2009 Honda CR-V EX-L 4WD review: 2009 Honda CR-V EX-L 4WD

When equipped with the navigation system, the CR-V also gains a rearview camera that automatically activates when the vehicle is placed in reverse. Though the CR-V's excellent rearward visibility doesn't make the camera a necessity, the peace of mind the camera affords is a welcome addition. Armed with the camera, we were able to fit the CR-V into some of downtown San Francisco's ridiculously small parking spaces.

The audio system supports playback of MP3-encoded CDs and offers easy navigation of MP3 folders. The CD slot is located behind the motorized touch screen. While you're back there loading your favorite tunes, you may notice a very odd feature: a PC Card slot. Honda expects drivers to purchase a PC Card adapter for their favorite form of flash memory audio storage. We think a USB port would tremendously simplify digital audio playback from MP3 players and USB drives. Instead, Honda has included an aux-input hidden in the center console. AM/FM radio is standard, with XM satellite radio available as an option.

The inclusion of a PC Card slot is an odd digital-audio choice. A simple USB port would have sufficed.

CR-V EX-L's that don't have the navigation package feature a six-disc in-dash CD changer. However, due to the system's increased complexity, the navigation package features a single-disc CD slot and a six-disc CD changer in the center console. The CD changer is a fairly old-school cartridge-loaded affair that doesn't support playback of CD-R/RW discs, which all but rules out MP3 playback. Whether equipped with navigation or not, all EX-L models feature a great sounding 270-watt premium audio system with seven speakers including subwoofer.

These are all features that can be had with a Honda Civic EX-L with Nav for less money. So, why would anyone chose the CR-V over the Civic? The answer lies behind the driver's seat. The CR-V's slightly higher ride height allows it to retain the Civic's flat floor, even in all-wheel-drive trim. The CR-V's 60/40 split rear seats take advantage of this fact with the fold and tumble feature, which allows the rear seats to be flipped up and out of the way, revealing a huge 72.9 cubic foot storage space. The seats are remarkably easy to flip out of the way and back with one hand. The hard plastic bottoms of the seats perform the double duty of protecting the leather seatbacks from damage from whatever you may be hauling.

Under the hood
With only 161 horsepower and 161 foot-pounds of torque available way up at the top end of the powerband, you can add "fast" to list of descriptors that don't describe the CR-V. Like most Hondas, getting adequate power for highway merges requires more downshifting and high-revving than some drivers may be comfortable with. However, the 2.4-liter iVTEC engine has just the right amount of grunt for scooting the little CUV around town without getting you into trouble with the law.

During our testing, we were only barely able to tickle 17 mpg over an equal mix of city and highway miles. That's pretty pathetic fuel economy from a naturally aspirated four-banger. However, Honda and the EPA claim the CR-V gets 20 city mpg and 26 highway mpg in with the 4WD drivetrain, so perhaps there are a few more miles per gallon to be claimed through more economical driving.

Although throttle, steering, and braking are all in someway or another computer controlled, the CR-V's all-wheel-drive system is controlled by simple hydraulics that use pressure supplied by pumps on the front and rear axles to determine torque split. No electronics are involved. Under normal conditions, the system sends 100 percent of power to the front wheels. However, if the front wheels lose traction, causing them to spin faster than the rear wheels, the system's hydraulic pumps act on a center differential, sending power to the rear wheels. The greater the difference between front and rear wheel spin, the more power is sent to the rear.

The CR-V's carlike handling is attributed to its sharp steering and amazing suspension tuning.

Despite its larger size, the CR-V retains the sharp handling and communicative steering of the Civic. We absolutely loved zipping around parking decks and narrow city streets, thanks to the trademark goes-where-you-point-it steering that we've come to expect from Honda. After a few hours behind the wheel, it was easy to forget that we were behind the wheel of a crossover. The CR-V's short length (only about half an inch longer than a Civic sedan), combined with the convenience of the backup camera, made it one of the easiest vehicles we've ever parallel parked.

Over rough highways at high speed, we find the Achilles Heel of CR-V suspension. It seems that in an effort to compensate for the CR-V's higher center of gravity, Honda has firmed the suspension up to keep the vehicle flat in the turns. Over highway expansion joints or poorly maintained roads, the stiff suspension creates a choppy, teeth-rattling ride and increased road noise, which is contrary to the smooth ride many crossover buyers expect.

In sum
Though we penalized it for its lack of a Bluetooth hands-free option, the CR-V's impressive voice-recognition tech earns it high marks in cabin comfort. That PC Card slot was also a confusing choice, where we'd have preferred to see a USB or iPod connection. The crossover also earns performance points for its carlike handling and general zippiness. The CR-V's poor as-tested fuel economy and a choppy highway ride keep it from achieving a higher score. Though we don't care for the CR-V's bulldog face, we like the CR-V's premium-feeling interior, especially with the EX-L leather trim.

Choosing the options on your 2009 Honda CR-V EX-L is as easy as pie, because there aren't any. Instead of a long list of a la carte options, Honda has put together four trim-levels: LX, EX, EX-L, and EX-L with Nav. Pricing starts at a base $21,095 for the LX and then steps up to $23,345 for the EX, which adds 17-inch alloy wheels, the power moonroof, steering wheel audio controls, and rear privacy glass. The next tier, EX-L for $25,895, adds a leather-trimmed steering wheel and heated seats, power adjustment to the driver's seat, and upgrades to the 270-watt audio system. The 4WD EX-L with Nav model as tested tops the line at $27,095; this trim is our recommendation, as the cabin tech is what really makes this vehicle shine above its competitors. Buyers in areas that don't get much rain or snow can save $1,200 and gain one highway mpg by choosing the 2WD model.

Compared with other recently reviewed small crossovers, the CR-V begins to look like a bargain. A similarly equipped Volkswagen Tiguan SEL with navigation and all wheel drive may look better on the outside, but the VW is over $9,000 more than the CR-V EX-L with Nav. Likewise, the Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring AWD with Technology package is about $5,800 more expensive than the Honda. Although both of these vehicles have more power than the Honda, neither of them feels like a substantial upgrade worthy of the extra money.

What you'll pay

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