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Review 2003 Honda CR-V EX review

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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 

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.