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2012 Honda CR-V

A first look at Honda’s new 2012 CR-V Add to ...

After the critical shellacking Honda received with some – not all – of the reviews of the redesigned 2012 Civic, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on some folks at the boardroom if the CR-V that’s based on that Civic tanks on the showroom floor.

But for small SUV buyers, the new CR-V makes enough advancements in the key style, safety and comfort departments to make it a truly worthwhile leap forward, building on what was still a very competitive crossover, even though it doesn’t make any notable drivetrain technology advances.

The CR-V is Honda’s second-most popular model in Canada, selling about half as many of the small SUVs so far this year as it does of the powerhouse Civic, according to the latest DesRosiers-compiled sales charts.

This all-new CR-V shares the Civic’s architecture, engine and transmission, but didn’t go through the same last-minute redo/cost-cutting the Civic received, prompted by the global financial crisis.

Though the Civic’s 13-year crown as best-selling car in the country is under siege this year by flashier compact competitors and natural disaster production delays, the compact CR-V crossover is expected to see a serious boost in sales for 2012, after adding CR-V production to Honda’s Alliston, Ont. plant. If current sales trends continue, Honda’s aim to sell 30,000 CR-Vs in Canada next year will make one of the most, popular small SUV/crossovers in the country.

And depending in part on whether production delays due to massive flooding in Thailand delay the CR-V’s planned January launch in Canada, it just may have the mainstream consumer appeal to pull it off.

Style-wise, there’s enough of a difference in this model that people will notice the new one, an extra note of aggression in the front grille that overlaps the headlights, as well as the extreme approach angle under the front bumper. It’s not radical, but like all good automotive designs, make its predecessor seem a trifle dated.

Sure, this latest CR-V is not going to flip the style meter as high as rivals like the Kia Sportage or the upcoming Kuga-influenced Ford Escape. Then again, this is a largely conservatively shaped crowd, the current Escape and CR-V’s ho-hum two-box shapes proving that you don’t need to sell style to sell well in this segment.

The more impressive gains come inside the CR-V’s slightly shorter and lower overall body. Honda has managed to squeeze out more interior volume by lowering the floor, creating the largest cargo area in its class, with a yawning 1,054 litres of space with all the seats up. It’s so large back there, it seems ripe for a third row, which some rivals offer.

Lowering its 60/40-split rear seat is easier now, with an interior door-like handle up high in the rear of the cargo area. Pull it, and the rear headrests flop forward while the seatback lies itself down, if the front seat isn’t moved too far rearward. This mostly worked flawlessly, although there were a couple of times when I pulled the handles and nothing happened, likely with the seat belts getting in the way.

From the cockpit, our top-of-the-line Touring tester – or at least its closest American equivalent – featured plenty of niceties, including leather seats, powered for the driver, and a large second screen for the high-mounted GPS system. The interior quality was fine for a 30-grand small SUV, though various materials looked better than they felt.

Final CR-V pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but Honda Canada says it will be priced closely to the current one. That would make this fully loaded tester come in closer to 38 large after freight (and before taxes), at which point larger five-seat crossovers with nicer interiors like the Toyota Venza start entering the picture.

More impressive with the CR-V is the list of features that will come standard for its $28,000 or so base price: heated front seats, Bluetooth, steering-wheel audio, cruise and phone controls, and a rear back-up camera that helps you make sure your rear bumper or wheels don’t hit anything they’re not supposed to.

A five-speed automatic transmission is also part of the standard package, a gear or three down from the most modern automatics on the market. But with class-leading fuel economy for both the front-wheel drive and AWD models – at 9.0 litres/100 km city and 6.4 highway for the FWD and 9.2 city/6.6 city/highway for the AWD – it’s hard to argue with Honda’s results here.

Granted, this best-in-class notation assumes one is not comparing advanced hybrids or electric models. Ford’s outgoing Escape Hybrid and (presumably) incoming C-Max five-seat crossover hybrids will sip notably less fuel than the CR-V, as will Toyota’s all-electric RAV4 EV slated to start production in Cambridge, Ont., in 2012. Sure, there’s no guarantee that the RAV4 EV will be sold in Canada next year, or for quite a while, if ever. But there’s at least some movement among Honda’s chief rivals toward advanced powertrains, an aspect that is not on display in the latest CR-V.

Instead, there’s a frugal but familiar 2.4-litre inline-four, with five more horsepower to 185 hp, as well as 163 lb-ft of torque. More advanced is the new electronic all-wheel-drive system, upgraded from the former mechanical slip-’n-grip system.

The outgoing AWD system had an inherent delay from when a tire slipped to when power was pushed to other corners of the car. With the new electronic system, the CR-V’s brain can electronically detect that if you desire quick acceleration, via a stab of the accelerator, it will automatically send some power rearward, to help avoid any slip in the first place.

Like the rest of the Honda CR-V, it’s a notable improvement, if perhaps a safe distance from the cutting edge. But as various car makers have found with documented quality gremlins in some dual-clutch transmissions, Honda seems very content to stay largely with proven technology that stays together.

And for many buyers looking for a comfortable, reliable and roomy family hauler, well back from the cutting edge is a nice, safe place to be.

Tech specs

2012 Honda CR-V

Type: Compact, five-seat SUV

Base price: (estimated) $27,880 ; as tested (estimated) $37,600

Engine: 2.4-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 185 hp/163 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel, optional electronic all-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/6.6 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, Dodge Journey, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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