Honda launched the CR-V back in '97, when fossil-huffing Suburbans ruled the Earth. Most vehicles this far into their model cycle would be fading faster than red satin sheets on the heavy-duty whites cycle. But not the CR-V; the mini-SUV continues to earn its place on the showroom floor and in its owners' hearts. That said, the '06 CR-V is the last version of the SUV before Honda gives the model a long-overdue makeover. Is this, the current CR-V's last hurrah, worthy of a half-hearted muted cheer, or does the quintessential "cute ute" still possess enough charm to justify one more round of gushing applause?
The CR-V's conservative appearance belies its bold stature in the sales charts. From head-on, the CR-V's oversized Accordion grill personifies Honda's entirely inoffensive non-style style. The Japanese ute adds a bit of welcome aggression to the house face via blacked-out fog lights and a grimacing bottom grill, complete with Fu Manchu trim. Step to the side and the landscape's about as remarkable as Nebraska: a bit of cladding, slightly bulging wheel arches, the usual sloping C-pillar, etc. At the rear, the CR-V's segmented taillights rise along the back-end pillars like hip five-story SoHo walkups, curving like a perfectly formed pair of parentheses. Encased in a rattle-trap plastic cover (SE trim only), the right-of-center spare tire personifies the CR-V's scrappy, John Stuart Mill gestalt.
Once inside, the automatic shifter stalk sprouting from the dash grabs your attention, blocks the radio and generally detracts from otherwise sensible surrounds. Look past the shifter (it takes days), and the CR-V is something of a four-wheeled pack rat. There are so many stuff-it selections — indented in the dash, hidden below the heater controls, buried in the doors — dazed hippies might never find their stash. The buttons are well-formed and well-placed, but try to use the huge center cupholder and your Big Gulp eclipses the temperature knob. Audio controls encircle the CR-V's tiny rectangular digital display like marauding black stones on an end-game go board, offering glove-friendly operation. Too bad the display gets lost in the keen aesthetics.
As a load lugger, the CR-V is small but perfectly formed. Although the rear seats are a permanent feature, they tip-up at the touch of a button and fold flush to the fronts. So configured, the CR-V will swallow 72 cubic feet of life's little necessities with swing gated ease. Manly men may fault the CR-V for its anemic towing capacity (1,500 pounds), but that's a bit like slamming a tricked out Tahoe for turning blue-uniformed heads. In a novel twist– and a source of constant delight for its owners– Honda invites CR-Vers to dine al fresco atop a removable picnic table nestled in the cargo-hold's floor. It's a magic trick so cute it makes you want to play aunt and pinch the CR-V's metal cheeks.
On the road, the CR-V is one ute whose "car-like handling" exists in more than a PR flack's imagination. Press the go pedal and the 2.4L inline four is as smooth as sandstone. The little Honda's quick off the line, but its weight soon curbs your enthusiasm. Anyone who doesn't drive with a tennis ball behind the accelerator will find the CR-V's tacho needle heading for the redline faster than a bigoted mortgage lender. Back off a bit, let the five-speed automatic do the work, and calm is restored. At cruising speeds, you quickly forget about all that extra cargo space lingering behind you and enjoy the drive.
Although the CR-V's thrash-friendly engine begs for a beating, and its MacPherson struts (front) and double wishbone suspension (rear) help maintain the SUV's composure through the bendy bits, it's best to take it down a notch when winding through the S-curves. Compared to its classmates, it paints corners like Picasso. But body roll tells you in no uncertain terms the CR-V is, ultimately, a comfort-tuned device. And a slow one at that. On an incline, the 156-horsepower 16-valver runs out of puff, showing all the firepower of a chain-pulled wooden roller coaster. Slamming pedal to floor does… nothing. If your destination's significantly above your sea level, leave 20 minutes early.
Since Honda's 2002 CR-V reboot, little trucks like Suzuki's Grand Vitara have bulked-up on horsepower. By comparison, Honda's svelte four-banger is still something of a featherweight. Twenty-five miles per gallon gas mileage mutes the bitching a bit, but buyers won't trade "slow" for "cute and frugal" forever — especially with Toyota's equally efficient and more powerful RAV-4 entering the ring. While Honda's mum about specifics on the next gen CR-V, more boost is a virtual certainty. Meanwhile, the Honda CR-V offers enough practical solutions and on-road acumen to justify its ongoing success. Cute ute consumers who just can't wait will still be charmed, I'm sure.