2012 Honda CR-V: First Drive

November 16, 2011

In these days of tighter family budgets, and in many cases a desire to be more understated, compact crossover vehicles like the Honda CR-V have a lot of appeal. Parents know that they provide more versatility—and freedom, by some gauges—than sedans, and they’re a little smaller and more manageable than the hulks that ‘minivans’ have become.

Thankfully, Honda hasn’t much changed the exterior dimensions of the 2012 Honda CR-V. It still fits neatly into most compact-car parking spots and has a low cargo floor that doesn’t require a lot of reach or lift.

The exterior of the new CR-V has evolved, somewhat. Front and rear styling has been spruced up a bit, with the front end noticeably more Accord-like. Honda has essentially taken the same package—same wheelbase, same basic silhouette and proportions—but made a few crucial changes so as to completely reconfigure the interior. The high point of the roof has been dropped just a bit, and the floor and cargo floor have been lowered nearly an inch. Designers also modified the positions of the front seats to give the CR-V a somewhat more sedan-like driving position, and they added a wider range to seat-height and steering-wheel adjustments. Also by changing the angle of the rear pillar somewhat, they freed up just a little more rearward visibility.

We really like the simplified layout of the instrument panel. It avoids both the chunky, overwrought-and-cluttered look of the larger Pilot SUV’s interior, as well as the odd asymmetries of the Civic and the confusing rotary knob of the high-end Accord models. The look is simply clean, with a shelflike, ‘lean-layered’ concept and climate controls just below audio controls, with a small, five-inch ‘i-MID’ trip-computer and audio screen just above it all. There’s a big, round speedometer, with peripheral controls just below that, and the center console runs between the front seats and has been redesigned to include cupholders, a tray, two storage compartments, and a USB port.

The 2012 CR-V still has seating for five, and its interior feels almost minivan-like in how passenger friendly it is. Front seats are buckets that are on the soft side, but supportive enough for a long day. And the rear split bench seat has more generous dimensions and better padding than most in this class; you still won’t fit three adults happily across, but there’s plenty of thigh support, as well as legroom and headroom, to keep everyone happy.

Back seat folds flat with one pull!

One of the keys to why the CR-V’s back seat is so comfortable is that when you fold the seatback forward, you’re not merely mashing a thinly padded cushion down. Pull forward on a strap, and with one, very fluid motion the lower cushion tumbles forward into the footwell, the headrest angles forward, and the rear seatback flips forward, all tucking nearly behind the front seat, to a completely flat position. The seat-folding arrangement—much as Honda’s setup in the Fit subcompact and Odyssey minivan—really is a CR-V strength.

Cargo capacity with the rear seatbacks up is an impressive 37.2 cubic feet. A side cargo net is included, and EX levels and above get a removable and retractable cargo cover. Fold the back seats down, and you get a continuous cargo floor that’s 61.4 cubic feet long—although it does have a slight step up at the base of the seatbacks. Honda is proud that it’s dropped the cargo floor—and the liftover height itself—to 23.6 inches.

Looking elsewhere at the CR-V’s spec sheet, it looks technically a bit behind the curve. At a time when most crossovers have (or will soon be) migrating to direct-injection engines and six-speed automatics, the CR-V makes do with what’s essentially a carryover engine and five-speed automatic transmission. That’s not all bad; the 2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder remains one of the smoothest fours in this class, with nice, even power delivery all the way up to redline.

The available Real Time AWD system is also a new system that no longer requires front wheel slip before sending more power to the rear wheels. It uses a hydraulic pump to engage the clutch based on driver inputs—always applying some ‘standby torque’ to launch the CR-V from a standing start with all four wheels. When cruising, it still completely disengages the rear wheels.

Taller gearing: some good, some bad

Honda carries the same five-speed automatic transmission over from the last-generation CR-V, but it’s made the final gear ratio taller (1.4 percent taller in all-wheel drive models, or six percent taller with front-wheel drive). There’s still no full manual control, and the net effect we found on our drive is that, like with many newer models moving to taller gearing, you’re likely to get stellar gas mileage if you drive gently; but in spirited driving with fast-moving traffic, or on hilly or curvy roads, you’ll experience more transmission downshifts and indecision—and, potentially, lower fuel economy.

Just as in the Insight and Civic, the CR-V now has a big green ‘econ’ button. Press it and you get different operating parameters for the throttle, transmission, and air conditioning. As we observed, pressing it makes the CR-V feel somewhat like a German car, with a much more linear throttle and earlier upshifts. We pressed the button once at a time when the climate control had the fan cranked quite high, and it commanded an instantaneous drop in fan speed. There’s also a simplified coaching system, in which you simply look for a lighted ring surrounding the speedometer to stay green.

Coated pistons and reduced oil-ring tension (to cut engine friction), a smart alternator control system to cut electricity consumption, a low-viscosity transmission fluid, and an automatic transmission warmer all contribute to these efficiency gains.

EPA fuel economy ratings land at 23 mpg city, 31 highway with front-wheel drive, or 22/30 with four-wheel drive—making it the highest-mileage all-wheel- or four-wheel-drive vehicle in this class. Over a half-day of fast driving on mostly curvy roads, with some expressway portions, we saw about 23 mpg. That’s quite good, but stay tuned to see if we can do even better in daily driving.

As for the rest of the 2012 CR-V driving experience, it’s absolutely nothing to get excited about. The gist of it is that the CR-V isn’t a car that asks you to drive it fast, but in normal driving you should be happy. Honda has retuned the suspension for a better ride and reduced harshness, compared to the previous version, added double door seals, and bolstered the body structure, and it’s clear that a lot less road noise makes its way into the cabin. 

Steering with less confidence

The most significant letdown in the 2012 Honda CR-V is the way it steers. Honda has fitted an electric power steering system to the CR-V, and it fails to give the new model the confident handling feel that we expect in a Honda—even if the CR-V’s body control is good. The system feels overly light on center, it's hard to anticipate in tight corners, and it unwinds in what feels like an uneven fashion. We were fortunate to have a 2011 CR-V model nearby and verified the astonishing difference back-to-back; the CR-V used to be one of the better-steering vehicles in its class, but we can’t say this for the 2012.

Anyone who’s previously shopped for a Honda in recent years will find the trims offered in the CR-V quite familiar; there are LX, EX, and EX-L trims, with top version of the EX-L available with a Navigation package and rear entertainment system.

EX models get a power moonroof, rear privacy glass, 17-inch alloy wheels, a passenger-seat armrest, seatback pockets, intermittent wipers, upgraded upholstery, a tonneau cargo cover, and a security system. EX-L models are the way to go for those who want more of a luxury feel, as they get leather upholstery, a ten-way driver’s seat, heated front seats, a higher-power audio system with subwoofer, automatic climate control, heated mirrors, and upgraded interior trim. A rear entertainment system with seven-inch display, DVD player, wireless headphones, and remote is optional. Satellite radio is only offered on the EX-L

Up to snuff on connectivity, safety

Otherwise, we like a number of thoughtful features and ideas inside the CR-V. As in the new Civic, the i-MID is controlled via a simple directional toggle on the steering wheel. The system is compatible with SMS texting (reading and pre-set replying) and a Pandora app, and officials said that other apps may be on the way. The screen will also display cover art, turn-by-turn directions, or a trip computer/fuel economy screen, and you can set the home screen to display personal pictures as wallpaper. The standard wide-angle side mirrors are also the first in any Honda vehicle, and the Multi-Angle Rearview Camera offers three different views (wide, normal, and top) to help you see obstacles (or children).

Honda is also offering more dealer-installed accessories for the CR-V this time—items like back-up sensors, roof rails, running boards, a cargo organizer or tray, and remote engine start.

The 2012 CR-V is scheduled to go on sale in mid-December, with prices likely only slightly higher than the 2011 model.

In all, the CR-V fails to stand out in the market in the way that the last-generation model did when it was new. But it remains one of Honda's stronger efforts in packaging and practicality, and for those who want some seating comfort and some packaging magic without much driving excitement, all in an affordable vehicle, the 2012 Honda CR-V remains one of the best compromises.

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