- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

Honda’s all-new 2007 CR-V crossover sport utility vehicle is a sophisticated and economical people and cargo hauler that is superior to its predecessor, but at a cost of individuality.

Back in 1997, the CR-V was in the vanguard of car-based SUVs, and there has been no mistaking it since for anything else on the road.

With its spare wheel hanging off the tailgate (it opened sideways, and always on the wrong side for American owners), and its sometimes quirky airs, such as power-window controls up on the dash and an emergency-brake handle disguised as a grab bar, the CR-V stood out from the crowd.

It endeared itself to more than 2.5 million buyers around the world, who were attracted by its low price, good fuel economy and exceptional durability and reliability. Sales of CR-Vs totaled more than 150,000 in the U.S. in 2005, and were on the same pace in 2006.

For 2007, Honda has redesigned the CR-V as a state-of-the-art vehicle that resembles a growing crowd of similar offerings. As before, it is a small four-door SUV, which is to say that it offers the passenger space of a midsize sedan, along with about three times the cargo space.

It has a tall profile, like an SUV, and it is available with all-wheel drive as well as standard front-wheel drive. But it is more car than truck, with unit-body construction, good handling and fuel economy, and only marginal off-road capability.

In short, it is just what many buyers need and want in an era of escalating fuel prices.

The problem is that many other manufacturers have recognized the trend, too. Where a few years ago, the CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4 had the road almost to themselves, a bevy of competitors now vie for the consumer’s dollars.

They include the new RAV4, Ford Escape, Chevrolet HHR and Equinox, Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson, Mitsubishi Outlander, Saturn Vue, Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Patriot, Mazda CX-7 and, at the near-luxury level, the RDX from Honda’s upscale Acura division.

The CR-V’s styling, though modern, attractive and well-proportioned, is now more mainstream. With a conventional hatchback, it does not stand out as before. Where the earlier CR-V had a perky, cheerleader attitude, the new car is more somber and businesslike.

The fact that the CR-V has lost some of its personality is not entirely Honda’s fault. It’s become homogenized with other manufacturers who latched onto the trend toward wagonlike hatchbacks with some of the attributes of truck-based SUVs.

The 2007 CR-V is an inch shorter and an inch wider than the vehicle it replaces. But the designers have done an admirable job of making the best use of the available space. It is a true five-passenger vehicle.

Even the center-rear passenger, by dint of a flat floor, has adequate foot and head room, though the seat cushioning is not as comfortable as for the outboard passengers.

There’s more than 100 cubic feet of passenger space — about the same as that of a midsize car — along with a cargo area of 36 cubic feet, which on most models can be divided horizontally by a hard shelf. Folding the rear seat expands the cargo area to 73 cubic feet.

Thankfully, Honda has resisted the urge to try to be all things to all prospective customers. So there is no optional third-row seat and no V-6 engine, both of which are available on some competing vehicles.

The CR-V is what it is. There’s only one engine and one transmission — a 166-horsepower four-cylinder that gets its power to the front wheels or all four wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission. The manual gearbox has been dropped.

The drivetrain delivers ample performance and good fuel economy in all but a tiny number of driving circumstances. The CR-V struggles a bit on steep upgrades, especially with a full load, but is not overwhelmed.

Handling is sedanlike, with steering that is quickly responsive to inputs, and a suspension system that does not allow the CR-V to unduly heel over, yet provides a supple ride. Road, wind and mechanical noises are minimal.

As usual, Honda combines fine workmanship with quality materials in a pleasant interior, with instruments and controls that look and feel familiar.

The company also continues its straightforward model lineup, with no confusing options list. There are four models, each available with all-wheel or front-wheel drive.

Even the LX base model, which starts at $21,195, comes with a good complement of features, including full safety equipment: side air bags, side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes, stability and traction control, brake assist and tire-pressure monitoring.

It also comes with air conditioning, an MP3-capable audio system with CD player and an external audio plug, remote locking, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, and handsomely styled steel wheels.

The all-wheel-drive EX, at $24,645, adds alloy wheels, redundant steering-wheel audio controls, a security system, rear privacy glass, a six-disc CD changer and an outside temperature readout. EX models also are available with leather upholstery and a navigation system.

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