EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

“It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.”

Actor Cary Grant

Whoever designed the 1997 Honda CR-V compact sport utility vehicle must have been a fan of the late movie star idol – or at least his philosophy. Because all the wonderful little touches in the $20,000 Honda – like a rear cargo floor that turns into a picnic table and the flip-up coffee table on the front passenger’s seat – add up to one great vehicle. In fact, it was one of our top 10 vehicles of 1997.

The Japanese automaker initially expected to sell about 30,000 CR-Vs a year, but already the demand seems to be outpacing expectations. Honda sold 9,000 units in the United States in March alone.

As it turns out, we love not only the details in the vehicle that competes with the Toyota RAV4 and the Geo Tracker, we also are big fans of the image it helps you project.

She: Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis, but I think I want a CR-V. And not just for practical reasons. I worry that too many sport utilities – the Lincoln Navigator and the Infiniti QX4, for example – are getting too luxurious and ostentatious. And the problem with opting for a sport-ute that’s decked out in lots of leather, wood and goodies is this – it’s going to make you appear to be much older than you actually are. Horrors!

The Honda, on the other hand, feels just right. Nothing ostentatious about it – but it will serve you well. Kind of like a Gap T-shirt or a plain set of white dinnerware from the Pottery Barn. Give me a sport-ute that’s straightforward and unadorned. That’s why I love the CR-V.

He: Know why I like it? It’s a sport-ute that doesn’t feel like a sport-ute. We typically have two or three test vehicles in our driveway. The week we drove the CR-V, I found myself constantly jumping into the Honda to run little errands. The CR-V felt like my favorite pair of overalls – roomy, comfortable and totally unpretentious.

She: Women are going to love the fact that you can get in and out of the CR-V without “stepping up” like you do in many sport-utes. In that respect, it feels much more like a car than a truck. The CR-V is based on the Civic platform. But it’s got on-demand four-wheel-drive and a unique squarish body shell so it’s kind of a cross between a station wagon and a tall sedan. And for those buyers who worry about value, it’s pretty clear that the CR-V is an excellent choice.

With a base price of $19,300, it’s affordable. Plus the Honda is 14 inches longer than the RAV4 -you can just feel the extra breathing room once you get in – and 11 inches longer than the Jeep Cherokee.

He: One of the differences that makes the CR-V feel more like a car than a truck is the all-independent suspension, which has double wishbones at all four corners, like the Accord. This setup gives the CR-V a real feeling of agility, plus a smooth ride. The engine is a twin-cam, two-liter four-cylinder that makes 126 horsepower. It’s hooked up to a four-speed automatic transmission. The gas mileage is pretty decent – 22 in the city and 25 on the highway. But you’ll find if you have two or three adults on board, that the engine sometimes sounds like it’s straining, especially at higher speeds.

She: I’m scrambling for something I don’t like about the Honda and frankly, I can’t think of a thing.

He: I can. The tailgate. The split-clamshell design is a bit annoying. When you drop the bottom half of the gate, it’s a pain for shorter persons to try to reach into the cargo area.

She: That really didn’t bother me. Maybe I was dazzled by all those those extras that come standard on the CR-V. The only major option package is a $1,000 bundle that includes anti-lock brakes and alloy wheels. Our vehicle also had dealer-installed floor mats, an $86 option. Throw in a $395 destination fee and our test vehicle priced out at $20,781, which is still below the average price of a new car these days. And by the wa standard stuff includes goodies like power accessories, cruise control, air conditioning and a stereo system with four speakers.

He: You were talking about little details before. The CR-V has lots of them, including neat stuff like front-and-rear 12-volt outlets, a micron air filtration system and even a tilt-steering column. The Honda also has variable assist power steering, which is a feature you’d normally only find on more expensive sports vehicles. I also like Honda’s Real Time four-wheel-drive system, which under normal driving conditions operates in front-wheel drive to save fuel. When the road gets slippery, the vehicle automatically kicks into four-wheel drive for better traction.

She: I just love how usage-oriented the Honda is. You’ll be spoiled by lots of storage space for small items, tie-down rings in the rear cargo area and that cute little picnic table. Oh, I did think of one thing I dislike – the CR-V’s name. It says nothing. So I’m going to think of all those great details and rename it Cary’s Recreational Vehicle. After the actor. It’ll be our little secret.

1997 Honda CR-V

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $19,300; as tested, $20,781 (inc. $395 destination charge).

What’s new for ’97: All-new for ’97.

Standard equipment: All-independent suspension, variable-assist power steering, air conditioning, micron air filtration system, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, tachometer, cruise control, tilt steering column, folding driver’s-seat armrest, intermittent wipers, rear wiper/washer, overhead map lights, tailgate-mounted spare tire and cover, AM-FM stereo with clock, door-pocket storage bins, seatback pockets, tinted glass, beverage holder, center tray table with beverage holders, split fold-down rear seats, rear-seat heater ducts, rear defroster, remote tailgate release, removable folding picnic table, front and rear 12-volt outlets, cargo area light, front and rear stabilizer bars.

Safety features: Dual front air bags, rear child-proof safety locks, antilock brakes (optional).

Options on test vehicle: Antilock brakes and alloy wheels ($1,000); dealer-installed floormats ($86).

EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city/25 mpg highway.

Engine: 2.0-liter I-4; 126-hp at 5400 rpm; 133 lb-ft torque at 4300 rpm.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic.

Competitors: Toyota RAV4, Geo Tracker, Suzuki Sidekick, Mitsubishi Challenger Sport, Jeep Cherokee.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 103.2 inches; overall length, 177.6 inches; curb weight, 3153 pounds; legroom, 41.5 inches front/36.7 inches rear; headroom, 40.5 inches front/39.2 inches rear; shoulder room, 53.3 inches front/55.5 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,122 – Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is age 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Sayama, Japan.

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