ROAD TEST HONDA CR-V: The ever so slightly butch four by four

A new diesel engine and facelift have transformed this SUV from a feeble adolescent into a confident and capable adult, says John Simister

HONDA CALLS it "The Great British Drive". That's because Honda wants everyone to know that the CR-V is made in the UK. In Swindon, actually. This is very laudable, but gives rise to an interesting twist. CR-Vs are also made in Japan, to satisfy demand from the other side of the world, and they are popular in America, which means that the eastern US gets British CR-Vs (despite the dollar's weakness) and the western US gets Japanese ones. If you live in Oklahoma, it could go either way; in theory, you should not be able to tell the difference.

The US, however, will not get the most significant model in the just- revised range, because it is not comfortable with diesels. This is partly due to lingering prejudice and partly due to the hatred of diesels by vocal environmentalists, who are bringing about needlessly draconian anti- diesel legislation.

In Europe, we are luckier. Honda's i-CTDi engine has already proved itself one of the smoothest and most civilised of diesels, in the Accord, and it's an obvious fitment for the gently-facelifted CR-V. It will soon find its way into the FR-V, Honda's new compact MPV, too. Honda's first diesel engine, its design masterminded by an engineer who professes to hate diesels, has various design features (such as a low compression ratio and a high turbo-boost pressure) to make it feel and sound more like a petrol engine than most rival diesels, although its strong, easy pull from gentle engine speeds is a typical diesel characteristic.

As yet, you cannot have an automatic transmission with this engine, although that may change. So, if you must go for the two-pedal option (pounds 900), you have to accept the 150bhp, 2.0-litre petrol engine but will still save pounds 500 over the cost of a manual diesel. As ever, the extra cost of a diesel means you'll only save money overall if you cover enough miles - more than about 20,000 a year - for the fuel economy to pay you back.

But it's not just about cost. The 2.2-litre, Euro IV, low-emissions diesel better suits the nature of an SUV such as this CR-V; at 140bhp, its power is little less and its torque output is much greater, all the better for towing and for coping with off-road conditions.

Off-roading? Here lies a resolved paradox. Neither the original 1995 CR-V nor the second-generation model of 2002 (the subject of this facelift) was really meant for off-roading, beyond an occasional foray on to grass or gravel. These CR-Vs may have looked like proper 4x4s but a Land Rover Freelander would leave the Hondas floundering on anything other than a road. That said, the equipment was there in the form of an automatic four-wheel-drive system which sent torque to the rear wheels as soon as it detected slippage up front.

There are various ways of achieving such a result; most other carmakers use viscous couplings or electrohydraulic clutches. Honda does it differently, with a pair of hydraulic pumps. One is driven by the back wheels, the other by the propeller shaft, which takes torque to the back wheels and whose rotational speed is directly related to that of the front wheels. When the front and rear wheels are rotating at the same speed, both pumps produce the same hydraulic pressure. But when the front wheels speed up, the pressure difference engages a clutch between the propeller shaft and the rear wheels, enabling the wheels to transmit torque and make the CR- V into a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The problem was that the system could be slow to react, so the CR-V could get bogged down or slither straight ahead on a slippery bend before the rear wheels helped out. Now, the system engages more quickly - within a quarter turn of the front wheels - and the CR-V is transformed into a moderately capable off-roader.

So that's the mechanics. Have you spotted the facelift? Honda, citing customer demand, has made the CR-V (slightly) more rugged-looking, with greater butchness in the bumpers, new headlights with three "projector" units, a two-bar front grille and more obvious wheelarch protectors. The spare wheel, mounted on the tailgate, gets a hard, body-coloured cover as standard, too. Don't fret about this if you're an SUV-hater; the CR-V is the only SUV to score three stars in the EuroNCAP pedestrian safety test.

Inside there's a little more plushness, with soft elbow rests in the doors and handsome, chrome-ringed air-conditioning controls. New rear headrests can be retracted so they overlap the rear seats, which improves the view aft and makes the seats easier to fold because you don't have to take out the headrests first. And finally, a new instrument pack lights up in red and white when you open a door, as it does in the Accord. Its speedometer incorporates a horizontal LCD strip gauge to signal instantaneous fuel consumption.

As before, the tailgate is side-hinged but includes a lift-up rear window for loading in tight spaces. There's a neat fold-down table between the front seats, and the five exterior door handles suit the CR-V well in their chrome-plated chunkiness, even if similar handles on the Accord and FR-V look too, well, bling. An SUV needs a bit of visual overstatement to be convincing.

So I make ready to move off in the 2005 CR-V. But where's the handbrake? Aha! It's cunningly disguised as a vertical dashboard grab-handle, and its angle of action does take a little getting used to. At idle, the engine does sound a little dieselly, albeit well muffled, but on the move it proves serene, smooth and not at all percussive. The six-speed gearbox makes the most of a torque-band narrower, in the diesel way, so it's easy to keep the engine spinning where its impressive 251lb ft of torque is on tap. Honda's figures suggest that the diesel CR-V is faster, more accelerative and more economical than its three main rivals (below left), because the engine is more energetic. I remember the original CR-V being a noisier, cruder mode of travel than the then- new Freelander, but there's no such disparity now.

It rides smoothly and quietly over bumps. It stays quite flat in corners. It does not make you suffer for its height or versatility. But is it actually fun to drive? That would be stretching things too far; it is an SUV, after all, and it has the soft, slow-witted steering normal in the breed, so that inept drivers won't flip it over. But there's a flow to its motion, the brakes (now with bigger discs) are progressive and effective, the gearchange is slick enough, and you get a great view. That view and the engine's ready urge make the CR-V a confident overtaker, and the diesel's torque lets it cope well with a full load of people or chattels.

Previously, I've thought the CR-V a bit feeble, a bit half-hearted. Now, the diffident adolescent has grown into a confident and capable adult. Were I in the market for such a car I'd like something with more personality, but you could do far worse.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: CR-V i-CTDi

Price: pounds 18,600

Engine: 2,204cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, common-rail, turbo diesel, 140bhp at 4,000rpm, 251lb ft at 2,000rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive

Performance: 114mph, 0-60mph in 10.4sec, 42.2mpg official average

CO2: 177g/km

THE RIVALS

LANDROVER FREELANDER 2.0 TD4 5DR pounds 19,200

The grey hairs show through the recent facelift, but the BMW-sourced turbodiesel engine is a smooth and ready performer and no rival copes better with off-road challenges. Looks distinctive, and is entirely British.

NISSAN X-TRAIL 2.2 DCI pounds 18,595

Nissan X-Trail 2.2 dCi: from pounds 18,595. Widely praised for its car-like driving qualities combined with passable off-road ability, the Nissan is nearly as lively as the Honda and looks more the US-flavoured 4x4. That may not be to everyone's taste, of course.

TOYOTA RAVA 2.0 D-4R 5DR pounds 19,745

Curvy styling is unusual in this category and gives the RAV4 a unique look. Roomy, civilised and quite fun to drive, but it's not tough enough or capable enough for real off-road use. That's not really the point here, though.

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