Honda has had to take a couple of mulligans lately. When the ninth-gen 2012 Civic launch fizzled, the car got a do-over for '14, bringing much-needed styling and powertrain upgrades. Similarly, the fourth-gen 2012 CR-V missed the small-overlap crash-test boat, earning a "marginal" rating that nixed its chances at the coveted Top Safety Pick ranking. It also drew criticism for being less fun to drive than its rivals, due in part to its quaint old five-speed automatic. The fix: a 2015 reboot, and a second chance. We're open-minded about second chances -- mid-cycle fixes earned the 2010 Fusion our Car of the Year calipers -- so let's see how Honda's redemption-edition CR-V stacks up against the criteria.
See the SUV of the Year contenders, finalists and how they fared.
Advancement in DesignIn nine pages of compiled notes from nine judges, the few references to the CR-V's exterior design ranged from MacKenzie's "Not the most beautiful or innovative C-segment SUV design, but not the worst, either," to Evans' "Not a big fan of the latest styling updates." Then again, design was low on the priority list this time around for a vehicle that continually outsells its rivals to rank as the best-selling entry CUV ever. And at least nobody reviled it, as some did the chrome-beaked Cherokee. The interior design is equally staid, but its ergonomics generally drew praise, except for the infotainment system, which was universally reviled for its lack of knobs, unintuitive function, and graphics that don't match those on the other various screens. Our youngest judge, Seabaugh, reckoned that his peers would liken the difference between the CR-V and Jeep systems to that of "an old T-Mobile Sidekick and an iPhone 6." It does boast a segment-first HDMI input, but none of us can imagine wanting to sit in a parked CR-V and watch a movie on a dash screen that's smaller than an iPad.
Engineering ExcellenceAh, now here's a criterion Honda can sink its teeth into. Powertrain revisions tasked with improving the fun quotient include a new "Earth Dreams" 2.4-liter engine that gets direct injection and a commensurate compression bump from 10.0:1 to 11.1:1, along with a new, lighter die-cast aluminum block (with the same bore and stroke) and myriad friction reductions. Horsepower still peaks at 185, but does so 600 rpm earlier (at 6400), with torque jumping from 163 lb-ft at 4400 rpm to 181 lb-ft at 3900 rpm.
That engine is hooked to a continuously variable automatic much like the Civic's, about which we've sung nothing but hosannas. This unit employs a torque converter and a "G-design Shift Logic" strategy that combine to feel completely "normal" in gentle everyday driving -- no rubber-bandiness. But nail the gas to pass and the trans delivers a snappy downshift to a ratio near the power peak. "CVT is very good, especially in Sport mode -- keeps revs in the sweet spot and doesn't fake shift like Outback and Rogue," noted Kiino. This new setup shaves 0.6 second off our last AWD automatic CR-V's 0-60 time, at 8.5 seconds. That's still mid-pack in the class, but accompanied by that trademark Honda engine wail, it feels downright sporty. Lieberman welcomed Honda's "return to form as a company known for making some of the best engines in the business."
The chassis also underwent a thorough rethink with a new front subframe and lower control arms, revised spring and damper rates all around, and new bushings, anti-roll bars, and geometry (a half-degree less camber and 0.6-inch wider track front and rear). The steering ratio tightens from 16.7:1 to 15.6:1. Seabaugh, frustrated with the last CR-V, enthused, "This feels like a Honda should, with light steering, great feedback, and competent handling chops. It's way more fun than any compact crossover ought to be." Evans concurred: "You can kind of fling it around like a Fiesta ST. It's fun in that way." And Kiino complimented the ride/handling trade-off, noting that "it feels planted but never harsh."
Performance of Intended FunctionThe entry CUV's job is easily defined: help a small family haul its gear anywhere with ease and confidence in any weather. Nobody expects these CUVs to scale the Rubicon, and our CR-V's aggressive tire treads and on-demand AWD handled our steep, silty gravel hill with minimal fuss. Like its little brother, the Fit, the CR-V boasts savvy packaging. "The second-row legroom and load space are excellent in relation to the vehicle's footprint," MacKenzie noted. Indeed, the CR-V's ratio of interior to exterior space tops those of the RAV4, Forester, Escape, Rogue, and CX-5. But more important than sheer size is the ease with which that space is utilized. Expanding the cargo hold from 35.3 to 70.9 cubic feet is as easy as pulling two levers in the cargo hold, setting in motion a purely mechanical series of flips and folds of the rear seatbacks to render a nearly flat (and low) load floor. There are bag hooks, tie-downs, and a small net in back, and the side doors open nearly 90 degrees for easy access. On the negative side, there are no power outlets of any type in the rear seat or cargo areas; the optional power tailgate is driven by a motor that occupies a giant goiter on the driver's side D-pillar (the strut mounted screw jacks are state-of-the-art); and as Evans noted, "There's a lot of wind and road noise on the freeway -- louder than most of the other vehicles here."
EfficiencyThe switch to direct injection and a continuously variable transmission with a 33 percent broader ratio range than the old five-speed should boost fuel efficiency pretty notably, and indeed the combined 26/33 mpg EPA city/hwy figures represent an improvement of about 12 percent. But our Real MPG results are disappointingly similar to those of our last CR-V automatic with AWD: 20.6 city/28.7 highway/23.6 combined mpg, compared with last year's 20.5/28.9/23.6 (its EPA ratings were 22/30/25), so it's unclear whether you'll realize all that improvement. We eagerly await a chance to test out another not-so-early-build example.
SafetyHere again, there's been no official IIHS testing to report, but we're told the engineers reinforced the CR-V's occupant compartment with additional hot-stamped high-strength steel, and modified the engine compartment crash structure to better absorb the energy in small-offset crashes. Presuming their computer simulations have accurately predicted what IIHS will measure soon, the Top Safety Pick hurdle should be cleared. The available Honda Sense suite of camera/radar-based safety gear, including Collision Mitigating Braking Support, Lane Departure Warning, Lane-Keeping Assist System, and adaptive cruise control, are the "plus" cherry on top. LKAS had every editor raving. "An amazing piece of technology for the segment," said Seabaugh. "The steering straightens you out; it doesn't send you ping-ponging down the road," concurred Loh. The LaneWatch camera we've seen on Odyssey, Accord, and Civic arrives here too, displaying a blind-spot view of the right side of the car whenever that turn signal is on. LaneWatch comes with the EX trim level, but you have to pop for the new top-level Touring trim ($32,350-$33,600) to get Honda Sense goodies.
ValueWhatever you spend on a CR-V, IntelliChoice reckons you're getting a pretty good deal. It rates the current car Excellent in terms of cost of ownership, with five-year total operating costs averaging $32K-$35K -- $4300-$4500 less than the class average. Honda's legendary resale value is largely responsible. Comparing the current CR-V's costs with the averages in our August 2013 Big Test of a similarly equipped Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4, the Honda depreciates 13 percent less, with maintenance, repair, and insurance costs averaging 10 percent less.
ConclusionSome years, a vehicle wins our calipers almost unanimously. This year our jury entered the final discussion split almost down the middle. After two hours of contentious debate, the CR-V's stellar value, engineering, and safety features combined with the cheerful way it performs its intended functions earned Honda the win. Arguments such as these tipped the balance: "The CR-V shows you don't have to lose the fun factor when buying something economical," said Lago. "A careful rework of a best-seller, executed with typical Honda thoughtfulness," echoed MacKenzie. Score another win for redemption.
Additional 2015 Honda CR-V photos from the automaker: