- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Despite the fact that some elements of its design bordered on the goofy, Honda's CR-V has become the best-selling car-based sport utility vehicle in the country, for a simple reason: It works.

While it's true that a lot of people need the brute strength of a truck-based SUV or think they do the new generation of sport utes based on car platforms makes eminent sense for a great many folks who never go off-road, tow trailers or haul heavy loads.

If you're part of a suburban family that does a lot of chasing around to shop and haul youngsters and household gear, a vehicle like Honda's 2002 CR-V is ideal. It has more passenger space than a midsize sedan, and half again as much room for cargo as a Lincoln Town Car.

Moreover, it doesn't cost a bundle. Some truck-based SUVs, without a whole lot more interior space than a CR-V, cost twice as much. If you want to skip the all-wheel drive, alloy wheels, a sunroof and the side air bags, you can find a nicely equipped automatic-transmission CR-V LX with a sticker price of $19,240. That's not a whole lot more than you'd pay for some compact sedans.

For $3,500 more, at $22,740, you can order the loaded EX model, tested for this review, which comes with the sunroof, remote locking, alloy wheels, side air bags, privacy glass and a six-speaker sound system with a cassette player and an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

All CR-Vs come with a high level of basic equipment, including air conditioning, cassette-CD stereo, electric windows and mirrors, power door locks, cruise control, a removable folding picnic table, map lights and an assortment of cargo hooks and cubby holes throughout the interior.

When the CR-V first rolled onto the market in 1997, it came with a few oddities. The window controls were up on the dashboard, and the steering wheel was canted at an angle more suited to a bus than a car. Moreover, the side-opening rear hatch was widely criticized for opening the wrong way.

Hinged at the right side, it required the cargo-area loader to stand on the traffic side of the car, instead of on the sidewalk side. More than one critic suggested reversing the hinges.

Whatever, it didn't seem to bother the customers, who last year bought 118,313 CR-Vs, according to statistics compiled by Automotive News.

Now comes the 2002 model, which is built on a brand-new platform, and guess what? The rear hatch still opens the same way. Challenged, Honda engineers argued that surveys showed owners preferred opening it from the left, perhaps because it was handier for the driver.

As before, the hatch still has a window that opens separately for loading or retrieving smaller items. The spare wheel is still mounted outside, leaving almost 35 cubic feet of space for cargo with the back seat in place. The area grows to 72 cubic feet with the rear seat folded, enough to house two mountain bicycles with the wheels on.

The CR-V introduced in 1997 had a 120-horsepower four-cylinder engine, which was fine for commuting and other chasing-around duties, but anemic with a load of passengers and cargo. Over the years since, Honda has regularly bumped the power output to the current 160, from a 2.4-liter four with Honda's low-emission technology.

Most CR-Vs, including the base front-wheel-drive model, come with automatic transmissions. But a five-speed manual also is available on the LX all-wheel-drive model, with the shifter mounted on the floor.

The shifter for the automatic transmission seems strange at first because it juts out of the dashboard instead of being mounted on the steering column. But it works intuitively, without any glitches.

Probably the most innovative and interesting solution to an age-old problem is the location of the parking brake lever. Usually, it's either a pull-up lever between the front seats or a step-on pedal on the left floorboard.

But on the CR-V, the Honda designers disguised the parking brake as a grab handle on the dash. It works well and looks good.

Like its predecessor, the new CR-V has a shelf, with cup holders, that flips up between the front bucket seats, or stows away almost invisibly to allow access to the back seat. It's particularly suited to families with small children.

The old CR-V was an endearing and reliable companion. The new CR-V is much improved. It has more power, handles and rides better, and has more room for people and stuff. The only drawback is its styling now is more mainstream, so it's not as cute as before.

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