Honda's new car is just a little bit confusing

This not an SUV. No, really. Ignore the 4WD, the space, the size, the things we're starting to see as eco-criminal. Whatever; it's still a very good car, says John Simister

Price: From £19,000 to £25,000 approx (on sale January)
Engine: 2,204cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 140bhp at 4,000rpm, 251lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 116mph, 0-62mph in 10.3sec, 43.5mpg official average CO2: 173g/km

This is a confusing car. Is it an MPV? A 4x4? Some explanation is needed. Honda's third-generation CR-V (still UK-built) is the SUV that's trying not to be. It tries so hard you wonder why Honda bothers designing a new car embarrassed by its whole reason to be.

But then you realise that Honda's being very clever. On one level, the world is turning against SUVs. On another, many people still love them; the four-wheel drive, the high driving position, the perceived safety advantages. Daft, of course, but plenty of otherwise intelligent people believe it all.

So here's a new SUV which does SUV stuff but doesn't frighten road-users or trumpet all sorts of off-road abilities. From the front, it looks like an estate car's upper half suspended above a modest SUV's underparts. That difference symbolises the gap between polemic and reality in the CR-V's likely damage to the planet, and the other gap between people's notions of what they want from an SUV and the reality of what they do with it. This mutant is a marketing-led reflection of our confused age.

Personally, I don't like the idea of SUV-type 4x4s (as opposed to Audi quattro or Subaru Impreza-type 4x4s, designed for better roadholding) except where they are needed to do things a normal car can't. Honda crows about the CR-V's fuel economy, but the fact remains that it's an SUV with a large frontal area and a weight the far side of a ton and a half, thanks partly to the 4WD system. The CR-V is frugal for a 4x4, with emissions under 200g/km CO2 for the petrol CR-V and 173g/km for the diesel, but a conventional estate or MPV - a Honda Accord or FR-V, for example - would be more economical still.

So we've established that the new CR-V is pointless for most likely buyers, and visually confused (to European eyes, anyway). But is it a good car?

Suspend disbelief, engage objectivity. It is. You're quickly taken with how solid it feels, how refined its ambience and progress. It rides bumps with none of the agitation of some rivals, it's smooth and quiet. There's too much hard plastic in the cabin, but the quality of the mouldings is impeccable.

Wacky handbrakes are a Honda speciality; the CR-V obliges with a strange L-shaped device designed to free up storage space between the front seats, of which there is plenty in a deep box with a power socket and a sliding phone tray. Other niceties include front-seat armrests, a giant clock in the sat-nav screen when the navigation is off, and a high-mounted gear lever.

Further back in the cabin we find more examples of the CR-V's MPV-wannabe status. The rear seats double-fold, they slide, they recline. There's a clever luggage cover from which retractable blinds emerge both fore and aft, to attach to the rear seats and by the tailgate (a conventionally opening hatch). The boot has a false floor that can be positioned about five-eighths of the way up the boot for an extra load-carrying layer.

But we were driving... I'm in the i-CDTi turbodiesel version, with 2.2 litres, 140bhp and 251lb ft of torque - lesser figures than the new Freelander TD4, but adequate. The petrol 2.0 has 150bhp, 140lb ft of torque and fractionally better outright pace to compensate for worse economy and the need to work the engine harder. The diesel now has an extra orifice in its high-pressure common-rail fuel supply, smoothing the pressure fluctuations to give a quieter, less "dieselly" pick-up from idle.

Honda wanted to make the CR-V feel like a good saloon or estate car to drive and - against most known laws of physics - it has succeeded. The steering is very positive for a 4x4, but without the exaggerated initial response of a Freelander. Like its British-badged rival, the CR-V feels unexpectedly composed and agile, threading bends with no unseemly leaning, and of course there's that lofty driving position to help you see ahead. This is genuinely useful.

More so, probably, than the four-wheel-drive system. In our modern, timid age, there are those who value the security engendered by four driven wheels. But most people don't need it and will never use it.

The CR-V's so-called Real Time 4WD system sends power to the front wheels most of the time but diverts it rearwards when it senses slithering at the front. Many rivals control this electronically, but the CR-V's system is mechanical, controlled by hydraulic pumps positioned each side of the clutch. It's simple and rather clever, although the CR-V will never match a Freelander off-road.

So; the 4x4 that thinks it might be an MPV but isn't sure. It comes in SE, ES and EX trim, with the usual build-up of equipment, including (on the EX) a panoramic roof and a rear parking camera. That "grade", as the marketeers call it, can also be had with adaptive cruise control and a device able to brake automatically if it senses an inattentive driver is about to have a collision. Honda expects its new car to achieve the maximum score in the Euro NCAP pedestrian safety test.

Do you still hate SUVs? I entirely understand if you do, but if minds are to be opened and reality addressed, the Honda CR-V is a good place to start.

The rivals

Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDi: From £16,495

Excellent-value compact 4x4: looks good, satisfying to drive, makes you question the need for anything more showy.

Land Rover Freelander 2 TD4: From £20,935

All-new Freelander is bigger, better made and very capable, but expensive when fitted with all the options it needs.

Toyota RAV4 2.2 D-4D T140P: From £20,315

A faux-US style glitzy 4x4 with limited off-road ability and fidgety ride, but well-equipped. This diesel version is lively.

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