“Hey Brendan,” runs the e-mail from our illustrious ed., Ed, “I was wondering if you wanted to take on the most challenging story I’m currently facing: making the new Honda CR-V interesting.”
“Don’t get taken in by the free bacon!”
Wait, what now? Free bacon? I’M THERE.
Next thing you know, I’m ensconced in the driver’s seat of Honda’s latest
mild tweak total redesign, the 2012 Honda CR-V, rolling through the bleached-out stubble of the South Cali countryside, mentally projecting the headlines from our beloved colleagues, co-bloggists and fellow car-writey-types.
“The New CR-V: Has Honda Lost Its Mojo?”
“2012 CR-V: Honda’s Mojo, Has It Been Lost?”
“Totally Redesigned 2012 CR-V Casts Doubt on Whereabouts of Honda’s Mojo.”
“The Top 10 Cars Owned By Playboy Playmates! Also, CR-V something-something Mojo.”
Here’s the thing: there has been far too much ballyhoo, fooferaw, bluster and blather about Honda’s seeming design slump. It’s not a slump, it’s a strategy. The question is: does it work for the CR-V where it failed with the Civic?
Like the critically-unacclaimed Honda Civic, nearly every piece of sheetmetal on the new CR-V is completely different – but not such that you’d notice. In fact, as our convoy snakes its way through the bleached-out California landscape, I do a double-take as somebody triple-lane-changes out of our line and dives for the off-ramp. Did I miss a turn? Wait, no: it’s just some lunatic in a last-gen CR-V.
On the other hand, the conservatism works. Gone is the slightly frumpy melting ice-cube of the previous gen, which if you squinted a little, looked a bit like the ’11 cute-ute had muffin-top. The strong three-bar corporate grille gives the new CR-V some presence, the faux skid-plate treatment butches things up a bit, and from there on back think current Tribeca. There’s little to inspire, but also little to offend.
Inside, the cockpit should be familiar to anyone who’s sat in an Accord recently. Hard plastic surfaces abound, about which much hay will be made in various publications. However it’s perfectly acceptable, and should wear well except for the occasional bits of silver-painted trim. The between-seat storage bin, captain’s chairs and dash-mounted shifter maintain the modicum of mini-van present in the earlier model but overall, it’s a bit less utilitarian and more car-like.
A multi-angle backup camera is standard across the range, as well as an eco-coaching instrument cluster that goes green around the gills when you drive gently. Also standard: Bluetooth handfree and a USB connector for your audio. If you’ve an iPhone, you can run Pandora through the stereo, if you’ve a Blackberry, the car can read you your SMS messages. There’s now an optional DVD player to soothe rear-seat savages. Just enough tech to stay current.
Product specialists were quick to point out how clever the rear seats were, capable of damped flat-folding action with a single pull from either side, or via levers in the cargo bay. Don’t expect the Hogwarts-grade magic of the Fit’s rear seats, but again: easy-to-use, works well, doesn’t feel like it’s going to break. Honda has also bunged out the old cargo tray in favour of a more standard layout. Dog-owners take note: the cargo floor is very low at 23.6”, perfect for older pooches. The rear doors open a full ninety degrees for maximum kid-wrangling.
I mildly alarm my co-pilot for the launch, internationally acclaimed rockstar and noted loud-walker Blake Z. Rong – Cato to my Clouseau, Turner to my Hooch – as we enter a corner too hot and all-season tires howl in aggrieved indignation. Understeer? Oh sure. There’s less roll than you might expect, and the CR-V is perfectly capable of hustling along these winding country roads, but is there joy to be found in doing so? Not much.
Besides which, flinging the offspring around the cabin with lateral-g is a sure-fire way to end up cleaning vomit out of the headliner. Forget the hooning, focus instead on the comfortable ride (10% more damper stroke) and in-cabin noise levels which are decent until you start requesting revs.
This new CR-V still has a 5-speed transmission, albeit a revised one, and to hear the clucks of disapproval, you might think that’s a mis-step. Why? Because six is one more, innit? Despite the fact that every other manufacturer seems to be suffering from Nigel Tufnel Syndrome, the five-speed box in the CR-V puts out perfectly decent fuel-economy (22/30mpg claimed) and will doubtless give years of trouble-free operation because it doesn’t have a V6 attached to it.
Mind you, show the ’12 CR-V a steep hill and the 2.4L four-cylinder – with all of 5 more horsepower this year – can struggle a bit. Engaging Eco mode feels like you’re suddenly trying to tow the Sea Shepherd around. Twice I noticed a reluctance to kick down even with the accelerator fully depressed, and with gearing taller across the board things can get a bit leisurely.
The 2012 CR-V is pitched as a safe choice. An easy choice. A choice you might make based on sensible price, reasonable fuel economy, a legacy of decent reliability, strong resale value and low operating costs. This new Honda presents all the same arguments that you’d traditionally expect from a Toyota product, and it’s 5-10% better than the best-selling out-going model in every empirically measurable field.
But as I sit in the morning product presentation, listening as the PR folks flesh out the target buyer to the point where we could positively identify her in a police lineup (30s, female, “cool mom”, active lifestyle, enjoys Pina Coladas, getting caught in the rain, etc.) I can’t help but start contrasting this spit-and-polish with Mazda’s recent SKYACTIV show-and-tell. Mazda’s gambling, taking a moon-shot with high-compression engines and a dedication to driving pleasure. Honda’s reacting to current economic instabilities and the public’s cooling ardour for the automobile by circling the wagons. Except they don’t make wagons anymore, so they’re circling the crossovers.
The Q&A was even more telling. Why only five gears in the transmission? A: Our research told us that people weren’t asking for more gears, just better fuel economy. Why those hard plastics? A: Our research showed that people didn’t have a problem with the old interior. What about small-displacement turbocharged engines? A: Our research showed us that people weren’t asking for that.
You know what though? Survey every single ’80s Legend buyer, and nobody’s going to tell you to build an NSX. Survey every DC-chassis Integra owner and nobody’s going to tell you to build the S2000. Survey every ’90s Accord wagon owner, and nobody would tell you to build a small, flexible, Civic-based SUV.
This new CR-V is a fine, sensible appliance; they’re going to sell boatloads of them. Forgive me if I was hoping for something with a little more innovation, a little more invention, a little more cutting-edge.
A little more Honda.
Honda flew us all the way to sunny San Diego, put us up in a fancy hotel, crammed us full of rich food, provided current and previous models of the CR-V and even threw in a free Camelbak. We were also ferried to and from the airport in a high-mile Town Car.