When the original Honda CR-V debuted in 1997, the Detroit News auto consumers’ panel had a lukewarm reaction to the vehicle after driving it. They said the CR-V’s engine was wimpy and whiny, and the cabin was cramped.

Before the Japanese automaker began the redesign process on the second-generation CR-V, it also talked to consumers. They demanded more horsepower, a power moonroof and a place to stash CDs.

There’s no doubt the new CR-V is a better vehicle in terms of engine power, ride quality, roominess, amenities and looks. We tested a top-of-the-line EX model with no options that cost $21,915. One question remains: Why we only gave it three stars.

She: The CR-V is a great car if you want to strike up conversations with every valet in town. In the space of 24 hours, I valet-parked the CR-V at the Sterling Inn and Children’s Hospital of Michigan and found myself giving instructions to the valet on how to use that weird parking brake in the middle of the instrument panel. So, the compact SUV’s an ice-breaker of sorts.

He: This new CR-V has more than a few novelties. The new climate controls take a little getting used to, but they look pretty sharp. And what a clever idea to make the split rear seats move fore and aft. I’m glad to see Honda included an improved version of its folding tray table between the front seats, and there’s still a removable picnic table stashed below the rear floor.

She: I wanted badly to give the CR-V four stars. The new look is terrific. In fact, when I first saw the redesign this summer, I was struck by how much it looked like a little Mercedes-Benz. But I think we both felt the CR-V has one bugaboo that should have been corrected before the vehicle hit the street. And that’s visibility. Between the center rear headrest, which blocks the view out of the rear window and the blind spot over your right shoulder, the little Honda can make for a bit of a white-knuckles ride. You have to pay strict attention to lane changes and backing up.

He: The visibility really bothered me, but I really didn’t have much of a problem with anything else. I’m not quite so enamored of the styling as you are. It’s clearly an improvement, but Honda didn’t deviate much from the original formula. In this size and price class, the Toyota RAV4 is much sexier looking. And I wonder if some buyers won’t be turned off by the lack of a V-6 engine option, considering you can order a six on such compact SUVs as the Jeep Liberty and Ford Escape.

She: Uh, I don’t want to get into an argument with what is sexy or not, considering your obsession with Anna Kournikova. Yuk. And your obsession with Harry Potter. Clearly, you have no maturity or taste. But I don’t think we’ll argue about the new engine on the CR-V. It’s an improvement over the old 2.0-liter four-cylinder that made 145 horsepower and whined like a teen-ager with no allowance. The new model is equipped with a larger 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine t hat generates 160 horsepower and 162 pounds-feet of torque. We test-drove the five-speed manual version and I never once felt like the CR-V was underpowered.

He: Honda also improved the ride quality on the new CR-V. And it feels like there’s lots more room inside. I noticed you had a little difficulty trying to lift groceries through the rear window and into that deep cargo bay.

She: The new CR-V is a pretty good value. Sure, the EX model costs about $700 more than the previous version, but it includes two new features: side air bags and a moonroof. The side air bags are a $250 option on other CR-V models. Antilock brakes are standard on the EX, and so are air conditioning, six-disc CD changer, alloy wheels and what Honda calls “real-time” all-wheel-drive. I was able to take the CR-V on a short and fairly uncomplicated off-road course in Pennsylvania this summer and it performed well. I imagine that it will get urban drivers through most potholes and moderate snowstorms h ease.

He: For my money, the RAV4 beats the CR-V in terms of looks, although Honda has a clear edge in performance, ride comfort and roominess. If they can solve the visibility problem, the CR-V gets another star. And maybe an endorsement from Anna Kournikova.

2002 Honda CR-V EX

Anita’s rating: (above average)

Paul’s rating: (above average)

Likes: More engine power. Good-looking cloth upholstery. Nice tray table with built-in cupholders between front seats. Flat floor for rear passengers. Twenty one storage bins, cubbies and pockets. Rear seats slide fore and aft. Big improvement in styling (Anita).

Dislikes: Poor visibility to rear and right side. Weird parking brake. Difficult to lift groceries through rear window. Rear center seat belt difficult to reach. No front armrests. No optional V-6 engine. Not as sexy-looking as Toyota RAV4 (Paul).

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

Price: Base, $21,500; as tested, $21,915 (inc. $415 destination charge).

Engine: 2.4-liter I-4; 160-hp; 162 lb-ft torque.

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

12-month insurance cost, estimated by AA Michigan: $1,342 (Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Japan