Honda CR-V - First Drive

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It demonstrates steady improvement just about as well as anything else on the road

Honda CR-V 2.2 i-DTEC
Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-charged diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual gearbox
Power: 150 PS at 4,000 rpm
Torque: 350 Nm at 2,000 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 50.4 mpg
CO2 emissions: 149g/km
Top speed: 118mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 9.7 seconds
Price: Not yet announced – see text

In the motor industry, it’s the big breakthroughs that grab all the attention – and there have been a lot of those in the last few years. Electric cars like the Nissan Leaf that provide smooth, silent performance, dramatically downsized engines like Ford’s tiny three-cylinder 1.0-litre EcoBoost power unit, plug-in and diesel hybrids, and a big switch to aluminium bodywork for the next Range Rover which will save a whopping 420kg are just a few of the better-known examples. But most progress isn’t like that.

Alongside the stars, lots of cars develop according to the same steady beat as they always did; with far less in the way of breakthroughs but a lot of incremental improvement– cars that are renewed every six or seven years, emerging five to ten per cent better each time, a process that is repeated again and again. Look out for the imminent arrival of the seventh-generation version of the fabulously successful Volkswagen Golf if you want evidence of how well that can work.

The latest Honda CR-V, due to arrive in UK showrooms by the end of next month and the fourth car to carry the name, is another case in point. In terms of appearance, it represents an evolution of the previous version – slightly more handsome and a little more modern - and is a useful bit better in just about every way. The new car is very slightly lower and shorter than the old, but preserves its interior space, with the the hip-point for rear passengers lowered by 38mm in order to free up headroom. The range of adjustment for the steering wheel increases by 10mm to 40mm. The tailgate load lip is lowered by 25mm and the luggage area is 140mm longer and maximum load space, at 1648 litres, is up by 147 litres on the previous model. Aerodynamic drag is improved by 6.5 per cent and a flatter under-body eases airflow beneath the car, while cabin noise is reduced by 3dB. There are petrol and diesel engines – with capacities of 2.0 and 2.2 litres respectively, the same as in the old car - but tweaks mean that the petrol has five more horsepower and average emissions are down by twelve per cent. The torsional rigidity of the body is improved by nine per cent. And so it goes on.

But the cumulative effect of incremental change on such a broad front should not be underestimated. The new CR-V may not look that different to the previous car but it has moved on an awful lot compared with the first-generation model that was introduced in 1996. And as well as making a car better, a few well-chosen tweaks can greatly expand its market as well. Honda reckons that the old CR-V only covered 40% of the segment for SUVs of this size but that the new one will achieve coverage of 78%. The core of the range – 4x4 models with 2.0 litre petrol or 2.2-litre diesel engines – but a new front-wheel drive only petrol model will extend the range downwards a little to an entry price, still to be confirmed, of about £19,000, while more fancily trimmed versions will take it to about £33,000 at the top. That £19,000 starting price will, I suspect, cause a lot of buyers to look at the CR-V for the first time as an alternative to the Hyundai iX35 and Kia Sportage – both very good cars but models that would probably have previously been thought of as a notch below the CR-V in the market.

Start driving and using this car, and the cumulative effect of all that honing and relentless gradual improvement across a broad front becomes clear. The CR-V is an exceptionally refined machine; everything works and everything fits. Like a good Volvo, it might not look like much, but the depth of its qualities becomes clear as you rack up the miles and the absence of those annoyances that emerge over time in less well designed cars starts to make you feel good about the thing.

The 2.2 diesel engine is pretty smooth and quiet but Honda badly needs a smaller diesel as well – there’s one on the way, a 1.6, which I suspect will make its way into the CR-V, perhaps with front-wheel, rather than four-wheel drive. For the time being, the two-wheel drive drivetrain is only available with the 2.0-litre petrol engine. I only had the chance to drive this version of the CR-V for a comparatively short distance in town. Normally aspirated smallish petrol engines tend not to do very well in SUVs, where the torque of a good diesel really tells, but this one seemed pretty good for low-speed urban work, although I can’t vouch for its abilities in open road driving or with a big load on board. The 4x4 diesel is available with either manual or automatic transmissions. The manual is probably the one to go for; the automatic, a five-speeder, works fairly well but rivals are offering more interesting dual-clutch transmissions or their conventional automatics have more ratios.

Honda, an engineering-led company, is capable of big leaps too – you only have to look at its FC-X Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell car for evidence of that – but the CR-V shows the power of steady improvement just about as well as anything else on the road. Five million sold since the first one went on sale, fiercely loyal owners and a list of prizes and awards as long as that won by any other car are proof of that.

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