Honda CR-V 2.0 iVTEC EX review

4 out of 5
£21,3 95 (starting price) £28,900 (CR-V EX starting from) £29,400 (as tested)

For

Brilliant versatility, nice place to sit, all the kit you’ll want – at no extra cost

Against

Petrol engine needs working hard, looks a little boxy and unappealing, ride could be more settled.

Everyone loves to hate an SUV, don’t they? Yet, as our recent review of the VW Touareg attests, even those of us who hate the breed can’t help but be won over and see why they’re so popular with modern families, after a week behind the wheel.

And on the week of the supposed Mayan apocalypse, and as pre-Christmas Britain attempted to bail itself out of the latest bout of flooding, what could make you feel more warm, secure and invincible than a four-wheel drive SUV from a brand that’s got a reputation for making cars that just never, ever, go wrong?

So although a Honda CR-V might not top your list of sexy automotive forms of transport, the popularity of the previous model is testimony to the inherent usefulness of this car and its popularity with families. Given that it had just undergone a major redesign, we thought we’d put it through a review to find out if Honda had dared meddle with the previous model’s surefire success recipe.

Design

First impressions aren’t exactly promising. Gone is the previous model’s “had all its teeth knocked out” front grille graphic for a much more modern integrated lamp/grille design, but otherwise the CR-V seems to have taken a little bit of a step backward, becoming more boxy and like an estate car on stilts, while most of its rivals have moved towards a "tall hatchback" crossover format, in an effort to eschew some of that hated SUV image.

It’s not bad per-se, and admittedly our press car’s white paintwork did it no favours, but compared to slinky SUVs such as Range Rover’s Evoque, Audi’s Q5 and even Nissan’s Qashqai, the CR-V’s appearance does little for us.

Open the door, and things improve. Granted, if you’re used to Audi’s slush-moulded plastic-fest interiors, there are going to be a few too many hard (read cheap-feeling) surfaces for comfort. But the design layout is inherently logical and not without appeal.

What’s more, get behind the wheel, in the back or open the boot and you start to see Honda’s engineering heritage shining through, and understand how it makes for a simply better car.

From the driver’s seat, the scuttle - the point at which the bottom of the windscreen meets the top of the bonnet - is appreciably lower than any competitor, which is a benefit of super-compact powertrain beneath the bonnet. This means you can simply see more, including the end of the bonnet - a real rarity in cars these days - and one that makes the CR-V easier to park.

The gearstick is mounted on the dash, so you get an enormous centre console between driver and passenger that will swallow three 1-litre sized water bottles, and still also leaves space for a bin for keys, phones etc.

In the back, you’ve a flat floor and three proper seats – including three-across isofix points for child seats, which gives the CR-V a massive advantage over its competitors, to those with larger families.

Tech

This is Honda’s strength, and the reason it's well worth considering. At 30-grand, give-or-take five hundred quid, this top of the line "EX" model CR-V poses a tricky question. In effect, your choice at this price, is to squeeze yourself (financially) into a bottom-of-the-range premium-badged car from BMW, Audi or Land/Range Rover or buy a "bells and whistles" top of the range car for the same price, from a "non-premium" brand like Honda.

So whereas most of the premium brands would ask you to pay extra for (deep breath) a panoramic roof; cruise control; parking sensors front and rear (including a camera); HD-based navigation; DAB radio; video/DVD/MP3/Bluetooth audio playback; heated, electrically adjustable leather seats; keyless access and an electric opening tailgate, this EX model CR-V nets you all of those as standard. In fact, the only option that came on our test car was the pearlescent white paint, which we’d suggest you forgo.

Perhaps better still, it all worked seamlessly and without any idiosyncrasies – as you might expect from a Honda. We loved the attention to detail, such as the electrically opening tailgate being perfectly happy to be lifted and pulled closed manually as well as electrically. Normally, electric-powered tailgates freak out and freeze if you try to "help" them. And that the rear seats fold via the tug of one lever inside the boot while doing a fun little dance: folding their headrests in, flipping up the squab and dropping the backrest in one single movement. This basically turns the CR-V into a van, one we squeezed an 8ft Christmas tree into. Oh, and there’s stop/start functionality and an economy button too, in an effort to rein-in any consumption excess.

Many of these are the kind of gadgets you might suggest you don’t need and which (pay attention other manufacturers), when done wrong, can irritate you day to day when you live with a car. But while on the CR-V they’re not executed with quite the premium, soft-touch, damped quality of an Audi, they do all work as expected, and tend to come in handy when you’ve an armful of shopping or child – we can’t remember the last time a car soothed us more and irritated us less than the CR-V.

On top of this, because it’s a Honda, you just know that none of it is going to break for the next 15 years. It’s the kind of thing the company has built its reputation on, and which gives you – the owner – a reassuring, comforting sense – especially if it’s going to be your family inside most of the time.

Driving

No one buys an SUV and expects it to drive like a sport cars, but the number of massive-wheeled, S-Line suspensioned Audi SUVs out there suggests that people are more than happy to put up with a hard ride to make their SUV look – and presumably drive – more sportily.

The CR-V doesn’t really make any pretence at sporty, but its ride isn’t as cushioned as we’d like. It’s ability to deal with speed humps, pot holes and big road deflections is fine, but the secondary ride never truly settles down, jittering and letting you know everything that’s happening beneath you. Some will like this, as it could be construed as sportiness, but we’d trade it for a bit more comfort.

We highlight this area, as otherwise – as in the tech area – the CR-V is a really nice place to spend several hours , and is expertly judged for its market. If you’re not expecting sports car performance, it should suit you fine. The handling is safe and secure – with the added back-up of four-wheel drive when you need it. The gearshift is one of those beautifully precise jobs that Honda’s famous for, and it steers and handles true and straight – it’s a good companion on a windy, rainy motorway for instance.

Our car came with Honda’s 2.0 VTEC petrol engine. In true Honda petrol-engine fashion, it likes revs to really get moving and given it’s pushing quite a lot of car around without the aid of a turbocharger, you’ll need to work it hard if you want to make decent progress. Most will therefore choose the diesel, which we’d suggest will suit the CR-V’s character better, and feel faster in most given driving situations.

We wanted to try the petrol though, as we continue to note that diesel costs more at the pumps and incurs a company car tax penalty. The diesel models also cost more to buy – so unless you’re driving a lot of miles each year, the petrol may make more financial sense. If you’re not too fussed about the cost, we’d suggest you try both before buying, but don’t write off the petrol. In a mix of one third town driving and two-thirds high-speed motorway run, in our hands it returned a real-world 30mpg, whereas we’d expect the diesel to return 36-40 in the same conditions. Swings, roundabouts, etc.

Verdict

In the world of automotive journalism, it’s easy to lose site of the real world compromise every one of us goes through, balancing cost, practical need, desire and a whole gambit of other things when choosing a car.

It’s easy to be seduced by the premium German names too, the allure of that badge and the image it projects to your neighbours is something many people are after, judging by how many of them there are on the road. And when premium German cars come loaded with £15,000-worth of extras in the case of many of the press cars they lend us, it’s even easier to be seduced. But while mainstream brands have struggled because everyone decided they wanted that premium badge, cars like the Honda CR-V have continued to enjoy success, because it’s so good at covering all the bases we need to cover when deciding what car to "compromise" on, and by providing such practical, reliable family transport.

Unsurprisingly, the new CR-V doesn’t mess with that formula. In fact it improves on it – you can get even more stuff in the new one, do things like disable the passenger airbag to fit a rear-facing baby seat if you like, and it does – yes – feel more premium. It might not be stand-out, sexy transport, but we can give it no greater compliment that to say that, when this particular journalist looks for a new family car in about a year’s time, the CR-V will be right near the very top of the list.

When it comes to reliable, practical family transport, this is a winner from Honda. If you’re in the market for something similar, we suggest it ought to be on your list, too.