Honda doesn't often do surprises -- the company is defined by rational decision-making and straightforward, elegant engineering. Since the outgoing CR-V broke sales records in its final year, there was no reason to expect much of a change.
Indeed, the 2012 CR-V reflects a measured evolution, with a number of refinements resulting in an even better five-passenger crossover. Although the styling looked a bit over-the-top in concept photos, the production CR-V is immediately recognizable as, well, a CR-V. It's about an inch shorter from front to back and an inch lower, but the new cute-ute retains its trademark vertical taillights integrated into the D-pillars -- now so voluminous they could more appropriately be called Double-D pillars. Thankfully, a backup camera is standard equipment, because in addition to the obstructing D-pillars, the view rearward is cut off at chest height.
The CR-V's familiar 2.4-liter four-cylinder is unusually vocal, doing a fine imitation of an Osterizer as it approaches -- but never quite reaches -- its 7000-rpm power peak. The five-speed automatic transmission shifts short of that mark, but its long ratios (second gear is good for 80 mph) help keep the engine in the quiet part of the power band. Honda made multiple powertrain revisions that resulted in an additional 5 hp, and the new CR-V is 2 mpg more efficient overall thanks to reduced internal friction and a more aerodynamic body. The optional all-wheel-drive system now uses an electronically controlled clutch pack to send power rearward should the computer determine that it's needed. The old system was mechanical and required a speed differential between the two axles to send power to the back, which meant that a CR-V driver could accidentally squeal the front tires off the line before the rear wheels engaged. Try as we might, we couldn't coax a peep out of the new CR-V's front tires. Problem solved.
Another "problem" with the old CR-V concerned its rear seats. They were mounted on sliders and the seatbacks could be adjusted to multiple positions, but they could be a chore to fold. The new seats don't slide and their backrests have only two recline positions, but rather than stack up against the front seatbacks, they now fold flat into the floor. The system loses a couple cubic feet of total cargo capacity, but it's a brilliant solution -- small handles mounted near the liftgate unlatch the seats, which fall forward with no need for electric actuators or motors. It's a beautifully simple design that's typical of Honda.
The CR-V's cabin looks more refined than before, with richer, softer materials and a marked increase in bins and other storage areas. Like the new Civic, the CR-V's dash now houses a five-inch LCD screen to display radio and trip-computer information. On navigation-equipped vehicles, that means there are two screens, which occasionally display redundant information. In fact, the CR-V's entire infotainment system doesn't quite live up to the rest of the car's well-thought-out usability. The touch-screen nav's graphics are not up-to-date, its digital buttons are too small, and its interface is far from intuitive. Even though the CR-V offers cool functions like cell-phone/Pandora integration and the ability to read text messages aloud, there is no mobile phone that's compatible with both features: Pandora works only with iPhones, and the texting feature works with four BlackBerries and the Droid X.
The CR-V would appear, then, to fall short of its highly styled, technology-laden competitors from Korea -- and the forthcoming new Ford Escape. LED daytime running lights aren't available, there's no direct-injected turbo engine option, there are no ventilated seats or double-pane sunroof, and you'll have to stick a metal key into an ignition slot to start this car. That leaves the CR-V to compete instead on its inherent goodness -- and that's precisely where it shines. The driving position seems to fit everyone well, the taut suspension never allows undue harshness to ruffle the occupants, and the packaging is brilliant. The climate-control system is quiet, the switchgear feels tight and expensive, and Honda managed to sneak a European-style convex, blind-spot-eliminating sideview mirror past the oppressive DOT and screwed it onto the driver's door. Despite working through one fewer forward gear than many of its competitors, the four-banger's broad torque curve makes the car quick enough to squirt through traffic, and it returns top-of-the-class fuel-economy numbers. The electric power steering isn't quite as communicative as last year's faster, hydraulic setup, but it's still better than most and suffers from no torque steer.
Some of its competitors lean on styling and upmarket features to appeal to customers, but Honda is relying on the core strengths of its product. As a package, the CR-V remains pretty unbeatable. That certainly won't come as a surprise to existing CR-V owners.
On Sale: December 2012
Price: $23,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.4L I-4, 185 hp, 163 lb-ft
Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
EPA Mileage: 23/31 mpg (fwd), 22/30 mpg (awd)