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First drive Honda CR-V

The CR-V finished fourth in the compact four-wheel-drive sales race last year, behind the Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail and Subaru Forester.

Sales of the Honda fell by almost 1000 from 2003. Two years ago it was No.1.

Honda Australia director Lindsay Smalley admits the previous model was hurt by unfavourable comparisons with its rivals in offroad ability.

"Generally we haven't been marked very highly in the four-wheel-drive capacity," he says.

"With this engineering improvement we're confident it can stand back to back with any of the light SUVs in the marketplace."

The upgrades include a drive-by-wire throttle, cruise control, 16-inch wheels and small changes to the exterior and instruments.

The CR-V retains the previous model's engine.

But it's the upgrade to the Real Time four-wheel-drive system, which is supposed to kick in if a front wheel slips, that the brand is banking on to turn the CR-V from glorified station wagon to genuine adventure machine.

"We're resetting the image of the car from a city vehicle to more of a four-wheel-drive you can legitimately use offroad," Smalley says. "It's about broadening the appeal.

"From a competitive point of view we've been put on the back foot by the very positive publicity about some of our competitors' four-wheel-drive capability.

"Our research shows a lot of people want to live the dream of going off road. Because this vehicle has other fantastic attributes in an urban setting, and that hasn't changed, we're now extending that to legitimately taking it offroad, and we're expecting that target market to increase."

Smalley admits the car's reputation compared with machines equipped with a full-time four-wheel-drive system (Real Time is two-wheel-drive until it senses a loss in front wheel traction) has seen the CR-V relegated to family duties.

"It's usually an age group of 35-50, quite often the second vehicle in a household, the lady of the house using it to transport kids around," he says of the CR-V's current profile.

"We're targeting a volume of 9600 for the year. We're not after a huge increase but do need to maintain our position and expand into other areas."

IT'S a matter of pride, not only sales. Honda is tired of having its CR-V dismissed as a soft option to the current compact kings of the offroad hill, the Nissan X-Trail and Toyota RAV4.

The brand reckons the updated CR-V, now with a more responsive version of its 4WD on-demand system, will go anywhere the X-Trail can go, with less fuss.

So Honda invited us out to the Melbourne 4x4 training and proving ground near Werribee to put the CR-V up against the X-Trail.

The 4WD on-demand system in the previous generation CR-V wouldn't stack up against a full-time system when tackling the rough stuff. In reality, it was front-wheel-drive until the front wheels started to spin, then the rears would kick in to help.

In practice, this was often too late. The fronts would be bogged by the time the rear wheels were in the game.

The new system uses the same idea, but Honda says it's much quicker off the mark – quick enough to do the job as well as any other compact softroader, Honda says.

With the help of training-ground owner and 4WD instructor Robert Emmins, the games begin.

Emmins says the offroad ability of any of the compacts deserves respect.

"About a third of people (with 4WDs) who come out here are in these sort of softroaders," Emmins says.

"And they go home thinking they're glad they bought it for the price and what it does."

First step is a run in the CR-V along a fairly basic offroad track, with small logs, modest dips and inclines and a bit of sand, which the CR-V does easily. But, Emmins says, so will a high-riding two-wheel-drive such as the Ford RTV ute.

"Ground clearance is the main thing," he says. "The gearing has a bit to do with it and so does 4WD, but not as much as ground clearance.

"The main exception is sand. In the two-wheel-drive you'd be buggered."

As the going gets tougher, up large dirt mounds and through water almost up to the bonnet, the CR-V matches the X-Trail on ability and beats it for refinement.

(To be fair, the X-Trail is a rental with 40,000km on the clock. The CR-V is new).

The Real Time system is proving up to the task.

But our job is to find the limit of the cars and we find the CR-V's – a 45-degree climb up concrete.

The X-Trail scrambles up the steep slope. The CR-V runs out of legs. We try three times before giving up.

Emmins says it isn't Real Time's fault, it's the engine's. The Honda's 220Nm of torque is not enough to make it. The Nissan's 2.5-litre four's 245Nm is.

Smalley says there could be a torquey diesel engine for the CR-V down the track, which could square the score, but it is no certainty for Australia.

"Honda Europe is launching a CR-V diesel soon and we'll certainly be watching its progress," Smalley says.

"We're doing research on a diesel CR-V here to find out what consumers say, but there are still issues of sulphur content in diesel, and that's a factor we have to consider."

In the meantime, nice try Honda, but the X-Trail hasn't been dethroned yet.

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