid structure, while most SUVs use a ladder-frame design. Many of the vehicle's mechanical systems — such as a controllable double-wishbone suspension and the precise rack-and-pinion steering — also show up on products in Honda's car line. So, if you know Hondas, you know what you’re in for with the CR-V.

Still, to satisfy the SUV crowd, the CR-V stands tall and looks rugged, like a sport-ute should, and it has protective cladding applied to the lower body like other SUVs. Its boxy wagon lines have been softened by carving curves on transitional corners, with B-pillars blackened to de-emphasize the four-door format.

Japanese street smarts

The CR-V’s basic concept comes from the Japanese market, where smaller vehicles work better than bigger ones and where consumers prefer to outfit a smaller package with more comfort and luxury options.

1999 Honda CR-V interior

1999 Honda CR-V interior

The CR-V's interior is sharp and orderly, just like every other Honda.

The Honda’s carlike cabin provides space for five people in a layout with twin front bucket seats, separated by a console and followed by a bench that's best for two riders (but functional for three). In styling and tone, the interior looks like it was lifted directly from one of Honda's sedans, and there are all of the amenities for comfort and convenience aboard that you might find on a Honda Civic or Accord.

At the back, a novel two-piece gate allows access to the rear storage bay by opening in two ways. The top glass, hinged at the top, swings up for quick entry for items like groceries, while the lower metal door with side hinge swings out of the way to the side for loading larger objects.

When the first CR-V came ashore in North America in 1997, it consisted of a single edition with front-wheel drive, powered by a modest four-cylinder engine coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission. This year, Honda will produce more than 100,000 units of the CR-V, equipped with either a standard front-wheel-drive format or an optional four-wheel-drive version divided into two additional trim designations.

More power, more choices

This year’s model draws power from the same 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine as before, but the engine has gained 20 hp due to an increase in the compression ratio and revised tuning for intake and exhaust systems. Output rises to 146 hp, which improves launch timing from a stoplight start. It feels lively now at lower speeds on city streets but can still exert muscle at higher speed on the highway for confidence when passing another vehicle.

The four-speed automatic transmission behaves like a smooth Civic shifter, much improved over past Honda slushboxes. It uses a "grade logic" shift-point governor, which selects third- and fourth-gear settings after measuring such variables as throttle position, road speed and rates of acceleration and deceleration. Both four-wheel-drive editions of CR-V also offer the option of a manual five-speed shifter, which is typically Honda: light, direct and delightful.

The CR-V’s optional all-wheel drive is a clever piece designed mostly for street use. It automatically splits engine torque between front and rear wheels to maintain constant traction on pavement, depending on the slickness of the roads. For a driver, the operation becomes a no-brainer because the system is always engaged.

Under normal dry road conditions, this mechanism directs the engine's power to both front wheels, so the CR-V behaves like a front-wheel-drive car with sticky front tires pulling the vehicle through a curve. When the pavement becomes slippery, an on-board hydraulic system redistributes the torque from front to rear wheels if wheel sensors detect that the front tires are turning at a faster rate than the rear ones.

The system also enables the CR-V to venture off-pavement with a reasonable amount of confidence, and a ground clearance of 8 inches allows it to clear trail debris. Take note: The absence of protective undercarriage plates and a low-range gear are warning enough about taking the CR-V over seriously challenging terrain.


With automatic four-wheeling, the carlike ride quality, and power controls for all functions, the CR-V performs driving tasks nice and easy — much like any Honda car.

It’s no surprise, then, that the CR-V’s packaging and road-holding qualities are so refined. Its wheels stand at outside corners, setting up a broad and stable stance. A fully independent double-wishbone suspension just like that on other Hondas begets the carlike ride quality.

Honda's variable power assistance for the rack-and-pinion steering device means the CR-V will turn easily with even a light touch to the wheel. It's also quick to cut, so you can toss the wagon around a corner or squeeze it into a narrow parking spot without difficulty.

The CR-V’s front buckets provide high backs and look and feel like seats of a plush minivan. The rear seatback splits and folds flat to expand cargo space in the rear storage section. Even with the rear seatback raised, the storage section contains about 30 cubic feet of space, and there's a waterproof recess concealed below the floor level. The lid of this hidden section may be removed and, with fold-up legs deployed, used as a miniature picnic table.

Interior improvements for the 1999 editions include new fabric upholstery on seats, an armrest added for the front passenger seat, illuminated power window switches, a cup holder molded into each rear door, and a transmission overdrive switch applied to the column-mounted shifter.

The CR-V starts at $18,550

Reviewed by Bob Plunkett
Editor, The Car Connection
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