Being a typical journalist, I have the math aptitude of something between an eighth-grade algebra student and his pet gerbil. But even I can deduce that three steps forward and one step back equals two steps forward. Such is the case for the popular Honda CR-V.
Updated for 2015, the new Honda CR-V's many improvements overcome some notable stumbles, and it remains a strong choice among the horde of small SUVs out there.
Exterior & Styling
The 2015 Honda CR-V's updates — which Honda calls the "most significant" mid-cycle refresh in the nameplate's history — are mostly tasteful. New LED daytime running lights encircle the headlight projectors, and a sleeker grille with alternating chrome and black replaces last year's pedestrian three-bar design. The horizontal fog lights have more sophisticated surrounds than last year's molded plastic bezels. On all but the base LX trim, contrasting lower panels avoid the 2012-2014 CR-V's overcladded look. Even if it's just concealing the same amount of cladding, I'll take it.
With steel wheels and black — not body-colored — door and mirror trim, LX models still look basic. EX models add more body-colored trim, fog lights and 17-inch alloys for a more cohesive look. The EX-L throws on roof rails, while the Touring adds unique projector headlights, mirror-integrated turn signals and 18-inch alloys.
How It Drives
A new, direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder joins a continuously variable automatic transmission in the 2015 CR-V. It's an adept combo, with the same 185 horsepower but a much-needed 18 extra pounds-feet of torque (for 181). As such, our front-drive test vehicle mustered enough passing power, if you have no passengers; it's a respectable performance compared with other four-cylinder compact SUVs. All-wheel drive adds more than 100 acceleration-sapping pounds, but as such systems go, that's a light penalty.
The CVT replaces last year's responsive five-speed auto, but it responds to your right foot with minimal rubber-band CVT delay. (No manual transmission is available.) A driver-selectable Econ mode relaxes the rev climb for the sake of fuel efficiency — it also dials back the air conditioning and allows more variance in cruise-control speed — but it doesn't introduce the accelerator lag that some fuel-saving modes do. Below the gearshift's Drive mode, a "Drive (S)" mode keeps the revs higher at all speeds, which hastens acceleration but adds some noise.
Characteristic of the 2014, the 2015 Honda CR-V rides well. Editors agreed the suspension quells manhole covers and isolates the cabin on the highway — the latter aspect a major improvement over past generations of the SUV. At single-digit speeds, the steering is a touch heavy for an SUV, but through sweeping corners it transmits satisfying, direct motions and linear feedback. After a few degrees of initial body roll, the chassis firms up to keep the CR-V upright on highway interchanges. One editor found its overall handling uninspiring, but the brakes have linear pedal feel — a characteristic often lost in SUVs of all sizes.
Fuel efficiency takes a leap not usually seen until a full redesign, when automakers can reinvent the wheel on things like aerodynamics and weight. EPA-estimated gas mileage is 27/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive; AWD docks 1 mpg all around. The Honda CR-V's combined figures are outstanding, beating the Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue and most versions of the Mazda CX-5 by 1 to 5 mpg. See those competitors compared here.
Conversely, those who need to tow anything should look elsewhere, as the Honda CR-V's 1,500-pound maximum is modest for this class. Among its peers, the Ford Escape and Chevrolet Equinox — both of which are available with stronger engines — top out at 3,500 pounds.
The CR-V has never been ahead of the pack in terms of cabin materials; that mantle now goes to the Jeep Cherokee. Honda retains a lot of the 2014's low-budget materials, save a few upgrades to the dash and sun visors. The changes perplex me. Like in the remodeled Fit subcompact, the CR-V's dashboard sports a low-gloss padded section at midlevel, but the upper doors (where arms and elbows actually rest) remain cheap, shiny and unpadded. For the same investment, Honda should have upgraded the doors, not the dash.
Our test car's cloth seats were supportive and comfortable, with headroom to spare even in our moonroof-equipped EX. What's more, the Honda CR-V retains its characteristic visibility, with narrow pillars and a tall windshield that isn't as raked as those in many competitors.
The rear seats afford the sort of headroom and legroom that would impress in an SUV one class bigger. Still, the stiff, formless backrests and too-flat bottom cushion lack any degree of road-trip comfort — a major contrast to the front seats. They recline a few degrees (no forward/rearward movement) but require the awkward use of shoulder-area levers once seated.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Honda's latest multimedia system, which appears in the Civic as well, brings back physical buttons alongside the touch-screen. It's an improvement over the Civic's hard-to-use capacitive controls, but editors found the tiny buttons themselves also hard to use, and their chintzy appearance evokes an aftermarket stereo. Volume and tuning knobs are still missing, and the screen allows swipe-to-scroll capabilities on some menus but not others. One editor found the system's response lagged too much when operating connected MP3 players. The 7-inch screen comes on EX models and up, but all trims have Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, steering-wheel audio controls and smartphone-streamed Pandora internet radio integration. More stereo speakers and wattage come as you climb the trims, culminating in a subwoofer-equipped stereo with HD and satellite radio on EX-L and Touring versions.
Cargo & Storage
The Honda CR-V's mammoth cargo area still boasts a low lift-over and a competitive 35.3 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. Levers in the cargo area send the 60/40-split, folding rear seat through an orchestrated transformation of tumbling cushions, tipping head restraints and folding seatbacks. A side benefit: Straps near the head restraints release them forward at a 90-degree angle to clear your view out back, but when you have passengers they'll have to flip the restraints back into position and use them.
Alas, Honda replaced one of the CR-V's best features — its low center console, which opened up cabin space but still had generous storage — with a bulky, flow-through console that takes up more space but reduces the storage compartment. New rear air vents emerge from the console's backside, but other SUVs combine those vents with more covered storage. Multilevel door pockets, an overhead conversation mirror and a wide glove compartment still cement the CR-V's family cred, but it was once a standout among small SUVs in this regard. Now it's merely average.
As of this writing, the 2015 Honda CR-V has not been crash-tested. Honda touts myriad structural changes to improve on the 2012-2014 model's underwhelming performance in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's new small-overlap frontal crash test (click here for more), but IIHS tests on the 2015 model are still forthcoming. Six airbags plus the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system are standard, as is a backup camera. Touring models add lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and an auto-braking forward collision warning system.
Honda's LaneWatch system, included on EX models and up, mounts a camera on the passenger-side rearview mirror to monitor traffic in your blind spot. It shows up on the CR-V's 7-inch display when you signal to the right, or you can activate it with a button on the turn-signal stalk. One editor said the display was more distracting than a conventional blind spot warning system, but others found it helpful to ferret out smaller cars or cyclists at their four o'clock.
Value in Its Class
Middle-of-the-road pricing — from around $24,000 for a reasonably equipped, front-drive LX up to $33,500 for the leather-clad, AWD Honda CR-V Touring — meets respectable drivability and excellent fuel efficiency in the 2015 Honda CR-V. Its utilitarian strengths overcome multimedia missteps and that dastardly center console, so the market's best-selling SUV remains deserving of the sales title. In last year's review (read it here) I noted that the 2014 Honda CR-V was proof that car shoppers made the right choice. For the 2015 model, that seems to remain the case.
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