In Defense Of: The Honda CR-V
I’ve spent a fair amount of time driving and writing about crossovers. It’s not exactly the way I wanted things to work out, but we can’t all be Chris Harris. Having spent the last few months behind the wheel of the segment’s big players, I’ve come to a conclusion that seems to be a frequent theme of my automotive recommendations: what I’d pick for myself is not what I’d recommend to anyone else.
Having just had seat time with an Ecoboost-powered Escape and a Mazda CX-5, I am pretty sure that if I ever needed some kind of two-box vehicle, those would be at the top of my list. Both the Escape and the CX-5 are the only entrants that could be called “fun to drive” with a straight face. The Ecoboost powered versions of the Escape have plenty of power and decent chassis dynamics, while the Mazda trades some of that grunt for a much better chassis, and an overall car-like feeling. The Escape gets pretty awful fuel economy, while both are hobbled by frustrating infotainment systems – the Mazda’s looks like something from the 32-bit era of video gaming, while the Escape’s options range from “unusable” to “distracted driving hazard waiting to happen”.
I could find a way to cope with their respective quirks, but that’s because I value some kind of driver engagement, no matter what kind of car it is. The CX-5 would make a great daily driver for someone like me. But I am not most people. Most people don’t care about how a crossover drives. If they’re asking for advice on any car, it likely means that they need the simplest, most trouble-free experience possible. If they’re asking for advice on a crossover, it’s probably somebody in Daniel Latini’s shoes, who has a young family, and is looking for something that makes their life easier.
This is where the Honda CR-V comes in. I’ve driven the CR-V plenty of times. It’s about as exciting to drive as eating Bran Flakes. The interior looks like a more contemporary version of 1990’s Honda fare (lots of hard plastic, plenty of buttons). It’s a little noisy and a little down on power, like most Hondas tend to be. But it’s one of the most brilliantly packaged CUVs ever created.
Rather than lift objects up and into the cargo compartment, the floor sits at about knee height, eliminating the much of the strenuous motion required to put strollers and suitcases into the cargo area. For anyone who has to load and unload something like a stroller or suitcases, it’s a wonderfully thoughtful touch. If more room is required, a pull-tab located on the rear seatback will let the rear bench fold with just one pull. No fiddling with headrests and levers – it’s easily accessible from the cargo compartment and takes two seconds. The cherry on top for the CR-V’s triad of useful gadgets is a backup camera, which was integrated with the navigation unit on our EX-L test car. The backup camera has three modes; a standard view, a wide-angle lens and a 90 degree downward view, akin to a periscope, that gives the driver a better view of protruding objects (pillars, poles and the like) that can cause expensive bumper damage with only light contact.
Instead of going for the Ford or Mazda route with fancy tech or engaging dynamics, Honda chose to focus on little incremental improvements, things that will sell the car on the showroom floor during the dealer’s sales pitch. It seems to be working. The CR-V was the best-selling crossover last year, with over 300,000 units moving off showroom floors. I don’t expect that lead to evaporate any time soon. As long as people like Daniel come knocking for advice, my recommendation will stay the same.
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The latest CR-V has fancy economy lights, buttons, and a cool flipping rear seat, all in an effort to distract you from noticing that the car has no soul, and there was a time when even the most pedestrian Honda had soul. The drivetrain has cut the nuts off of the 185HP 2.4L to the point that you never will enjoy it the transmission nanny software restricts you from accessing it in all but a full throttle launch. The econ button, when turned off, allows for a touchy throttle tip in. But after all of that, the vehicle drives and rides like my 2003 which is "not all that good" and downright obsolete when compared to the most recent efforts from other brands. I drove a CX-5 and CR-V back to back a few weeks ago and, as a former Honda guy, I found it depressing. Honda and Toyota's most recent efforts remind me of what GM and Ford brought to market 20 years ago, a product that "existed in the market and sold by reputation and shear marketing." Using sales to justify the quality of the car is Honda's first mistake. At some point, one will get a sub par Honda, be relieved of the Honda kool-aid effect, and drive something else. That's how Honda and Toyota gained market share and ultimately, doing what Ford and GM did in the past is what will cost them. My father's next vehicle will be a Subaru or Mazda, my brother traded his Civic for a Mazda3, my wife's Honda, a lemon of a 2003 CR-V, was replaced with a 2012 Mazda 5, and my most recent purchase of a 2013 Mazda 2 has completed the circle. Honda and Toyota exist in the market, but they no longer make the #1 product in any segment save the Fit. And they don't care because they are still selling to the loyal customers, but the gravy train will end someday and by that time they will have long since forgotten how to design a revolutionary product.
My mother recently purchased a 2014 CR-V EX-L and I test drove one but decided not to buy. For me the car is pedestrian, which is fine if you just want a gas sipping small crossover that has AWD, but for me a CR-V EX-L for $30,000 needs more goodies and luxury because for $30K your getting into luxury territory or near luxury more so, with this said I think you get more for your money with Ford or Mazda especially when it comes to driving experience. CX-5 Grand Touring AWD for me is a better package. It handles better than the CR-V, the looks are a bit more striking and defiantly less bulbous, you get better MPG, and for this trim you get a Bose sound system, rains sensing windshield wipers, and heated mirrors. Yes the CX-5 does have a dated tech console but Honada's isn't that much better. Both engines aren't the most powerful or refined, I leave that reward to the Ecoboost engine in the Ford Escape, but like the article states the Escape doesn't match the Japanese crossovers in MPG and like all Ford/Lincoln Sync Touch systems, controls are sluggish and borderline useless. Still I see why people will pick the CR-V over Mazda or Ford because the the CR-V is a "safe pick and I mean that in every context of the word because the CR-V is not only a safe car to drive but a Honda, which means it's reliable and has an almost cult following. I don't think the CR-V is amazing at anything, but yet again it doesn't have any major flaws. Overall a good crossover, but for me it lacks the refinement and power needed to drop $30k on.