By Jim Bray
Maybe Honda is listening to its critics because this new CR-V is a nice step back toward Hondas of old, Hondas that weren't just great vehicles, but which didn't really annoy their owners at the same time.
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I've been one of those critics over the past few years, though I can't imagine a small potatoes guy like me being responsible for Honda moving back toward the light - but it's sure good to see.
The first indication of a potential turnaround in Honda's attitude is the return of a volume control knob to the centre stack of the new CR-V SUV/Crossover. The second is that the new CR-V is actually quite a handsome vehicle, much nicer than its predecessor. And that's a great start.
Sure, a volume knob might seem like a dumb little thing to be putting so much sweat into (well, as if writing makes one sweat!), but it's symbolic of how Honda has drifted from its great days of yore - the "we make it simple" time that, though admittedly decades ago in a car market much different from today's - showcased how Honda could make great cars that were also very straightforward.
Most of today's Hondas seem to go out of their way to make the driving experience annoying, from knob-less audio systems (try cranking the tunes from the front passenger seat as the car takes a corner, or just try tuning the radio without using the presets) and incoherent centre stack interfaces to safety nannies that are so obtrusive that the car hollers at you to put on your seatbelt even if you're a passenger and the Honda is pulling into a parking space at minimal speed.
They're small annoyances individually, but collectively they become enough that I can't think of a current Honda product that I would buy with my own money - and I've loved Hondas ever since I bought my brand new 1976 Civic hatchback.
And now, just when I expected to come out of this review once again declaring in sadness rather than anger that Honda has yet again missed it with their new bread and butter SUV, along comes the 2017 CR-V. Honda boasts the new version features "bold and sophisticated new styling, a more spacious, versatile and premium-quality interior, its first-ever turbocharged engine, and a host of new features and technologies for improved connectivity, comfort and convenience."
The changes aren't enough to make me say I'd buy this particular vehicle after all (there are others in this niche that I prefer), but it's less busy and off-putting in its styling, a tad easier to live with - and it's even a darn fine drive despite being saddled with a damn CVT transmission.
Meet the new bus…
The 2017 CR-V rides on all-new platform architecture, and as far as its exterior styling is concerned it's a nice leap from the previous generation. You'll recognize it as a CR-V upon first glance, but the new suit of clothes is modern and mostly clean, a kind of hearkening back to CR-V's of days gone by.
For example, gone is the gigantic rear end that reminded me of those CG Shaak animals on Naboo in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the ones that were basically all buttock. Honda had already changed the silly side-opening tailgate, a bit of design oafishness it used to share with the Toyota Rav4 as well (Toyota has fixed this, too, fortunately), so the "bummy tuck" completes the rear end's return to sanity.
The rest of the exterior is crisper and sharper than before, with new headlights that are surrounded by a LED array of daytime running lights on all trim levels. The fenders are wider and impart a more planted look that's enhanced by the vehicle's long hood, longer wheelbase, shorter rear overhang and dual exhausts.
Honda's sample wore the higher end Touring trim level, which also includes LED headlights and a "Honda-first" Active Shutter Grille that cuts down on aerodynamic drag by opening or closing as needed. Wheels are now expanded to 17 or 18 inches (depending on the trim) and a "Honda-first" optional Hands Free Access Power Tailgate is now offered, which lets you open and/or close the tailgate by kicking your foot under the rear of the vehicle. It's a good system if you have a good sense of balance.
The new generation also brings increased room inside the CR-V - Honda says total interior volume is up by 51 litres compared to the outgoing model, which is pretty darn good considering its bum has been to the gym. Rear seat legroom increases by 53 millimetres, as does total cargo length when the second-row seats are folded flat. Dropping the rear seat is easier than before, too (not that it was a chore before), thanks to Honda's new "one-motion dive-down 60/40 split rear seat" design.
The new CR-V gets its power from the model's first ever turbocharged engine and, though there's a bit of lag initially, it's quite enjoyable. It's a 1.5-liter DOHC inline four, with direct-injection and dual Valve Timing Control (VTC). Once the power comes on it's smooth and quite a bit of fun. Honda says the peak horsepower is 190 @ 5,600 rpm, with peak torque of 179 lb.-ft. from 2,000 to 5,000 rpm, using regular gasoline.
Acceleration is fine. While I'd love a V12 (which probably wouldn't fit anyway…), the new turbo engine does a fine job of getting the CR-V up to speed, the only fuss being the abovementioned bit of lag.
The continuously variable transmission (CVT) with Honda G-Shift control logic isn't as joy-sapping as some, but a manual or a real automatic would still be preferable. At least this one pretends to shift…
All-wheel-drive models such as Honda Canada's sample come with an upgraded Real Time AWD system the company says features "a significant increase in maximum rear-wheel torque delivery and new electronic control allowing control in everyday driving conditions and further improved all-weather confidence and control." I drove the car during bitter cold and plenty of snow and it was great.
I loved the suspension, too, which is nice and tight without being jarring. It features front MacPherson struts and a new rear multi-link suspension, both of which feature specially tuned low-friction dampers along with tubular front and solid rear stabilizer bars. The dual-pinion, variable ratio Electric Power Steering (EPS) works well and transmits decent feel from the road to the driver's hands.
Inside, the 2017 CR-V features more refinement, with better materials including a new soft-touch instrument panel and stitched seats. The new colour TFT driver information interface on the instrument panel is handsome and imparts its info clearly and plainly - as it should.
Other than the extremely welcome radio volume knob, the centre stack is still basically incoherent and as is usual with Honda it didn't want to pair with my Android phone. And they're stuck in the past with a lawyer's screen on the LCD that does nothing but annoy.
Once you get past the lawyer's screen, there's plenty of connectivity (when it works), including an optional new satellite-linked navigation system Honda says was developed in cooperation with Garmin. The audio system is compatible with the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto platforms, though apparently my one year old phone isn't, so I can't comment on how well it works other than to say it sounds like a great feature.
CR-V's include Honda's Sensing suite of advanced safety and driver-assistive technologies, a set of obtrusive nannies that come standard on AWD models. The suite includes Road Departure Mitigation (RDM), Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), along with Rear Cross Traffic Monitor, Blind Spot Information System and Auto High-Beam (okay the last three are actually pretty handy and not too annoying). An all-new Driver Attention Monitor is standard.
Despite my angst about recent Hondas, they're still great vehicles on the whole, and this new CR-V is the best CR-V I've driven. I'm pleased the company seems to be listening to its audience, at least somewhat, and hope there's more listening in the future, to help prevent the late Soichiro Honda from having to add the nickname "pinwheel" to his designation.
If Honda can pull off a return to its former simplicity of operation (and maybe dump the CVT's, though they're hardly alone here), they could have a killer line of great vehicles that drive great and are great to live with.
The 2017 Honda CR-V starts at $26,690 for the LX front wheel drive. The top line Touring model, which also includes a lovely panoramic sunroof, starts at $38,090 CAD.
Copyright 2017 Jim Bray
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