Believe it or not, the Honda CR-V has outsold every other SUV in America since 2007. And in all this time, Honda has never bothered with an optional V6, a hybrid drivetrain or a third-row seat. Instead, it's one engine, one transmission, have a nice day.
So what's the secret? Ask Honda CR-V owners and they'll tell you it's the compact crossover's roomy interior, the quality of its materials, solid construction and the 1,000 little conveniences that endear the CR-V to them with each passing day.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that the redesigned 2012 Honda CR-V is not a radical overhaul. In this case, the ride is quieter, fuel economy is up and the exterior design is leaning toward stylish. The cabin materials are still top quality and, in a nod to economic realities, Honda won't raise prices when the 2012 CR-V arrives at dealers in December.
Same Size, Slightly Less Weight
Since the CR-V's size is one of its biggest draws, Honda didn't mess with it. The 2012 model's wheelbase and track are the same as before, and it's still 71.6 inches wide. The new CR-V is an inch shorter from nose to tail (178.3 inches) and has also lost an inch of height (65.1). This reduces headroom by an inch, too, but you still have 40 inches in front (38 with a sunroof) and legroom is unchanged. The cargo bay is slightly larger this year (37.2 cubic feet versus 35.7), but maximum capacity drops from 72.9 cubic feet to 70.9, which puts it slightly behind the Toyota RAV4.
Overall, the 2012 Honda CR-V is closest in size to the RAV4 and the upcoming 2013 Mazda CX-5, while the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage are a little smaller, and the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain and Kia Sorento are a little bigger.
Modest revisions to the unit-body enhance rigidity while reducing weight. Cumulative weight loss ranges from 25 pounds on the 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L (Honda-speak for an EX model with leather) to 80 pounds on the base LX.
Smidge More Horsepower, Better MPG
Less curb weight invariably contributes to better fuel-efficiency, and that's something Honda needed to improve, as last year's CR-V ranked only midpack for mpg among compact sport-utilities.
Honda engineers also went to work on the CR-V's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. A new coating on the aluminum pistons reduces friction, as do new piston rings and revised cylinder liners. The automaker has also transitioned to lower-viscosity 0W20 oil. These measures, along with tweaks to the intake and exhaust systems, have liberated another 5 horsepower and 2 more pound-feet of torque. The 2012 CR-V is now rated at 185 hp at 7,000 rpm and 163 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm.
Last year's five-speed automatic transmission carries over with minor revisions to minimize friction. Gearing is unchanged on all-wheel-drive CR-Vs, but front-drive models feature slightly taller gear ratios, especially on 1st and 2nd gears. All 2012 Honda CR-Vs get a smidge taller final drive (4.44 versus 4.50 previously).
All of the above changes, plus modifications to the electrical system (including a more sophisticated alternator) factor into the 2012 CR-V's higher fuel economy ratings. Front-drive models now earn an EPA rating of 23 city/31 highway/26 combined mpg compared to the previous model's 21/28/24 ratings, while AWD CR-Vs come in at 22/30/25 (versus 21/27/23).
Those numbers might not impress you, but among non-hybrid SUVs, the CR-V ranks second only to the (much smaller) Nissan Juke for fuel economy. Actually, Honda might have achieved even better mpg, but one unintended consequence of fiddling with the gearing was increased susceptibility to knock, so the engineering team had to dial back compression to 10.0:1 — down from 10.5:1 on the 2011 CR-V.
"With the higher final-drive ratio, you have more low-rpm, high-load usage, which makes it easier for the engine temperature to increase," Akio Tonomura, chief engineer for the CR-V, tells us.
Still Not Quick
Our 2012 Honda CR-V AWD EX-L with Navigation takes 9.4 seconds to reach 60 mph (or 9.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and goes through the quarter-mile in 16.8 seconds at 83.4 mph. That's right in line with most other four-cylinder SUVs, and it's a half-second quicker than a 2008 CR-V we tested (10.0-second 0-60, 17.4-second quarter-mile at 79.2 mph). However, the turbocharged VW Tiguan is still about a second quicker than the 2012 CR-V.
Accelerating up to speed on the highway is less frenzied in the new CR-V, as improved sound-deadening results in less ruckus from the engine bay. Of course, the 2.4-liter continues to make its best power up high, so if you don't like the sound of an engine revving, this isn't the SUV for you.
Honda's smooth-shifting five-speed automatic is still better than many other transmissions in this class, but it's not as responsive as the 2013 CX-5's new six-speed automatic, and it doesn't match revs or offer a manual mode. A new Econ mode helps you mind your mpg by providing shallower throttle response to pedal input (along with less energetic cruise control and air-conditioner operation), but unless you're on flat ground, it makes for painfully slow progress.
Previous CR-Vs used a rudimentary all-wheel-drive system that required an actual rotational difference between the front and rear wheels before a pair of hydraulic pumps would act on a clutch to send torque to the rear differential. On the 2012 CR-V, you still have one hydraulic pump to operate the clutch, but now it's driven by an electric motor that's hooked up to the ECU, so you can get torque to the rear wheels before the front wheels even start slipping. The revised AWD system is 6 pounds lighter to boot.
Our biggest complaint about earlier Honda CR-Vs was the excessive road noise. On the flip side, the CR-V excelled in the handling department thanks to its unexpected ability to communicate with its driver. The 2012 Honda CR-V is still solid in this regard, but it's clear Honda wanted to tune it for more compliance and reduced road noise.
The suspension still consists of struts in front and a multilink rear, but Honda says it's using higher-capacity dampers, and the overall calibration provides more isolation on rutted freeways. It doesn't feel quite as in touch with the road as last year's model, but if you're transporting an infant, you'll prefer the new setup, as it's much quieter overall.
Similarly, the steering, which now uses electric power assist, offers lighter effort levels but slightly less feel than before. The ratio is also slower at 16.7:1 compared with 15.7 previously. The brakes are unchanged, and all EX models continue to wear 225/65R17 tires, though they're Continentals instead of the familiar Bridgestones.
At the test track, our 2012 CR-V tester went through the slalom at 63.1 mph, circled the skid pad at 0.76g and stopped from 60 mph in 120 feet — all virtually identical to the 2008 CR-V we tested.
How Is It on the Inside?
On the whole, the 2012 Honda CR-V's cabin is undoubtedly an improvement over last year. The dash has a more graceful design, the gauges are beautiful and you can finally get some decent electronics in the LX model. All 2012 CR-Vs come with a back-up camera, a USB input, Bluetooth, Pandora integration (if you have the app on your phone) and SMS text-to-speech capability for MAP-enabled phones. There's no need to spring for the EX-L model anymore, unless you want factory navigation or an old-school DVD rear entertainment system.
Beyond that, there are changes that may thrill or annoy you depending on your priorities. The ergonomics, for example, are as straightforward as before with the exception of the i-MID display, which mimics a smartphone interface but isn't very intuitive. In addition, the open floor space in previous CR-Vs is history, as Honda has installed a full front console with additional storage compartments.
In back, the 60/40 rear seats no longer adjust fore and aft — historically a signature convenience in the Honda CR-V. The reason for the change is a new, spring-loaded, auto-fold feature. Pull a couple levers in the cargo bay and the rear seat bottoms fold up while the seatbacks fold down, all without you physically exerting yourself. In their new fixed position, the rear seats offer as much legroom as the old ones did in their rearmost position. As we said, some will like the added convenience, but others might loathe the loss of adjustability.
There are more other questionable changes in the cargo bay. Instead of the sturdy cargo shelf there's now a conventional vinyl cargo cover. And the chunky handle that made it so easy to close the liftgate has been replaced by a finger slot. Care to guess which one was easier to use?
Still a Best Seller?
For the moment, the 2012 Honda CR-V is one of the best four-cylinder models in the compact SUV class. With this redesign, Honda has addressed its middling fuel economy and noticeable road noise while preserving the packaging owners like and the level of quality they expect.
We wish Honda had done more to address the sluggish acceleration, but that's the price you pay for better mileage. The minor changes to the seats and cargo area are slightly annoying, but they may prove less so with time.
The biggest worry for Honda at this point is the new competition on the horizon. The 2013 Ford Escape features a choice of three different four-cylinder engines, while the Mazda CX-5 will eventually offer a diesel four-cylinder that will likely deliver exceptional mileage.
Then again, the CR-V has never been the most powerful compact SUV or the most unique. Since the beginning it's been nothing but basic transportation that gets the job done. Not much has changed, and given its sales numbers over the years that may not be a bad thing at all.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.