In 1997, when Honda entered burgeoning market of compact sport-utility vehicles with its CR-V, the most significant news was that Honda was entering at all. Three generations later, the CR-V's signature folding picnic table is gone, and the CR-V has quietly crept to the top of the sport-utility charts. Who would have guessed that the gamble would pay off with upward of 300,000 CR-V sales per year?
We recently traveled to Austin, Texas, to drive the CR-V, which receives a modest overhaul to its powertrain and interior for 2015, making it an even more impressive value for money.
The refreshed CR-V breaks little ground in terms of styling, drivetrain, and chassis, but that's because most of the update is concealed under the familiar skin. Keen eyes will note optional LED headlights and a revised front bumper on the outside, and scant trim updates inside. More importantly, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission-both borrowed from the most recent Accord-replace aging hardware.
Atop all of the changes across the board, a new top trim, called Touring, incorporates even more content from the upper echelons of autodom. Opt for the CR-V Touring model, offered with either front- or all-wheel drive, and the features begin to rival those from a class above: adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, a power liftgate, and push-button start, to name a few.
All of these changes represent a push to modernize the CR-V, not move it upmarket, although that seems to be the direction that its chief competitors are heading. Our Touring AWD test car-with leather seats, dual-zone climate control, a sunroof and all of the aforementioned active and passive safety systems-was luxurious enough to be an Acura.
How it drives
Little has changed about the CR-V's driving experience, except to note that everything seems smoother, from throttle response to steering. Credit the new four-cylinder engine, which produces as much horsepower (185) as the model it replaces, but with less strain. The continuously variable automatic is a step up from the previous CR-V's 5-speed automatic in terms of quietness and refinement. Steering, a Honda hallmark for accuracy, was direct without being too light to the touch. The new engine and transmission deliver improved fuel economy, according to the EPA; in our short test, we were unable to confirm the updated figures, although we did keep the green Eco on for most of the drive.
We spent time driving around Austin and its suburbs and test the '15 CR-V as most owners would, running errands and wheeling around strip malls and local highways. The CR-V absorbed broken pavement smoothly, without the gliding feeling of the Nissan Rogue or the harsher suspension treatment of the Ford Escape. A reasonable amount of wind and tire noise crept into the cabin at highway speed, but the hushed transmission kept engine speed, and attendant noise, relatively low. All of the passive and active safety features worked flawlessly, although the active cruise control acted somewhat hesitant coming to a full stop at a red light. (Thankfully, we had no need to test the preventative active braking system.)
As for the CR-V's utility, the SUV had no trouble accommodating our shopping at each stop. The rear compartment's low liftover angle was useful when our hands were full of Texas-sized boot purchases. Kudos go to the designers of the front center console, which has storage areas large enough for venti cups and small enough for smartphones and keys.
The bottom line
After a short stint behind the wheel of the CR-V, it's easy to see how the United States fell in love with its simple design and easy-to-use attitude. Everything about the CR-V feels familiar and intuitive to learn. Nothing pushes too hard. It may not be as engaging to drive as Volkswagen Tiguan, or as capable off road as a Jeep Cherokee, but the CR-V can accomplish everything that most owners will potentially toss its way.
The proof is in the numbers: Through the first half of 2014, Honda is on track to once again crack almost 300,000 sales this year. That would amount to quite a few picnic tables.
The power-operated tailgate, which was only available on many of the CR-V's competitors until now, is a godsend for those moments when your hands are full. The trunk-mounted, fold-out picnic table is due for a comeback.
Could do without
Although the optional navigation system niftily incorporates more radio and multimedia functions than we had time to test, it remains slower to react than systems like MyFord Touch, uConnect, and Entune.
More refined feature content means that the CR-V is even more likable.
By the numbers: 2015 Honda CR-V
MSRP: $24,150 (includes $830 destination charge)
Power / drive wheels: 2.4-liter, 185-hp inline four-cylinder engine / front- or all-wheel drive
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
EPA fuel economy: 26 city / 33 highway mpg (Touring AWD model, as tested)
In showrooms: Now