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by Jeremy Cato
The first time I road tested Honda’s CR-V (comfortable runabout vehicle) back in the fall of ’96, I said to myself, “Now this makes a lot of sense. What took them so long? All it needs is a little more horsepower.”
Which came along in ’99 in the form of a 20 horsepower boost to a solid 146 horsepower. That means, of course, that the original all-wheel-drive CR-V had just 126 horsepower. That lack of power left the CR-V just this side of perfect.
The five years since the CR-V was launched have proven it to be a well-constructed, fun-to-drive, compact-sized utility vehicle that’s big enough for most nuclear families and well-designed enough to accommodate a huge variety of passenger and cargo loads.
Then and now, the CR-V belonged to a group of several other smallish sport-utility vehicles. Compared to all of them, the CR-V, is longer, wider, taller and roomier inside than any of its rivals; in fact, size-wise it’s more a match for Jeep’s Cherokee – except the CR-V has more rear-seat leg room.
In traffic, the CR-V is a smooth, responsive runabout with a peppy engine, nimble handling and good sightlines in all directions thanks to more glass area than any commuter has a right to expect. Just keep in mind one fact: the CR-V is an urban recreational vehicle, not a serious off-roader, despite ground clearance on par with Ford’s Explorer. Among the small sport-utes, or sport-cutes as some wags have dubbed them, the CR-V is the least capable of handling rough terrain.
Two reasons for that. First, the four-wheel-drive system is a fairly simple arrangement designed to give you extra traction on slippery roads. And second, the CR-V is based on an enlarged Honda Civic chassis with many bits and pieces borrowed from the general Honda parts bin. The Civic connection is good news from a quality perspective, but who in their right mind would take a Civic for a romp in the bush?
Honda’s engineers started with the Civic foundation and then built a vehicle with extra height above the unit-body frame rails. That fact accounts for the high seating position. But because it’s all riding on the heart of a Civic, passengers – despite eight inches (20.3 cm.) of ground clearance – can slip right in without a climb.
For the CR-V’s car-like road manners, credit a double-wishbone, fully-independent suspension. This is arguably the most sophisticated suspension layout of any utility vehicle and it goes a long way towards explaining why the CR-V feels so agile and light. The power-boosted rack-and-pinion steering is direct and predictable, while the brakes, with anti-lock, are strong and sure.
The CR-V’s four-wheel-drive system has been adapted from the previous Civic four-wheel-drive wagon. That means it essentially operates as a front-wheel-drive vehicle until there’s some slippage at the front wheels. When that happens, a driveshaft running rearwards joins in, sending power to the rear wheels via a viscous or fluid coupling.
The principle is quite simple: the more the front wheels slip, the more the fluid in that coupling heats up and, thus, the more power is sent rearwards. Chrysler’s current crop of all-wheel-drive minivans employ a similar system.
There are no buttons or levers to engage in order to call up four-wheel drive. On the other hand, there’s no centre lock or rear limited slip for extra traction in really tricky conditions. Stay on paved or light gravel roads and you’ll find the CR-V is just perfect, however.
Inside the CR-V you’ll find a space as tidy and well-conceived as my dad’s old workshop. There’s seating for five and a large cargo area which is accessed through a swing-out door at the rear. The cargo area has four tie-down rings, a variety of small compartments and there’s even a fold-out picnic table beneath the flat floor.
The rear bench not only splits 50/50, but it also folds forward for more cargo space or reclines for comfort. In fact, it’s possible to fold the front seats all the way back to make a pair of 6 1/2-foot bunks. How’s that for overnight camping? And between the front buckets is a handy flip-up tray/clipboard with built-in cupholders.
All things considered, Honda hit a home run with the CR-V. If a new one is out of your price range, don’t be shy about considering a used one. The quality and reliability is that good.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.