Review 2003 Honda CR-V EX review
SEE ALSO: Honda Buyer's Guide
2003 Honda CR-V EX Base price: $22,300 Price as tested: $22,740 EPA mileage: 22 city/26 highway By Des Toups Toyota may have invented the cute-ute as we know it, but Honda invented the cute-ute as we love it: tidy, car-based, inexpensive -- and something you didn't have to be a sorority sister to drive. Gimmick-free styling and a roomy, inventive interior made the CR-V a class leader for the sensible-shoes demographic since its 1997 debut. Until, that is, Ford figured out the formula with the Escape and upped the ante with a zippy 200-horsepower V-6. Even sensible types, it seems, crave the ability to pass on two-lane roads, an act that sorely exposed the CR-V's biggest shortcoming: no grunt. For 2003, Honda addresses the CR-V's most glaring fault and delivers more of the qualities that made it a hit in the first place. The second-generation CR-V is safer, sturdier, more powerful and more comfortable, again wrapped in sheetmetal that teeters between plain and homely. The new CR-V reclaims the standard for clever packaging. Take the interior. The CR-V has always been a much larger vehicle than it appears to be, closer in size to a Jeep Grand Cherokee than to a Toyota RAV4. It's only an inch or so longer for 2003, but it's a crucial 1.5 inches wider, giving the Honda five extra cubic feet of cargo room, a broad-shouldered feel and a inch or two extra in most directions over even its roomiest competitors. The CR-V's new interior builds on irresistible ingenuity of the original. There's still a picnic table underneath the load floor, but the glass in the rear hatch now opens separately. The center console table still folds away neatly to allow front-seat passengers to climb into the rear, minivan-style, but the rear seats now can slide forward six inches and recline independently. The driver's position remains insistently upright, but the angle of the steering wheel is far less buslike than before. The redesigned dashboard features a center stack that delivers, from the top, the stereo (still no steering-wheel controls, though), a storage cubby, simple ventilation controls and another storage cubby, where you'll find the sole piece of flimsy plastic in the CR-V interior. There's no brushed-aluminum finish, but you'll find a mild bit of trendiness in the automatic gearshift lever and the pistol-grip handbrake, both of which sprout oddly from the dashboard rather than from the steering column and floor. A class-leading complement of safety features -- antilock brakes and side airbags are standard on the uplevel EX -- is backed by five-star collision safety ratings. Less a safety issue than a money issue is the CR-V's poor bumper-basher performance. Its door-mounted spare tire takes the brunt of any impact, virtually guaranteeing that any parking-lot mishap will deform the hatch and require a costly repair. New this year is a larger four-cylinder engine, which offers an additional 14 horsepower over last year and a vital third more torque, the muscle that actually moves the car. Peak power arrives at just 3,600 rpm, down from 4,500 rpm in last year's CR-V, meaning the engine simply doesn't have to be wound as tight to deliver the same result. This 160-horsepower 2.4 liter is the same engine that powers the new Accord. Though other cute-utes offer the option of even more torquey V-6 engines, more able to cope with the kind of loads these cars carry, the CR-V rarely feels underpowered, cruising merrily up mountain passes at 80 mph. Toddling off to Kmart, you'll never miss those two extra cylinders. But with an automatic transmission and a full load of people and cargo, the Honda feels distinctly less spritely than a Ford Escape. Towing capacity has risen along with horsepower, too; now the CR-V is rated for 1,500 pounds, 500 more than in 2001 but still less than half of what a V-6 Escape can haul. The flip side of the Honda's newfound power is a greater appetite for gasoline. Though EPA ratings have actually risen slightly, to 22 city/26 highway, we saw less than 20 mpg in mild-mannered commuting. The last previous-generation CR-V we drove returned mileage about 10 percent better. Still, only Toyota's tiny RAV4 is likely to better even our unremarkable figure. Anyone interested in a cheap commute is still better off in a Civic. Horsepower is routed through a redesigned four-speed automatic, whose lever now sprouts oddly from the dashboard rather than the steering column. The extra ponies beneath the hood and a feature Honda calls Grade Logic Control mean the tranny has far less shifting to do this year. On long passes, the transmission holds a lower gear rather than kicking annoyingly into fourth and back out again. Around town, more torque means the transmission isn't constantly shifting in search of power. The result makes the CR-V feel more mature, more relaxed and more expensive. Carried over is Honda’s Real Time all-wheel-drive, which sends power to the rear tires once the fronts begin to slip. A little wheelspin is a good thing -- it lets a driver know the road is slick – but there’s simply not enough rubber here. Even modest acceleration on a wet road lights up the tires, with the whole car lurching as Real Time kicks some power to the rear wheels. Torque steer -- that tugging on the steering wheel as you accelerate -- is surprisingly ferocious, given the CR-V’s still-modest power. None of this behavior is especially dangerous; in fact, it discourages aggressive moves of any sort. That’s OK. This is a sensible wagon for sensible people who have nothing to prove, at least not with their car. The fact that a loaded EX won't reach $23,000 is merely a bonus. A feel of top-notch quality, a serene and quiet ride and the versatility to handle people, cargo and the elements make the CR-V the most adult mini-ute on the market. Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.