One of the vehicles that spearheaded the SUV boom, the Honda CR-V, is entering its fourth iteration. With over five million sales over the last eighteen years, Honda seems to have finally become confident and made a car that you not only want to buy, but might want to look at, too.
The CR-V range starts with the entry-level two-wheel drive VTi and stretches to the four-wheel drive VTi-L. We had a VTi-L which weighs in at $42,290, with just a set of unattractive floor mats fitted as extras.
The 2WD models make do with a 114kW 2.0 litre and 6-speed manual or optional five speed auto, 17-inch alloys and a reversing camera. They go without an extra seventy kilos of four-wheel drive gear, too.
The 4WD models are propelled by a 2.4 litre with 140kW and 222Nm of torque, with just the five-speed automatic available. The L has handsome 18-inch alloy wheels, front parking sensors, keyless entry and start, sunroof, sat-nav, bluetooth and impressive HID headlights with cornering lights.
The front seats are electric with eight-way adjustment for the driver, four-way for the passenger, and both are heated. Leather covers all the seats, but nothing else. Sadly absent is the 2.2 litre diesel available in Europe on UK-built cars, but a new 1.6 litre turbodiesel expected to join the range sometime in 2013.
The CR-V is backed by Honda's 3 year/100,000km warranty and Honda is yet to get on the fixed or capped-price servicing bandwagon. The CR-V has many rivals in a hugely competitive segment.
Its fiercest, the Mazda CX-5, has been in Australia for around a year. Replacing the hugely popular and almost ubiquitous CX-7, it too has two ranges of two- and all-wheel drive. There is one petrol engine, the 2.0 litre SkyActiv. This engine uses less fuel but matches the power output of the 2.0 litre i-VTEC in the Honda.
The CX-5 trumps the Honda with a diesel option and with an extra gear on the automatic transmission. The range starts at $27,800 for the Maxx petrol manual and tops out at the Grand Touring Diesel's $46,200, a few thousand more than the VTi-L. The closest equivalent to the L is the Grand Touring Petrol at $43,280.
Toyota's RAV4, soon to be replaced, kicks off with the humourously named Altitude 2WD 2.4 litre at $24,490 and goes right through to the V6-equipped ZR6 at $49,990. The top of the four-cylinder range is the $41,990 Cruiser L. Like the Honda, the Toyota is well-built and solidly reliable. It's also about to be replaced.
The Hyundai Santa Fe can be had in petrol or diesel and in Elite form is $45,990. For that you get a 145kW/420Nm 2.2 litre diesel with a six-speed automatic transmission, leather upholstery, as well as roof-rails.
There's a knee airbag and downhill brake control for tricky off-road work, sat-nav and Hyundai's extensive warranty and fixed-price servicing. You have to go to the Highlander spec to get the panoramic sunroof and Xenon lights.
The Sportage, the Santa Fe's under-the-skin twin tops out at the $40,990 Platinum diesel. While wanting little on equipment and power, badge-snobbery may be a problem for some buyers as well. Like the Hyundai, it has a good warranty and servicing regime as well as a lower official fuel consumption figure.
There are many, many more rivals to the CR-V, both below and beyond its price range. These include the Volkswagen Tiguan and the Volvo XC60, neither of which can match the lengthy standard features of their Asian rivals for the same money.
The new CR-V's design is light years ahead of the bitty, plasticky design of the old. Honda has finally put a face on the CR-V that you will recognise and like. If you're not paying attention, you might at first think it's the handsome Kia Sportage from the front or a Volvo from the rear.
The profile is also more pleasing, with an evolution of the rear quarter window to a soft arrowhead, echoed by the trademark stacked tail lights. Less pleasing is the unpainted plastic trim fitted to the base of the bumpers, sills and around the arches.
It's supposed to look chunky and urban but looks like a penny-pinch, something inherited from the previous model. The chromed door handles also feel less than substantial with a loose action that doesn't exactly scream quality.
Inside is an improvement on the old, partly because it's better packaged. The new CR-V is two centimetres shorter, fifteen millimetres lower and compared to the old CR-V Luxury, is 50kg lighter.
Despite being shorter on the outside, the space inside has improved, even with the racily-angled rear screen. Much of the improvement comes from the spaces being more sensibly shaped, with little intrusion from rear suspension towers in the load area and a low, flat boot floor.
The interior plastics mark very easily, with just a week of normal use in our hands leaving white marks on almost every surface. While it might be simple to wipe these marks away, they appear during normal, everyday use. With a bunch of rowdy kids or mates bowling in and out of the car, it would be like a Jackson Pollock painting within a day.
The front seats are comfortable but unsupportive in corners and the driving position needs some effort to get right. This will annoy those who have to share a car with another driver as there's no memory position for the electric driver's seat.
The central console has space for three cup holders, a slot for a phone (an iPhone 5 fits perfectly on its side) and one for the key fob. The instrument cluster is dominated by a huge speedo in the middle, and in its centre is a circular information screen that looks like a dilated pupil, housing a trip computer and warning information.
A screen sits high in the dash's centre while the infotainment and navigation screen is lower on the face of the dash. Connectivity for music players is via Bluetooth streaming or USB in the central console.
The 7-inch touch screen on this Thai-built model is easy to use but the graphical design for the audio controls looks like an amateur effort, from the icon design to the oddly contrasting colours. This cheap-looking unit is different to those found in similar spec CR-Vs overseas and smacks of cost-cutting.
The stereo controls appear missing in action but are in reality small, fiddly and hard to see. The steering wheel mounted stereo controls are much more usable and can be operated by feel rather than having to look down.
The navigation system is simple and has SUNA traffic updates. The maps are not well-detailed and it takes a very long time for route calculations. The back seat is wide, high and comfortable, if a bit flat and short in the squab. There's stacks of leg, head and shoulder room and an almost completely flat floor.
There's also cup holders in the fold-down centre armrest, joining the water-bottle shaped crevices in the doors. A wide tailgate aperture affords access to the expansive load area. The rear seats can be released either from the rear doors by a strap in the seat base or via handles in the boot.
They're quite impressive, too - the headrests drop, the squab springs up and the backrests fold flat in one, easy, entertaining movement. The flimsy-feeling boot floor could do with slidey plastic strips, but this is nit-picking. It hides a full-size spare, which is a welcome inclusion.
The boot will swallow an impressive 556 litres with the seats in place. Put them down and the space doubles to 1120 litres. It's actually more, because Honda only counts the volume up to the window line.
The 2.4 litre VTi engine pumps out 140kW at a very high 7000rpm and 222Nm at 4400rpm. Honda claims 8.7l/100km on the combined cycle but you'll be very lucky to see that figure if ours was anything to go by. On the plus side, the engine runs on 91 octane petrol.
The AWD system is full-time and works seamlessly on dry and wet tarmac as well as loose surfaces. We never once saw the traction control light, even under provocation on an awkward uphill dirt road.
The 5-star ANCAP rated CR-V comes with six airbags, including curtain airbags. ABS, EBD and all-wheel drive are standard. These are supplemented with traction control and stability control, neither of which you are likely to see in the dry unless you do something amazingly stupid. The dashboard's pupil screen also tells you who has failed to belt up, very handy in a car aimed at young families.
The steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, but both directions are limited in scope, with the wheel a long way from vertical at its shallowest angle. Once you get the driving position right, it feels like a car, although saying that these days feels a little silly.
It's been so long since an SUV didn't have a car-like driving position, pointing it out is unnecessary. You sit reasonably high but it doesn't feel excessive - you won't be absent-mindedly humming Ride of the Valkyries on the way to work or soccer training.
Yes, you still look down a little on "normal" traffic, but it's not a teetering high-rider like the earlier CR-Vs. Although the power is delivered up at the redline, the car's relaxed character is a nice surprise as there's enough of it from 3000rpm onwards.
The 2.4 litre engine puts on an excellent show hauling the 1580kg CR-V about. Despite a sizeable gap between first and second gears, the Honda is very easy to drive around town and on the highway, rarely needing a shove of the accelerator to get it moving.
The gearbox and throttle are a willing team, with smooth shifts and an eagerness to shift up or down at sensible times. Loading the car with people and gear will obviously slow it down and force you to work the engine harder - this really shows up the torque deficit.
One of the Honda's little tricks is the Econ mode. Ostensibly to encourage you to drive in a more green-minded manner, the little green button on the dash actually does something.
The air-con is dialled back a bit, throttle response softened and a pair of lights bordering the speedo light up green when you roll off the gas, shaming you into keeping them lit.
We were a bit sceptical, dismissing it as a bit of a gimmick, but we grit our teeth and left it on - we saw the fuel consumption drop from 12.5l/100km to 11.4l/100km. That may not seem like a lot, but when it's sucking fuel like a Commodore V6, every little bit helps. Roll on the diesel.
Enthusiastic cornering will bring on plenty of body roll and the soft rear end will feel a little wayward, but a car full of people will ensure you slow down before the car decides you have to.
The steering feels okay, if a little on the light side, but makes for easy parking and city twirling. The lack of feedback might mean a relaxing drive most of the time but could use a bit more communication so you're not left guessing which way the front wheels are pointing.
The ride is good but unexpectedly fidgety on pockmarked surfaces. It handles bigger bumps very well, no matter how heavily laden.
With a cathedral-like interior, reasonable spec and a good engine and gearbox, the new CR-V is very promising.
Apart from the space however, the Honda is just another car in the pack. There's nothing wrong with it (absent diesel excepted) but it has to deal with some very stiff competition from brands that even three years ago looked highly unlikely to challenge.
It does, though, have the badge and more experience at building these compact SUVs than almost anyone. There hasn't been a genuinely bad Honda for over two decades, so you know the purchase will be a sound one.
Honda CR-V VTi-L
Price: from $42,290
Warranty: 3 year 100,000km
Engine: 2.4-litre 4-cylinder, 140kW/222Nm
Transmission: 5-speed auto, 4WD
Thirst: 8.7L/100Km, CO2 201g/km