It was towards the end of its life that I really enjoyed the old Honda CR-V. I went on a 3,000 km drive with my wife that took us all the way to Leh via some of the highest mountain passes on Earth. And the CR-V hardly missed a beat. Sure, the terrain was hostile and there was at least one occasion when the soft-roader belly of the CR-V was exposed (when the going got really tough in the More plains). Yet I was thoroughly impressed by the refinement, power and overall grace of the machine. It may not have looked ready for war the way Hummers do, but it instilled in me the kind of confidence only the most reliable things in this planet can provide. If I had one suggestion to Honda after I drove back to urban madness via Kargil and Srinagar, it was to provide the next generation CR-V with a low-ratio option in the gearbox. Not very useful, in all probability, for 364 days of the year, but on that odd day when your wheels are struggling for traction, your chest hair will be saved by selecting 2L.
Oh well, Honda has launched the third generation CR-V and they have not provided a low-ratio in this one. Instead what they have done is to make this city-bred compact utility vehicle even more black-top friendly. The selection of the test-drive course – the brilliant ECR that connects Chennai and Puducheri (Pondicherry as it was known earlier) – was proof that Honda didn't really want us to challenge mountain goats with the CR-V.
The CR-V has been a relative success in India and that too while competition like the brilliant Chevrolet Forester struggled. Even the Hyundai Tucson powered by a diesel motor has not really challenged the CR-V to the niche it has been ruling comfortably since launch. But there is a catch. The new car retails at Rs 20-odd lakh. Sure it comes in a crate from Japan where it is built, but is it good value when you can buy two splendid Honda Civics (almost) for the same money? Well, let us find out.
The last generation CR-V played it safe. The new one has more character thanks to some design cues forced onto the sheet-metal. The most striking design exuberance is the coupe style greenhouse. I am not really a big fan of Porsche-profiles on an SUV backdrop and I really thought the chunky C-pillar of the old CR-V was a signature touch worth keeping. Instead the new car has a narrow, blacked out C-pillar and a rather ungainly D-pillar with bent Xmas tree tail-lamps growing on it. On the front end, Honda has gone for a butch nose-job that helps it meet new pedestrian safety norms and gives the car a certain personality. A clear-cut waistline is the hallmark of the profile and it is all garnished with embossed plastic bits. Now, the design critic in me may not approve of the design cues when seen separately, but I do have to say that the sum of things has resulted in a machine that is clearly a CR-V but with certain panache. If that is what the designers went about achieving, they have succeeded. And yes, you get 17-inch wheels as standard issue and that gives the car a serious stance which eluded the last generation.
Interiors and comfort
Like most Hondas, the new CR-V is built around the driver. But unlike its predecessor, there has been some effort to ensure that rear seat passengers enjoy the ride too. So gone are the upright, small rear seats and in place comes a 60:40 split rear seat which can be adjusted using a slider to liberate more leg room. And there are head restraints for three passengers now. If you didn't buy the old car since you didn't want to offer all the comfort only to your chauffeur, then it is time to check out the CR-V again.
Coming back to the front seats, Honda drew the line between old and staid to garish and discotheque. While you get an eight-way adjustable seat, dual-zone climate control and a 6 CD/MP3 changer, you don't get the multiplex display that makes the Civic interior all jazzed up. Excellent driving position and overall ergonomics mean you will spend whole days driving the new CR-V without fatigue. Small irritants include volume control buttons on steering wheel where the horn button should have been (at least for India). It may not exude luxury, but the CR-V interior is pleasantly engineered.
Power and performance
Honda sold over 25,00,000 last-gen CR-Vs and none of them were powered by diesel. But today, Honda has got some experience with diesel engines and if they really wanted, they could have launched the new CR-V powered by an oil-burner. But diesel motors are hot property in Europe these days with over 60 per cent of registrations every year and India may have to wait a while before we get the option. What we have under the bonnet is the familiar 2400cc i-VTEC petrol that powers the Accord. This is an ultra refined engine that develops a healthy 160 bhp and 21.8 kgm of torque. What is new is a six-speed manual gearbox that does the job of transferring power via a 'Realtime' 4WD system that normally drives the front wheels. Honda says that they have added a one-way cam unit to the dual-pump system as seen in the older car which improves the 4WD system's ability to detect front-wheel spin. The new system reduces lag in changeover – from front-wheel drive to 4WD. A larger clutch and strengthened transmission bits help transfer 20 per cent more torque to the rear wheels. Good news indeed.
The new CR-V is tad heavier than the older car but the powertrain in manual mode has enough grunt to propel the mass. Expect 11 second runs to 100 kph and a top speed on the happy side of 200 kph. Gearing is spirited and that means the car can be driven hard on a variety of terrain. The short-throw gear selector could have been engineered to offer a more positive feel though. The car behaves like a capable automatic in the sixth gear and it can be made to pull away from a mere 40 kph to 180 kph without hesitation. A larger gear wheel, as you certainly know, is a surefooted way to get better mileage from the engine too. In short, this gearbox is a perfect partner to the characterful motor that powers the car.
The 5-speed automatic has got another agenda altogether – save effort and fuel. The automatic CR-V is markedly slower compared to the manual. It is all right for the freeways in Europe and the US, but on Indian highways, the CR-V becomes a handful to pilot. Overtaking buses and trucks becomes dicey since the transmission takes its own time to kick-down and hurl the car forward – in the process it makes all the power and torque made by the gem of an engine somewhat redundant. Sure, if you have bought your CR-V for hassle-free traffic slithering, then the auto-box is up to the task and yes, Honda has offered a hill descent control of sorts in the D3 mode which uses more engine braking while driving down slopes.
It is not normal for us road testers to link safety and selection of gearbox options but I guess I am ready to put my neck out and say that a manual, which allows you to get the necessary power when you need it, is a safer option than an auto-box that is tad too intelligent for its own good.
Ride and handling
This is the area where all the hard work has gone into and the result is a new CR-V that is almost as good a handler as its sedan sisters. The suspension system made up of struts up front and wishbones at the back has been finetuned to handle a variety of loads and speeds. The Chennai-Pondy road presented us with some genuinely fast sweepers to find out the car's ability to carry speed through them. Pushing 140 kph through some of these winders, the CR-V was as composed as a princess at a ball. Even panic braking to shed some speed before committing to corners was reciprocated with minimal pitch. There are more car-like bits on the underpinnings of the CR-V now (like the exposed aluminium knuckles at the rear) that have contributed to the crisp handling of the CR-V. We are not surprised though since the older car was a benchmark at this.
The CR-V runs like a two-wheel drive car most of the time but it is reassuring to know that the 4WD will come into play when the weather plays spoilsport. An all-weather handler? Maybe I should take it to another round trip of the mountains.
The CR-V comes with ABS, EBD and Brake Assist and driver- and passenger-side airbags. And yes, the new monocoque is safer and stronger (as is always the case) overall. So you do get a safe automobile when you put in Rs 20 lakh and some more for your CR-V. It has got the space, has more comfort at the back (if you employ a chauffeur), ride quality, presence and handling that apes a car. As far as change-over models go, the new CR-V shows how determined Honda is to take the game forward. Heck, they even paid attention to exterior design and brought in some daring lines into the car! It is a thoroughly modern and capable car to buy too. That said, we cannot run away from the fact that it is not a VFM offering at the price of two equally capable and more performance-oriented Civics. But it is alright, since Honda certainly is not looking for numbers that can match the Hero Honda Splendor with this one.