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4G Honda CR-V - First Drive Impressions

I missed Honda's media drive event for the 9Gen Civic due to a clash in schedules and for a while, it actually looked like I might similarly miss the media drive event for the new 4G CR-V as well, as I had a very busy month in April where the event will be held. Amazingly my luck held out well and Honda actually planned the event on the exact week where my schedule was free. Timing somehow turned out to be near perfect ! So it was with a great relief and elation that I attended the media drive for the new 4G CR-V by Honda Malaysia, held in our beautiful resort island of Langkawi. My thanks to Honda Malaysia for their kind invitation for this event.

Due to a bit of luck, while other journalists were sharing 3 to a unit, I was sharing my unit with only one other person and thus had extended time at the wheels, allowing me to get a good first drive impression of the CR-V. This first drive report is also unique in that it is the first one where I will be using videos captured with my new 720p in-car camcorder to help better explain the driving experience. So now then, let's get right to the point with this new 4G CR-V first drive impressions.

In the cabin

Getting into the driver's seat, the seat adjustment is manual but has all the important adjustments including seat height, while the steering has telescopic adjustment as well. This makes it easy to get a nice comfortable driving position. The cabin generally feels solid and the materials does not look superficially cheap like in the 1.8 Civic.

The gear lever is mounted on the dashboard like previously and is easy to access and operate. Besides the P(ark), R(everse) and N(eutral) position, for forward travel the 5AT has only D(5), 2, 1. There is no S(ports) mode not even a D3 or an L(ow). Gates 1 & 2 are will lock the gearbox into 1st and 2nd gear and is 'gated' requiring the gearknob lever to be pressed to access from D. To get back to D, the lever is not needed but the 'gate' is quite tight so some force is required making it easy to misshift into N when trying to get to D from 2.

The i-MID screen is coloured and of reasonable size but it only has a few screens, mainly for trip/mileage related info and one for audio system info. The CR-V has a reverse camera which is integrated into the i-MID and when the gearbox is engaged into reverse, the i-MID screen will turn into a reverse camera screen. There is no reverse proximity sensor however so we are left with only the screen to make judgement when reversing. In use the reverse camera without reverse sensor might not be to everyone's liking. The camera is quite wide angled and has a moving grid which aligns to the direction of reverse when the steering is turned. But resolution is not very high and combined with the wide angle, smaller object may not be seen clearly.

In a 'reverse slalom' organised by Honda where we had to use only the reverse camera and verbal instructions from the co-driver to reverse the CRV through a winding course (not allowed to stick our heads out of the cabin) marked by red cones on either side, I couldn't see most of the cones clearly until they are very near. So this is something to note as smallish objects like parking poles might not be very clearly visible on the camera. An audible proximity reverse and maybe side and front sensors will be a much welcomed feature in this CR-V. Maybe Honda Malaysia is saving them for the 2.4l upmarket version.

On the road

Getting on the road, the pedals are light and easy to operate. The CR-V's R20 is DBW but the throttle pedal feels quite natural. The CR-V is still rather unique in the Honda line-up in being equipped with twin-pot, floating claw brake calipers. I'll admit they most probably influenced me a fair bit but I do feel the brakes on the new CR-V are very capable and able to slow it down with a very confident planted-on-the-road feel. In use the brake pedal response also feels quite progressive and when pushed hard, has little yield.

The steering is standard Honda EPS feel meaning light and easy to use but little or no feedback. Overall the general feel of the CR-V on normal driving is that of refinement, a new level of drive comfort and finese that brings it a step closer to European marques though still not fully there yet. It encourages relaxed laid back in the seat type driving. Tyre and wind noise have been reduced quite a bit, and a crude measurement using the simple dB Volume APPS on my iPhone gave an average of 65dB at around 100-110kph (60-70mph).

'Power', or how well the new CR-V goes in a straight line is one of the common questions asked. The CR-V is a large, heavy vehicle and the engine is an SOHC i-VTEC 'R20'. Certainly the last 3G CR-V was considered 'slow' by many owners. For this FMC, Honda has improved the R20 and raised its max power to 155ps from 150ps though the basic design of the engine remains the same, using the unusual economy based VTEC system which manipulates throttle butterfly opening with very long intake valve opening duration (full open during intake stroke and into the compression stroke as well) to reduce power loss due to pumping resistance. The dual runner intake manifold is also retained from the previous R20.

Despite this, the new CR-V basically performs pretty much the same in the straight line performance. At low speeds and low-rpms, the CR-V moves off OK in normal driving but do struggle a bit when pushed hard. The 'lethargic' gearbox carries over from the previous generation, a function of its programming to stay in the highest gears as long as possible for fuel economy reasons. As a result, gear downshit is delayed after 'kickdown' and drivers can sometimes be caught in the wrong gear.

During overtaking, the lethargic gearbox can interfere with the new CR-V's ability to overtake other vehicles swiftly but outright straightline power is OK once we get into power band (beyond 3000rpm) and I personally even think the engine note when revving is quite OK. But low end torque of the R20 is still quite weak and couple this to delay from the gearbox before it will respond with a downshift from kickdown, in the test-drive routes, I had to be very pessimistic whenever I overtake a slower vehicle. Other situations hindered by the 'lazy' gearbox, will be when we get into an uphill stretch where the gearbox won't downshift and we have to bury the throttle pedal deep into the floor. Sometimes the R20 will even bog on longer uphill stretches. Another situation is when we are slowing down from speed, e.g. a slow moving vehicle gets on the road ahead of us. The gearbox remains in high gear and if we now want to overtake, the R20 can bog down as well.

The video above is the teaser that I put into our facebook page ( http://www.facebookcom/TOVAsia). This is captured by my in-car camcorder (a basic 720p unit) which I just purchased to complement my reviews. From the 'soundtrack', it can be clearly heard that the gearbox downshifted only after I was well into the overtaking move, actually halfway past the slower moving car, eventhough I was on WOT the moment I swerve out to do the overtaking. Now, consider and imagine the situation where there is an on-coming car. It is not a fatal problem and the careful driver can compensate by being conservative when overtaking, by catering for the extra distance and time needed for the gearbox to downshift.

On the road - Corners

The suspension is the area where most attention has been paid to during the design of this new CR-V. The primary objective is to give the CR-V more sedan-like feel, especially in the driving experience and a ride quality more compatibility with European marques. Consequently, handling has been improved as well.

In this area, I can report much success by Honda's engineers, at least from the impressions from the media drive. The new CR-V rides quite well at speeds of up to 90+kph, soaking up road surface imperfections very well and offering a pliant comfortable ride. It is only after we reached 100kph and above that the new CR-V falters a little, now tracking the road surface unevenness a bit too closely. As a result, the CR-V pitches about a little on the less than perfectly flat rural countryside roads. It also rolls a little bit too much on hard cornering but despite this, handling is really quite good. But the lazy' gearbox sometimes hinders high-speed driving over windy roads, and we can be caught in the wrong (too high) gear. The CR-V really needs a manual override option if we want to drive it at any sort of speed over windy roads.

The test-drive route was very nice and includes a mixture of straight and windy countryside roads though no highway. However, most of the windy road section are through woods and thus the roads are lined with trees and bushes making the corners mostly blind. Thus I wasn't willing to test the limits of the CR-V during the main test-drive event, due to unfamiliarity with the route - we go through it only once and relied on the GPS for directions.

Bearing this in mind, when I pushed the CR-V on winding countryside roads, it performed quite well. VSA has been tuned to be conservative in this new CR-V and it is effective and does its job very well. It prevents any form of over-indulging when powering out of turns. So slow-in/fast-out will never get into over-speed condition - I could not get the tyres to screech loudly no matter how hard I tried, even when I manually locked the gearbox into 2nd or 1st. VSA reduces power output way before the tyres loses traction. Eventually I got into one situation where the tyres screeched softly and that was when I entered a 'U corner' at 'over-speed' (too high speed) mode but even that was still only very mild as VSA quickly automatically reduced speed.

Fortunately Honda thoughtfully arranged some extra events for us on the 2nd day and one of them was a mini gymkhana where we could test the CR-V's cornering at its limits. This mini-course was in the form of a U corner set up in the middle of an empty carpark and gave us a chance to test the 4G CRV at the limits on a tight turn safely. As I lined up the CR-V at the 'start line', the event organizer told me to get up to 50kph before turning into the corner meaning they had already tested the CR-V's limit would be exceeded at this speed.

Unfortunately this course shows the CR-V oversteers quite a lot when pushed hard beyond its limit. As the CRV tracks the U corner, it started to oversteer. On 1st go, with VSA off, the CR-V quickly goes into strong understeer and the front plows outwards to the left (it was a right turn). As the organizer thoughtfully laid in a lot of run-off at the corner exit, I tried powering through the understeer, wondering if the slipping front wheels might cause the RT-4WD viscous coupler to transfer enough power from the front wheels to the back to push the CRV back into the cornering line if I maintain WOT. But it did not and when the front threatens to plow into the cones, I lifted off the throttle and the CRV quickly settles back into the cornering line. There was no unstability from the rear at all.

On the 2nd pass, we had VSA on and as expected the CR-V more or less sailed through the corner with little drama, VSA quickly reducing cornering speed such that no correction was needed to either the steering wheel nor the throttle - I was at WOT all the way. The video above was captured by my co-driver in the media drive event of this 2nd pass with VSA but using my Panasonic compact camera instead so it is 1080p in resolution.

The last video segment above is of the tail-end of the media drive and contains footage that helps illustrate with good clarity many of the comments I made above. The white Nissan Livina X-Gear ahead of me at the start of the video actually just got on to the road a short while ago. I am not sure if it is obvious from the video, but the driver was going quite fast. Nevertheless I was able to quickly catch up with the Nissan. A large part of this can be attributed to the handling ability of the new CR-V as it gave me confidence when driven fast over less than perfect windy country roads.

Once behind the Nissan, I could see the driver not having a lot of confidence in the corners so very early on I was already planning to overtake the X-Gear. In the overtaking manuveur, notice that I left a bit of space to the X-Gear because I needed 'lead-in' road and time to allow the gearbox to downshift. In fact, due to the less than perfect visibility of the road ahead, I decided not to take chances and manually shifted to '2' beforehand to overtake the Nissan. This was why the gearbox downshifted as I went into the overtaking move. It wasn't due to 'kickdown' but more a 'manual shift' by moving the gearstick manually into the '2' position. In situations where there is even a remote possibility of danger, I would recommend doing this. 2nd gear actually takes the CR-V way past 100kph.

Once past the X-Gear I was able to indulge in some spirited driving again. Here, the slight pitching of the CR-V at high speed on less than perfect road surfaces can be seen from the mild 'bouncing' during this part of the video. But otherwise the CR-V performed very well for an SUV of its size. With VSA on, it felt nicely planted on the roads and never threatened to run off the road when cornering. I was going at reasonably high speeds, up to and occasionally above 120kph (75mph), something a regular owner of a CR-V would probably rarely do on such roads.

The final part of the route is when I arrived at the turn-off to the hotel where we were putting up for the night. The access road to the hotel is a narrow, twisty uphill drive and towards the end of the video segment, the CR-V was bogging down as the gearbox persisted with continuing in a high gear eventhough my right foot was buried hard against the floor. This is the issue with the lethargic gearbox being caught out by a gradual uphill road. With apologies, you can clearly hear us, me and my co-driver, exchanging less than complimentary comments about this aspect of the CR-V here.

Closing thoughts

Summing up my personal impressions of this new CR-V from the media drive. From close-up, the new CR-V looks good to my eyes except for the elaborate tail-light assembly which I thought spoils the clean lines of the SUV. The interior look and feel are fine and the seats quite comfortable, even for quite spirited driving on windy countryside roads. Of course looks are a very personal and subjective thing.

More importantly, on the road, other than outright power being found to be still lacking under demanding conditions, the performance of the new CR-V is really quite good for a large, heavy SUV. Handling has been further improved from the previous generation and the improvements in suspension can be clearly felt in overall driving quality.

Overall, the new 4G CR-V clearly improved on an already wining formula. And this is proven by the huge number of orders received by Honda here in Malaysia. The many thousands of CR-V customers cannot be wrong ! The more powerful 2.4l version to be launched next month should fix the problem of lack of power and I am looking forward to testing it. Indeed it is not surprising that in the U.S., which gets only the 2.4l version, the CR-V is an all-time best seller.

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Wong KN
May 2013
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