2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid First Drive - Smooth, Green Power

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

I’m not, generally speaking, a crossover fan. That said, I’m not a full-on hater, either — I understand that sometimes people need the utility offered by crossovers. And some of the compact five-seat crossovers, the small ones that aren’t rolling barges, seem to be decent tools for automotive multitasking, at least to my eye.

Take Toyota’s RAV4. Always a hit with the public, if not with enthusiasts, and the newest version is quite good.

And just like the Accord/Camry battles that have been fought since before I could legally drive, the CR-V and RAV4 are fighters in opposite corners, duking it out for buyer’s bucks. Including those buyers who want to go green.

There are many reasons one buys a hybrid — the fuel-economy gains, the green cred, or the “green” posturing/posing — but no matter what the why is, there are buyers out there who want that badge.

Toyota has their hybridized RAV, so now it’s Honda’s turn. Yep — it’s the first CR-V Hybrid Honda has offered, at least here. Honda’s offered a hybrid powertrain overseas for a bit now.

(Full disclosure: Honda flew me to Tucson, Arizona, and fed and housed me for two nights so I could drive the CR-V. The famed racing simulator showed up, allowing me to embarrass myself in front of other journos who have a better handle on driving a virtual Indycar. The company offered a hat, which I did not take. Tourist activities such as archery were available, but I had no time to partake. It’s all about the car).

The drive days on most press programs work like this: Drive 40-70 miles in some scenic rural area with curvy roads with maybe a few miles of freeway and/or urban streets mixed in, switch, ride shotgun, eat, drive another 40-70 miles, switch, go back to hotel. Honda set this one up a bit differently. My partner and I spent most of the morning drive on Tucson’s street grid, with some mild curves on the second leg.

Which, honestly, is fine. No need to corner carve in a crossover for first impressions. Yes, a little more of a handling loop would’ve been nice, but Mrs. Jones doesn’t look much Mario Andretti. Neither does Mr. Jones. This is a grocery-getter.

[Get new and used Honda CR-V pricing here!]

The good news is, it’s a smooth one. The mild corners were well handled, and the hybrid powertrain gives the CR-V a power boost over what’s on offer in the gas model, making 212 total system horsepower and 232 lb-ft of torque. The gas CR-V checks in at 190 horsepower/179 lb-ft of torque.

The two-motor powertrain is similar to what’s offered in the Accord Hybrid, and it pairs a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with VTEC (kicked in, yo) with an electric propulsion motor. There’s also a generator/starter motor. That propulsion motor and generator/starter motor don’t use magnets made of rare-earth metals, which Honda says reduces cost and weight. Otherwise, they seem pretty normal.

All-wheel drive is standard, and there are three drive modes for the hybrid system, plus a Sport mode, along with EV (electric-only operation for up to a mile, if you’re light of foot) and Econ. Steering-wheel paddles allow the driver to control the level of regenerative braking. A front transfer case gets power to the rear, where an electronically controlled rear differential engages before the wheels can slip, and disengages when not needed in order to improve fuel economy.

There’s no conventional transmission. There is a reduction gearset, but the power/propulsion comes from the electric motor most of the time, with the gas engine acting to power the generator to supply the electricity. The gas engine does get involved directly with the wheels via a clutch during high-speed cruising but that’s about it. In city driving, the battery supplies electricity to the propulsion motor. In hybrid operation, the gas engine supplies the generator motor, which in turn supplies the propulsion motor and charges the battery.

Outside, the differences between a hybrid CR-V and a standard gas model are subtle. The Honda badges at front and rear are blue, EX trims and above have a five-LED-light design for the fog lamps, there are other hybrid badges, and the rear bumper is different. It also hides the exhaust tips. The overall look is curvy and a bit soft compared to the rugged-looking RAV4, but it’s still pleasant and equally handsome.

Inside, the gauge cluster is different, and the shifter goes from a standard T-handle to push-button. The center console is redesigned, offering three configurations. The cabin styling is mostly fine, although the push-button shifter will aggravate some and the factory nav’s graphics could use an update (I do like the text calling out upcoming cross streets, though). The wireless cell phone charger is well-placed, and the controls are laid out logically. Oh, and yes, there’s a volume knob.

The seats were a bit stiff and flat up front. Rear legroom was plentiful, even for this long-legged editor.

On the road, the hybrid system’s operation is difficult to detect, with seamless transitions. The extra power over the gas model is noticeable, and the CR-V, while not unusually swift, pulls smoothly from a stop.

Tucson’s roads are generally in good shape, so bear that in mind, but the ride was quite smooth. Even the few patches of bad pavement didn’t disturb the proceedings too much, although tire noise became a concern.

Honda set things up so that after our morning drive, we could compare a gas CR-V to our CR-V Hybrid to a RAV4 Hybrid. The hybrid felt smoother than the gas version, which I hadn’t driven prior, to the point that I checked the odometer to make sure it wasn’t a hard-ridden fleet vehicle (it wasn’t). The RAV4 Hybrid also felt a little rougher around the edges (I don’t recall this experience from one I had on loan last fall), as well. The CR-V Hybrid out-accelerated the gas model, at least judging by seat of the pants feel, and was on par with the RAV4.

I measured the fuel-economy of all three on the same route and came up with 31.9 mpg in the gas CR-V, 38.2 in the CR-V Hybrid, and 41.9 in the RAV4 Hybrid. Honda suggested we use the cruise control to take our feet out of the equation in order to get more consistent numbers, but I forgot, which is fine, as I rarely use cruise anyway. Talking with other journos, those who used cruise and/or had a light foot were seeing much higher numbers, but a few with lead in their shoes didn’t do as well as I did. As always, how you drive matters when it comes to fuel economy. The 6.3 mpg gain over the gas CR-V is still not too shabby, though.

The EPA numbers are 40 mpg city/35 mpg highway/38 mpg combined for the CR-V Hybrid. Compare that to the 27/33/29 of AWD gas models.

Pedestrians, rejoice: The acoustic vehicle alerting system, otherwise known as the “hey, I’m driving an EV here! Hear me coming!” noise that chimes in when in EV-only mode has been adapted to fit in with new regulations. Its volume increases with speed until 20 mph or so.

Safety matters in this segment. Hell, it matters in every segment, but these are family vehicles, so safety gets an extra spotlight. To that end, Honda’s suite of safety tech is called HondaSense, and it’s standard. It includes collision-mitigation braking, adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow, lane-keeping assist, and road-departure mitigation with lane-departure warning.

The Indiana-built CR-V Hybrid will come in four trims (LX, EX, EX-L, and Touring) and its price like this, including the $1,120 D and D fee: LX ($28,870), EX ($31,380), EX-L ($33,870), and Touring ($37,070).

Standard features added on to the base unit include AWD, HondaSense with remote start, 17-inch wheels, USB, keyless entry and start, LED headlights, cargo cover, and automatic climate control. Available features on EX include LED fog lights, blind-spot information with rear cross-traffic alert, memory driver’s seat, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, 18-inch wheels, moonroof, rear USB ports, and dual-zone climate control. Walk to the EX-L for heated steering wheel, leather seats, power liftgate, and HomeLink. Step to a Touring like the one I drove for front and rear parking sensors, 19-inch wheels, wireless cell-phone charging, factory nav, roof rails, rain-sensing wipers, premium audio, and hands-free liftgate.

A gas Touring model comparable to the Hybrid Touring I drove costs $35,870.

Honda threw two comps at us. A Ford Escape Hybrid Titanium costs a tad less than the Hybrid Touring I drove, and it’s more engaging in terms of handling, while also achieving better EPA numbers. But it’s down on power by comparison.

The RAV4 Hybrid Limited with Advanced Technology package costs a little more, makes similar power numbers, and has slightly better EPA numbers while offering fewer standard features overall. Both the Escape and RAV4 give up some rear-seat room and passenger volume, but the RAV has more cargo volume and the Escape has more front legroom.

If all that mattered was on-road behavior, the Escape would be a stronger choice (we’ll not mention its polarizing styling). The RAV4 and CR-V are both a little more well-rounded, in this scribe’s opinion. The choice between the two is tough. I like the RAV4 a lot, and Toyota finally got the styling right. But this CR-V is smooth and (relatively) swift.

Honda has cooked up a very, very good green crossover that doesn’t penalize those who like to pass up fuel pumps. In fact, it rewards, due to the power bump over the gas model. It’s a well-rounded package.

But so is its closest rival from Toyota. The best news we can give Honda is that this competition won’t be one-sided.

[Images © 2020 Tim Healey/The Truth About Cars]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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2 of 27 comments
  • Kenn Kenn on Mar 20, 2020

    I'm glad to see that the Hybrid's engine uses port fuel injection, which should eliminate some sizable maintenance costs, down the road. The loss of a couple of mpg at these fuel economy levels is negligible .

  • Spookiness Spookiness on Mar 22, 2020

    A friend has a 18' or 19', pretty sure it is the base model FWD with a non-turbo engine. I've ridden in it for several hours, and I've also driven one as a rental. I get why people buy them, and they do offer a lot of room and utility for a fair price. I realize my experience was with the base model, but it has a lot of issues that bother me. I don't fondle vehicle surfaces, but it has a lot of hard and cheap plastic. The fabric seats are already showing fuzzy fraying, the engine is loud and coarse, the is a lot of road noise, the ride is jiggly, and the doors and door handles feel tinny and insubstantial. And this leaves out design issues inside and out that just bug me. Its a shame because its a car I want to like, but I don't.

  • Wjtinfwb Funny. When EV's were bursting onto the scene; Tesla's, Volt's, Leaf's pure EV was all the rage and Hybrids were derided because they still used a gas engine to make them, ahem; usable. Even Volt's were later derided when it was revealed that the Volt's gas engine was actually connected to the wheels, not just a generator. Now, Hybrids are warmly welcomed into the Electric fraternity by virtue of being "electrified". If a change in definition is what it takes, I'm all for it. Hybrid's make so much sense in most American's usage patterns and if needed you can drive one cross-country essentially non-stop. Glad to see Hybrid's getting the love.
  • 3-On-The-Tree We also had a 1973 IH Scout that we rebuilt the engine in and it had dual glass packs, real loud. I miss those days.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Jeff thanks. Back in 1990 we had a 1964 Dodge D100 with a slant six with a 3 on the tree. I taught myself how to drive a standard in that truck. It was my one of many journeys into Mopar land. Had a 1973 Plymouth duster with a slant six and a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom with 318 V8. Great cars and easy to work on.
  • Akear What is GM good at?You led Mary............................................What a disgrace!
  • Randy in rocklin I have a 87 bot new with 200k miles and 3 head gasket jobs and bot another 87 turbo 5 speed with 70k miles and new head gaskets. They cost around 4k to do these days.