Mountain Wheels: Honda’s re-imagined CR-V grows on you |

Mountain Wheels: Honda’s re-imagined CR-V grows on you

Special to the Daily 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L 2WD

You might not associate the chunky and rugged, seemingly I-70-in-a-blizzard-ready Honda CR-V with the Washington D.C. suburbs but … it turns out those busy and upwardly mobile folks seem to love the older models of Honda’s popular small SUV (especially the third-generation version, last refreshed in 2007).

As a result, my travels there this week in the 2012 version of the Comfortable Runabout Vehicle (yep, that’s what the letters stand for) elicited a bit of interest. And also demonstrated that the gradually evolving CR-V, now in its fourth generation since debuting in the U.S. in 1997, is a well-appointed vehicle that has certainly improved over the years.

You can fit five people in adequate traveling comfort, and there’s a pretty serious amount of storage, as well.

Output from the new 2.4-liter four-cylinder is also up 5 horsepower to 185 total (and 163 lb.-ft. of torque), though I noted that even with a sea-level-friendly 2WD model, the setup feels a little austere – and made me wonder how you’d feel hauling along at high altitude.

Matched to a five-speed automatic, that powertrain occasionally rubbed me the wrong way, as it opted to defer into a slightly groaning-toned lower gear while maintaining those irksome 55 MPH East Coast speed limits at around 1,600 RPM – requiring a pretty healthy stomp to get a kickdown and more power.

I determined that part of this relates to the Honda’s more prominent Eco Mode (there’s a green button on the left side of the dash and plenty of stickers on the outside of the cabin): When activated, throttle response is muted for fuel savings.

Like the Civic I drove last year, the CR-V also features Eco-Assist on its instrument panel. Drive in a civil and efficient manner and the edges of the instruments begin to glow in a brilliant green mode, or they don’t if you don’t.

Overall, I only generated 20.7 mpg in the process, mostly urban driving: Honda’s window sticker suggests the little SUV is rated at 23 city and 31 highway. Real-time all-wheel drive is available for those of us at altitude. The 3,400-pound vehicle will also tow up to 1,500 pounds.

Ride is pleasant on standard 17-inch wheels, and electric power steering makes for easy handling, with a marginally brittle ride over broken pavement, but a comfortable feel.

Big improvements are the CR-V’s reinvented design and a lowered seating and cargo height, giving it a much more car-like ride. The whole package is indeed a good looker, and the slightly lowered roof height shows off design influences that make the Honda look a bit more upscale like a Volvo XC-70 than the boxy bombs of the old days.

I especially liked a new convex mirror added to the driver’s side mirror, a little disorienting at first but offering much improved blind-spot visibility. There’s also a multi-angle rear backing camera.

Under the CR-V’s nose and the slightly arched hood is an angled overhang that makes it look like one of those intensely aftermarket-adapted, offroad-oriented old Land Rover Discoveries – I suspect it’s a moderately capable soft-roader as a result.

Most prominent are the beautifully designed, upright rear brakelamps; the rear windows are now sharply arched, and the tail takes on a much broader look.

You get soft but pleasant interior features, highlighted with a strip of glossy marble-style trim under the dash, and bright but simple controls.

Adaptations to load the inevitable groceries and cargo being hauled around in the CR-V are plenitudinous. The rear seats fold very easily, especially when you pop the crank handles in the rear cargo area: Seat bottoms pop forward and the setbacks flop out of the way, allowing you to do so with one hand.

That slightly peculiar rear lift gate (the handle is hidden way down by the bumper, not mid-gate like most other makes) does indeed rise to reveal a lower cargo area height, and with the rear seats dropped, you get 71 cubic feet of storage.

Electronics are easy to use and not overly flashy: a pleasant 160-watt stereo with multiple input options (iPod, Bluetooth streaming audio, XM radio and more) and a small “intelligent multi-informational display” which provides vivid color and can be integrated to incorporate Pandora Internet radio and configured to read out your incoming text messages, for safety.

My EX-L model came outfitted with upright but thoroughly comfortable, leather-appointed seating in front and back, and a roof-mounted DVD entertainment system for the rear passengers – the DVD head unit takes up most of the space in the cavernous center console box between the front seats.

That deep box also means no direct A/C or heat venting to your rear passengers, but the folks I carried around on the weekend said the air flow was fine in the rear.

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