2002 Honda CR-V

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Nemacolin, Pennsylvania - The 1996 launch of the Toyota RAV4 defined and legitimized the mini-SUV segment, but it took the 1997 Honda CR-V to refine the concept. As the second-generation CR-V debuts this fall, a year after the RAV4 redux, it's still hard to think about one without the other. Where the RAV4 remains cheeky and irreverent, emphasizing style and tossability over utility and comfort, the CR-V is once again bigger, more practical, and more sensible, if heavier and slightly more sedate than the RAV4. Compared with the old one, the new CR-V includes a gutsier engine, greater refinement, and a roomier cabin. The bad news is that the package is wrapped in the equivalent of a brown paper bag, whereas the RAV4's skin is like what you'd see folded around a kid's birthday gift. And while the CR-V looks beefier than it did, overall, its exterior is simply a more interesting expression of blandness.

The real action is under the sheetmetal. The dramatically stiffened new body encloses a much roomier interior while external dimensions have grown only fractionally. Passenger volume now totals 106.0 cubic feet, versus 98.0 previously, putting it just ahead of the Ford Escape and the Hyundai Santa Fe. Each half of the tumble-forward rear seats slides back and forth 6.7 inches, and the rear seatbacks recline up to 45 degrees. Tired? Remove the front headrests and recline both the front and rear seatbacks for a full-length bed. Hungry? The rear cargo floor cum removable picnic table has returned. (Honda does not supply the burgers.)

Safety equipment includes three-point seatbelts for all three rear-seat passengers, front seatbelt pretensioners, new LATCH child's-seat anchors, and side air bags (standard on top-line EX, optional on base LX). ABS, which is standard on EX, isn't available on LX, although Honda says it could offer it if demand warranted.

Neither Honda nor Toyota offers a V-6, but the CR-V's all-new, 2.4-liter (up from 2.0 liters) DOHC i-VTEC four is impressive. The i stands for intelligent and denotes the addition of continuously adjustable intake valve timing, resulting in lower emissions, better fuel economy, more torque, and 160 responsive horsepower, up from 146. New four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmissions make the most of it.

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The CR-V's all-wheel-drive system, optional on LX and standard on EX, hasn't changed--power goes to the front axle until slippage is detected, when rear-wheel drive is engaged. Disc brakes supplant rear drums. The double-wishbone front suspension has been replaced by a seemingly retrograde strut setup, but in fact it damps pretty unobtrusively. The rack-and-pinion steering gear is mounted higher in the vehicle and uses longer tie rods to minimize the effects of body roll and one-wheel bumps. The retuned steering has meatier on-center feel.

In an increasingly crowded segment, with worthwhile competition not only from Japan but also from America and Korea, the CR-V still stands out as one of the best mini-SUVs. If it looked as good as it is, it'd be the most desirable, too.

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