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2012 Honda CR-V First Drive

What it is: A new compact crossover for the car that revolutionized compact crossovers, the 2012 Honda CR-V comes as an update for the aging, yet still popular model.

Best thing: We commend Honda for building a new vehicle that is actually less heavy and larger than its predecessor -- a rare feat these days. Despite this, interior volume is enlarged thanks to some clever packaging.

Worst thing: The powertrain is still a carryover, with an archaic 5-speed automatic in dire need of another gear. Honda claims there's no demand for a V6 model, but we beg to differ.

Snap Judgement: Honda plays it safe with this generation of the CR-V, but also gives us both more and less: more room, fuel efficiency, and interior volume, and less overall size and weight.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

"We chose a fantasy location to reflect the new CR-V," said Chris, Honda's PR guy, possibly with tongue planted firmly in cheek, "which is like a dream."

Indeed, the Grand Tradition Estate in San Diego, where we stopped for lunch, plays upon this matrimonial fantasy with a heart-shaped pool and immaculately groomed terraces -- all the better for hopeless romantics to start calling Jennifer Lopez and playing The Notebook on repeat. Young, hopeless romantics are the target for the 2012 Honda CR-V. Couples under the age of 33, who may have visions of weddings in their eyes and need a car that's roomy enough to carry the cake.

The Honda CR-V has always been the 900-pound (3342 pounds, actually) gorilla of the compact crossover segment, and for good reason: along with the Toyota RAV4 it practically invented the segment back in the mid '90s. Over the years the cutesy external spare tire was swallowed up, and with it any pretenses of off-road capability, but its pavement-only mission has only solidified as a nimble, efficient grocery schlepper. And as graceless and awkward the previous-generation CR-V may have looked, it didn't stop anyone: The 2011 Honda CR-V earned record sales just in March of this year, with 21,998 people buying it that month. Not bad for a car that's five years old.

Now, however, the 2012 Honda CR-V gets sleeker styling, more power, and better fuel economy. Sounds too good to be true, right? Is it real life, as Honda says, or is it just fantasy?

Walkaround

The 2012 CR-V retains the same roofline and same bulky proportions, but it's now sleeker. Its former awkward chubbiness gives way to taut lines and angles. The three-bar grille apes the Accord Crosstour, and the leisurely curve of the chrome-ringed window line now comes at a point. It'll be instantly recognizable as a Honda CR-V, for better or worse; on our test loop around northern San Diego, we passed by what seemed like dozens of current CR-Vs with nary a second glance from their drivers. Groundbreaking it ain't, but at least it's not as frumpy.

That fantasy-sounding malarkey about the 2012 Honda CR-V getting smaller yet remaining bigger? It's not Cinderella's pumpkin carriage, but Honda engineers shrunk the overall length by 0.8 inches and lowered the roofline by an inch. They also shaved off about 45 pounds off the 2012 CR-V's curb weight, allowing for better handling and fuel efficiency.

But here's the kicker: Interior volume is now up to 104.1 cubic feet (on LX models), and cargo volume gains 1.5 cubic feet and a lower floor to make loading less of a lift. Shrinking a car, no matter how incrementally, usually goes against the tradition of ever-expanding new models, but no matter how small these changes might seem, less weight and more space efficiency represent improvements that most automakers tend to forget.

Getting Inside

Mercifully, the CR-V's interior loses the chunky, minivan-like dashboard, instead gaining a horizontal dash and a legitimate full-length center console. It now features strong, horizontal lines and curves in two-tone colors and rendered in firm plastic, with a large screen taking center stage across all models. The quality of the interior plastic is far superior over those from the 2012 Honda Civic, and excellent ergonomics mean that the shifter and radio controls fall easily to hand. The center gauges are beautiful, with a large speedometer front and center that's capped by a digital trip computer, giving the entire array a 3D effect. There's a tachometer included too, but given the CR-V's decidedly non-sporting pretensions, its size and placement (crammed into the left corner) indicate its second-tier status.

The big news for Honda's interior is its standard features: Pandora Internet radio is integrated across all models, as well as text messaging. We tried out Pandora on our first drive, and after two hours of Howlin' Wolf and Chess Records' finest we agreed that it worked flawlessly, although it was somewhat slow to react. We could switch stations, like or skip tracks, and stream wirelessly through Bluetooth, and it was very intuitive for a system that seems like a brave new step. Right now, the Pandora integration only works with iPhones, but it's doubtful that Honda will leave millions of Android users in the dark for long.

Text messaging on the CR-V works like this: If your phone is connected via Bluetooth, the center screen will display incoming messages and allow you the option to reply with a series of preset responses. "I will be home soon," "I will call you back," and the always popular, "I love you," are all options, though there's always the ability to program your own replies in case you need to apologize for something, plead the fifth, or simply want to say, "I'm too busy driving right now to even use a pre-set text message.".

Another new feature for the 2012 Honda CR-V is the second-row Magic Seat, a system derived from the big-brother Odyssey. This allows the rear seats to fold with the quick tug of a strap located at the bottom of the seat. The bottom cushion flips forward, the headrest folds, and the rear seatback drops down neatly with a fwoosh, rendering the second row invisible without the aid of electric gizmos. Magic? Perhaps.However, behind that second row of seats is just 37.2 cubic feet of cargo space, instead of a much-speculated third row. Considering the CR-V's exterior dimensions are largely unchanged, it's unlikely a third set of seats would fit too well back there anyhow. Front and rear headroom is more than adequate, and rear legroom is cavernous, and made even better with a reclining and sliding second row.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Driving

Surprise, surprise -- little's changed on the CR-V for 2012, and that goes for the drivetrain as well. The engine is still a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, the transmission still packs five gears, and the available RealTime all-wheel drive still drives, well, all four wheels, but only when needed. But the engine gets a 5-horsepower bump, up to 185 hp. Honda claims that through its surveys, its customers never asked for more power, so they were happy to oblige. And for those expecting the new CR-V to break the 200-horsepower mark, the 185 figure is right in line with the rest of the class: the Ford Escape, the current best-seller, has 171 horsepower in its four-banger, and the Toyota RAV4 has 179 horses in its loins if you ignore the Toyota's optional 269-hp V-6.

This engine performs smoothly, if somewhat coarsely near the higher end of its rev range. Compared to the outgoing model it is a lot quieter overall, thanks to better sound deadening. However, in a field where six-speeds are as integral as four wheels and a seat, the five-speed transmission seems rather lackluster. It is reluctant to kick down under power, second-guessing the driver's foot until it finally goes, "you sure about that, buddy? Fine, whatever."

The RealTime all-wheel drive directs power to individual wheels based on traction and road conditions, but for 2012 it also sends more power to the rear wheels under acceleration. We didn't notice much of a difference. The brakes were firm, but also slightly grabby. On highways the CR-V doesn't wander within its lane, and the suspension is smooth and well-suited to reflectors and pavement grooves. The steering gains some more heft, which makes navigating the the sweeping mountain corners of Encinitas, California, a little easier. Overall, between the smooth suspension and quieter engine, those who found the last CR-V to be rough around the edges will find even more car-like motoring here.

Summary

Honda doesn't so much fix anything that's wrong with the previous CR-V as much as they tweak the rest. Some new features like Pandora and text messaging are sure to attract the kids, and more room is always helpful. But Honda can go on and on about young nuptials without hiding the fact that the CR-V is just as good as before -- well-crafted, practical, roomy, and unlike the romantic Grand Tradition grounds underneath a cloudless California sun, probably not that magical at all. That's the way Honda would want it. It's why they sold 203,714 examples in 2010, and why it won't surprise anyone that they'll sell that many more next year.

We imagine living with it will be suitably impressive as well. Look forward to us spending a little more time with it, serving daily duty as a practical compact crossover. Nobody's getting married here anytime soon, are they?

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