Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Someday, just for the novelty, I'd like to drive an all-new car that is noticeably worse than the car it replaced. It's getting tiresome to hear how every new car these days "is new and improved!" (And yes, I missed out on the '70s/early '80s crappy American car era.)
Just once, I'd like to have a car company exec say, "To tell you the truth, our new Cheetah 4000 is worse than the old one. It has less power, a less rigid body structure and reduced passenger legroom. The steering wheel is now part of a $2,500 'premium luxury' option package. Oh, and when it gets into an accident, the Cheetah's probability of big, frothy catastrophic fireballs similar to those in Hollywood action movies is 54 percent."
Alas, the 2002 Honda CR-V is not such a vehicle. It is (to my partial dismay) better in just about every regard, which is significant in that there wasn't much wrong with the CR-V to begin with. Along with the Toyota RAV4, the CR-V was one of the first compact SUVs to be built from a unibody passenger car platform. This gave the CR-V car-like attributes like a comfortable ride, higher fuel mileage and enhanced crashworthiness.
The downside to this approach was that the CR-V lacked serious off-road capability, even with the four-wheel-drive system. But for the vast majority of buyers, this was of little concern. Here was a compact vehicle that drove like a Civic, had the style of an SUV and came with Honda's reputation for durability and reliability.
Consumers made the first-generation CR-V ('97-'01) one of the most popular and best-selling compact SUVs in the United States. Our review of a '99 4WD EX is highly favorable, and the CR-V finished second in our 2001 Mini-SUV Comparison Test. However, the last two years have brought rampant competition, including the new Ford Escape and its twin the Mazda Tribute, the new Hyundai Santa Fe and the redesigned RAV4. There are also new truck-based compact SUVs, such as the Jeep Liberty, the updated Xterra and the Suzuki XL-7. For 2002, buyers in this segment have plenty to choose from.
For its second-generation CR-V, Honda wanted a leap forward. Allow me to quote lazily from Honda's press kit: "The second-generation CR-V takes everything that was good about the original model and adds more power, increased interior volume, the latest safety technology, elevated levels of comfort and more utility and functionality without adding significant exterior size or compromise to the overall package."
The main fault of the previous CR-V was its mediocre power output. It debuted with a 126-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder and was later upgraded by 20 hp. While acceleration was adequate for normal use, an automatic-equipped CR-V loaded with people and gear could easily start sucking wind like a two-pack-a-day smoker when traveling up steep hills.
Some people expected the new CR-V to come with a V6, as much of the competition now has V6 power. But Honda has traditionally shunned larger engines and feels it can generate similar levels of performance through advanced technology. To that end, the CR-V has a 16-valve 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood. This is the largest displacement four-cylinder Honda has ever offered to the American market, and it produces 160 hp at 6,000 rpm and 162 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. This output is significantly better than the previous CR-V's (146 hp and 133 lb-ft of torque), especially in the low- to medium-rpm range.
The new engine is from the same family of new i-VTEC engines that also powers the 2002 Acura RSX sport coupe. i-VTEC refers to Honda's latest version of its Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) system. In addition to what VTEC normally does adjusting the lift and opening duration of the valves to help the engine produce additional power throughout the rpm band i-VTEC adds Variable Timing Control (VTC). VTC continuously advances or retards the intake camshaft phasing throughout a 50-degree range. Not sure what that means? Don't worry. The bottom line is that VTC optimizes engine output and allows the CR-V to meet LEV-II emission standards.
Both of the CR-V's transmissions have been updated for 2002. The four-speed automatic is an all-new design. In addition to improved smoothness and fuel efficiency, it features Grade Logic Control. Honda says this feature allows the transmission to downshift automatically and hold a lower gear when the CR-V is climbing a steep grade. For the five-speed manual, additional synchronizers and shorter throws make shifting easier and sportier. While official EPA fuel mileage figures haven't been released at the time of this writing, Honda expects a five-speed CR-V to average 22 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the freeway. An automatic transmission CR-V gets a slightly better rating of 22/26 mpg.
The CR-V's Real Time 4WD system is unchanged for the new model. This system only operates when needed and is completely automatic. During normal driving conditions, power is routed to the front wheels only, improving fuel economy. If there is a loss of traction at the front, torque is directed to the rear wheels. The amount of torque sent is directly related to how much slippage the front wheels are experiencing. While Real Time 4WD is fine for wet or snowy roads, it lacks the off-road capabilities found in truck-based SUVs like the Nissan Xterra or Jeep Liberty.
On-road comfort, however, should continue to be a CR-V strength. The new CR-V is based on Honda's Global Compact Platform, the same one used for the Civic and RSX. It offers 50 percent more torsional rigidity and 30 percent improved bending rigidity compared to the '01 model, says Honda. This translates to better crash safety and ride quality. The new platform also produces less noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Building the quietest compact SUV available was one of the key design goals, and extensive sound insulation was used throughout the vehicle.
Since it is based on the Global Compact Platform, the '02 CR-V has a MacPherson strut front suspension, a change from the previous double wishbone design. The rear double wishbone suspension has also been modified. It's worth noting that the new front and rear suspensions, as applied to the Civic and RSX, have received mild criticism for not providing as high of a degree of wheel control as the double wishbones did. Given the CR-V's less sporty nature, however, the changes should be virtually undetectable.
There is a key advantage to the new suspensions that is not immediately apparent. Since they are more compact, Honda has been able to increase the amount of interior room without making the CR-V any bigger on the outside. Overall length and width are up just about an inch each, yet interior passenger volume has increased 8 percent.
This translates to plenty of room for both people and cargo. The CR-V offers headroom, legroom and shoulder room for the driver and front passenger that is about equal to or better than the closest competitors'. Rear legroom is even more impressive, measuring 3 inches more than the Ford Escape and 6.8 inches more than the RAV4.
Much of the rear legroom advantage is due to the rear seat's design. It's separated near the middle, and each of the two sections will independently slide forward and backward for a total range of 6.7 inches. Like the previous CR-V, the seatbacks can also recline independently. One seatback is wider than the other (a 60/40 arrangement), and the wider one contains a pull-down armrest with two integrated cupholders.
With the rear seat in its normal position, the CR-V can carry 33.5 cubic feet of cargo. To increase the amount of cargo, the rear seatbacks can be folded down easily and then the whole seat can be tumbled forward to be nearly perpendicular with the floor. The three rear headrests don't have to be removed for this maneuver, and the result is a maximum 72 cubic feet of cargo space. Previous CR-V owners will be happy to know that a popular feature, the rear cargo floor that doubles as a picnic table, returns and is even bigger for 2002.
Another trademark feature, the flip-up center tray between the two front seats, is also back. Previous CR-V owners might not recognize the rest of the interior, though. The instrument panel is all new and is highlighted by easy-to-read white-on-black instruments, large climate control knobs and a high-mounted audio system. The driver's window switches, once located on the dash, have now been moved to their proper place on the door. Interestingly, the emergency brake handle is now a pistol grip-shaped lever integrated into the center stack. This frees up foot room that would otherwise be taken up by a floor-mounted pedal. The automatic transmission selector is also new; it's been downsized and relocated to the dash to the right of the steering wheel.
For 2002, the automatic transmission will be available on all three trim levels: two-wheel-drive LX, four-wheel-drive LX and four-wheel-drive EX. The manual transmission is offered only on four-wheel-drive vehicles. Both LX and EX come with a high level of standard equipment, such as air conditioning, power windows and locks, a one-touch up/down driver's window, a CD player, rear seat heater ducts and two 12-volt accessory outlets. In addition to this, the more upscale EX receives an upgraded audio system with a CD changer, keyless remote, a power moonroof and antilock brakes.
Other safety features for the CR-V include dual pre-tensioners for the front seatbelts, headrests and three-point seatbelts for all five seating positions, dual-stage front airbags, optional side airbags (standard on EX) and whiplash-reducing front seats. These features, combined with the new body structure, should allow the CR-V to earn five stars in federal government front- and side-impact crash test scores.
After just a short period of driving the '02, it becomes clear that Honda has indeed improved on an already capable vehicle. The new CR-V feels more solid and more road-worthy. Road and engine noise is minimal, and the steering is light but still accurate. I'll reserve judgment on the new suspension, as the roads I drove on didn't offer enough bumps and dips to truly evaluate the effectiveness of the new design.
In terms of off-road ability, the new CR-V is about the same as the old one. Ground clearance continues to be 8.1 inches, and the new machine gets wobbly knees and a bit green in the face when asked to take on anything more challenging than a dirt road. Keep it on the pavement, and you'll be happy.
Acceleration is certainly better, and the manual transmission shifts more smoothly, but there's still a niggling question of whether 160 hp is enough when the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute V6 models crank out 200 hp. I'd say yes, but in the immortal words of the old Alcoa commercials shown during NFL games, "You make the call."
The interior design is close to brilliant for this type of vehicle. Storage compartments are as prominent as UFO sightings in New Mexico, and the rear seats offer an impressive amount of legroom. The front seats are also very comfortable, as Honda has made them bigger and more ergonomically shaped.
By November 2001, you can expect new CR-Vs to be arriving in Honda dealerships nationwide. Final pricing hasn't been announced, but expect a range from $19,000 for a base two-wheel-drive LX to $23,000 for an optioned-out four-wheel-drive EX. Until we get our grubby little hands on one for a full road test, we won't know for sure if Honda has re-established itself as the leader in the compact SUV market. But if the early returns are correct, Honda has another winner on its hands.
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