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Honda by Jim Gorzelany (9/17/2004)

If you were looking for a compact, car-based SUV back in 1997, things were a lot simpler than they are today. There were only a handful on the market to choose from in those days, with the major players being Toyota’s just-launched RAV4, the Subaru Forester, and the Honda CR-V.

These little runabouts offered buyers a way to get many of the desirable “real world” attributes of a compact SUV, including higher ride height, versatility, and the availability of a sure-footed all-wheel-drive system, without the gas-pig appetite for fuel and clunky handling of a traditional, truck-based sport-ute. It was a great idea, and others quickly caught on.

Since ’97, the market for these user-friendly “crossover” SUVs has grown like well-tended kudzu in a Georgia hothouse. Today, there are more than a dozen of these things available to choose from. Some, like recent entries from Kia and Hyundai, are a lot less expensive (or better-equipped for the dollar) than the CR-V, which starts at $20,195 for the entry-level LX with front-wheel drive and runs to $25,250 for a Special Edition with heated leather seats and all-wheel drive. Others, like the hugely popular Ford Escape, offer more interior room, as well as brawny V-6 engines and decent pulling ability, which the four-cylinder-only, light-duty CR-V simply can’t match. But the CR-V remains true to the basic concept that started it all: a fuel-efficient, agile, and easy-to-drive cross between a traditional small sedan and a compact (but gas-thirsty and clumsy handling) SUV.

Civic pride

The CR-V’s Accord-sourced 2.4-liter engine may “only” offer up 160 hp, but it’s enough to run the CR-V to 60-mph in about 8.5 seconds. And it can tickle 30 mpg on the highway. Many buyers don’t realize that a modern four-cylinder engine such as the CR-V’s has power comparable to what a much larger six-cylinder engine put out in years past. If you haven’t driven a new vehicle lately, don’t dismiss the CR-V because it “only” has a four-cylinder engine. This one’s more than adequate for normal driving and decently responsive, as well as fuel-efficient.

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