Driven: 2012 Honda CR-V

Compact crossovers are where the volume is in the SUV segment, and the volume leader among compact crossovers is the Honda CR-V. (That's in 2012 year to date. In 2011, Ford managed to push out more Escapes, even though that vehicle was at the very end of its long life cycle. But one suspects that those cars all disappeared into Hertz fleets, because, where I live at least, you hardly ever see an Escape on the road whereas it often seems like every other car is a CR-V.)

Perhaps that's why Honda was loath to mess with the formula during the CR-V's 2012 redesign. The car's length and width haven't strayed more than a fraction of an inch, and the wheelbase is identical. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder continues as the lone engine offering, although output is increased fractionally, to 185 hp and 163 pound-feet of torque. The engine is once again mated to a five-speed automatic, even as six-speed auto boxes have become the norm.

Nor is the design of Honda's compact people mover a great departure -- more's the pity. The new version looks larger than its predecessor, with a new variation on the previous model's strange, pinched side glass area; perhaps it's an attempt to inject some motion into this blocky shape. Neither is the interior design anything exciting, with acres of gray plastic and -- in my EX-L test car -- leather that looks and feels like something engineered to shrug off a spilled ice-cream cone.

It's an unspectacular cabin, unless you're talking utility. Interior space is vast, and the cabin feels wide and airy. The back seat is particularly roomy, and a flat floor helps make it habitable for three. The cargo hold is easy to load thanks to an ultra-low floor. And there are stowage cubbies everywhere. In typical Honda fashion, the controls and switches are easy to use -- excepting those surrounding the navigation screen, graphics of which are dated. A (much-needed) backup camera is standard.

The CR-V's similarly unassuming powertrain is also undeniably effective. Direct injection and turbocharging are nowhere to be found, but Honda was able to coax another 2-to-3 mpg out of this engine, bringing the EPA ratings up to a respectable 23/31 mpg (FWD) and 22/30 mpg (AWD). A button on the dash engages Eco mode; unfortunately, it snuffs out throttle response and makes the transmission cling stubbornly to higher gears. Switch it off, and the powertrain is far more agreeable, although the CR-V isn't exactly quick -- particularly at highway speeds -- and the engine note at times is a dull moan. The electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system, which is new with the 2012 model, works flawlessly, sending power to the rear wheels before the front tires have a chance to chirp or spin. Torque steer is not an issue, and Honda has done a good job tuning both the CR-V's electric power steering and the suspension. Unsurprisingly, however, both favor relaxed driving over lively cornering.

Unsurprising and relaxed could describe the CR-V overall. It's neither flashy nor exciting but it is well executed. Combine that with Honda's enviable reputation for reliability, and you've likely got what it takes to make this CR-V as ubiquitous as the last one.

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