2012 Honda CR-V

The redesigned Honda CR-V’s fuel efficiency, interior, and standard equipment are better than ever. Too bad it’s so underpowered

The Bad: Still only comes with a small, four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic.

The Bottom Line: Honda loyalists will love the new CR-V; others should check out the new Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4 before buying.

Make: Honda

Model Year: 2012

Body Type: Four-door, five-passenger

Price Class: Mid-Range

Product Name: Honda CR-V

You have to wonder how long Honda (HMC ) can keep riding on its laurels. Each time the company redesigns one of its top-selling models, you have the feeling that designers were on the defensive, making as few changes as they could get away with just to avoid falling behind faster-moving rivals. That’s what Honda did with the new Civic. earning lukewarm reviews and prompting Consumer Reports to drop the model from its Recommended list. Now there are reports that Honda will refresh the Civic again for 2013 to address some of the criticisms. (The company has no comment.)

I have the same feeling about Honda’s redesign of its popular CR-V compact SUV as I did about the new Civic: It isn’t quite bold enough. Honda loyalists will love the new model. But the 2012 CR-V, which is due out Dec.

15, comes up short in some respects, especially if you don’t exactly fit the middle-of-the-road buyer profile Honda is aiming at. My advice is to wait and check out the redesigned 2012 Toyota Toyota (TM ) RAV4 (due out Dec. 20) and the upcoming 2013 Ford (F ) Escape (due out next spring) before buying a CR-V.

The Escape has already overtaken the CR-V as the top-selling SUV in America this year, and the new Escape promises to be much better than the current one.

To be sure, the new CR-V is an improvement over the old one, too. It’s better-looking, quieter, and has a nicer interior, slightly more luggage space, more standard equipment, and a better all-wheel-drive system than the previous model’s. Fuel economy is up, too. With front-wheel drive, the 2012 CR-V is rated at 23 miles per gallon in the city, 31 on the highway, and 26 on average (2 mpg more than the outgoing CR-V).

With all-wheel drive, it’s rated at 22/30/25 (also up 2 mpg).

However, the new CR-V shares some of the weaknesses of the previous model. Notably, it only comes with one engine, a 2.4-liter, 185-horsepower four-cylinder engine. That’s an increase of a mere 5 hp, and the engine still provides barely adequate oomph.

The RAV4 is available with a V6 that makes it as quick as some sport coupes. The 2013 Escape will be offered with three engine choices, a basic 2.5-liter four-banger and two turbocharged four-cylinder versions of the company’s marvelous EcoBoost engine, one a 1.6-liter and the other a 2.0-liter. With the latter EcoBoost engine, the new Escape also promises to be much quicker than the Honda.

With the smaller EcoBoost engine, Ford says, the new Escape will beat the fuel economy of competitors, including the CR-V. Indeed, that version of the Escape is expected to be so efficient that it’s replacing the Escape Hybrid for 2013. A version of General Motors’ (GM ) Chevy Equinox already matches the CR-V, getting 32 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg on average.

One reason the CR-V isn’t the clear fuel economy leader, I suspect, is that Honda skimped on technology. The company decided to stick with a five-speed automatic as the only choice of transmission, while Chevy, Ford, Hyundai and Kia have all moved to more efficient six-speed automatics (the Escape, Hyundai Tucson, and Kia Sorento also are available with a stick shift). Honda also didn’t go with more efficient direct fuel injection in the new CR-V’s engine, as Ford has done in its EcoBoost engines.

Pricing hasn’t been announced yet but Honda says the new CR-V will continue to sell in the same $21,000-to-$30,000 range as the previous model, which means it will probably continue to be slightly more expensive than its competitors. (Keeping the price under 30 grand is one reason you can get a new CR-V with a rear-seat entertainment system or a navigation system—but not with both.)

Safety remains a strong selling point: Honda expects the new CR-V to earn top five-star government safety ratings and to be a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard gear includes stability control, braking assist, and front-side and head-protecting side curtain air bags.

The CR-V has continued to sell well, despite weather-related disruptions in Asia. U.S. sales of the CR-V were up 11.1 percent, to 180,361, in the first 10 months of this year compared with the same period last year. However, the Ford Escape’s sales soared 31.4 percent, to 206,896, during the first 10 months of this year.

Other rivals also are gaining ground on the CR-V: Chevy Equinox sales were up 43.2 percent, to 160,143, and Kia Sorento sales jumped 22.7 percent, to 109,903, through October.

Toyota has been the big loser: RAV4 sales fell 24.3 percent, to 106,800, during the first 10 months of this year. But the new CR-V could suffer, too, if consumers don’t cotton to the redesign and the RAV4 makes a comeback.

Behind the Wheel

Honda CR 250 F

The CR-V has never been much fun to drive. When you punch the gas to, say, accelerate onto a freeway, the engine really strains and fuel economy plunges. Of course, the same is true of rival models powered by the base engine, but you also sometimes have the choice of a more powerful engine if you want one.

In the test drives I did at a Honda press event, I wasn’t able to time the 2012 model, but I’d guess it accelerates from zero to 60 about as slowly as the outgoing CR-V—in about 10 seconds. With six-cylinder power, the current RAV4 jumps from zero to 60 in about 6.5 seconds. The 2013 Ford Escape may offer similar quickness when powered by the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine.

The CR-V’s new motion-adaptive power steering system doesn’t provide much feedback to the driver, but it’s great for maneuvering in tight spaces. Honda also has upgraded the CR-V’s all-wheel drive to an electronically controlled system designed to respond instantly to even slight wheel slippage. The suspension has been softened and made more car-like, too.

A feature I really like is Eco Assist. You push a button on the dash and the vehicle goes into a fuel-saving mode that doesn’t seem to affect acceleration much. Numerous readouts help the driver conserve gas. Among other things, a ring around the right side of the speedometer glows green when you’re driving efficiently.

I found I could easily achieve the CR-V’s rated mileage.

The CR-V’s cabin feels more upscale than before. The center stack is nicer-looking, and attractive leather upholstery continues to be offered on the high-end trim levels. However, there’s still too much hard plastic on the dash and doors, and there are too many seams in the dash, as if it were cobbled together from pieces.

The dash in the new Ford Focus, for one, is less busy-looking and more attractive.

Bluetooth connectivity is standard on the new CR-V, as are both a Pandora Internet radio interface and SMS text-messaging. A backup camera and hands-free phone capability also now come standard.

Luggage space behind the CR-V’s rear seats is up 1.5 cu. ft. to a voluminous 37.2 cu. ft. expanding to 70.9 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded down. One of the CR-V’s handiest new features allows the rear seats to fold down nearly (but not quite) flat in a 60/40 pattern at the flick of a lever. There had been some speculation in the automotive press that Honda would offer a third-row seat in the CR-V, to match the one offered in the RAV4, but that didn’t happen.

Buy It or Bag It?

The CR-V remains an excellent vehicle. Honda loyalists who simply go out and buy one will be happy with their decision. However, the Kia Sorento is cheaper, and the new Escape and RAV4 offer options the Honda doesn’t.

In short, like the Civic, the CR-V is no longer the clear top choice in its segment.

Click here to see more of the 2012 Honda CR-V.

Honda CR 250 F
Honda CR 250 F
Honda CR 250 F
Honda CR 250 F
Honda CR 250 F
Honda CR 250 F
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