The external aesthetic of the 2009 Honda CR-V mixes the Honda Civic's space-age design with the face and bulk of a bulldog. Although you may never catch us calling the CR-V attractive, its looks aren't offensive. More importantly, spend some time behind the wheel and you'll see that the CR-V manages to combine the sporty ride and handling of a small sedan and the utility of a small SUV while making few, if any, compromises.
In its EX-L with Nav trim level, the CR-V has an extra trick up its sleeve in the form of a DVD-based GPS navigation system with a fantastic voice-recognition system. Tell the CR-V where you want to go and it'll take you there. Tell it to change to audio source and it happens. Granted, it's not quite that simple--there are a few commands to be learned--but the system is surprisingly easy to use.
The trouble with the CR-V is that, while the tech present in the cabin is well executed, there are a few key features--ahem, Bluetooth--that are missing.
Test the tech: Voice command
Voice command is a feature that rarely performs as advertised. We wanted to see how well Honda's system performed, so we decided to see if we could go an entire day without using the navigation/audio system's touch screen.
Settling into the driver's seat, we located the Talk button on the Honda's steering wheel. Our first step was to load up some tunes. Pressing the Talk button, we spoke after the beep, "Open." Nothing happened. We tried, "Eject CD." Still, nothing happened. After a few more incorrect guesses, we decided that CD insertion was still a manual affair, which put the score at buttons: 1, voice: 0.
With our audio CD manually loaded, we spoke aloud, "CD, track five." A pleasant voice spoke back, "CD, play, track five," and the music began to play. Testing CD changer integration, we said, "CD Changer, disc two." The Honda flawlessly obeyed, playing the appropriate disc. Next we said, "XM, preset three." The Honda's voice spoke back "Radio, XM, preset three," and began to play back music from the satellite radio. Having successfully tackled presets, we decided to throw the system a curveball. "FM Radio, one-oh-six-point-nine," we spoke aloud. The Honda spoke back, "Radio, FM, one hundred six point nine," and began playing the station. At the end of the round, the score was four successful voice commands and one button press.
Declaring audio control a success, we moved on to navigation. "Map," we said aloud, and the system predictably displayed the map of the surrounding area. "Destination," we said. The system moved to a help screen and asked us, "What would you like information about?" That's not what we wanted, so we pushed the button and said, "Cancel." After a few more failed attempts at various combinations of "Set" and "Destination", we stumbled upon the "Menu." The system offered us a set of choices and asked aloud, "How would you like to set your destination?" Success! We then tried the various methods of entering destinations. For address entry, we were able to speak the street address and the system made its best attempt to guess what we said. More often than not, the system's guess was right. For tricky names, we were able to spell the name out with little difficulty. Choosing points of interest was a bit more involved, but the system essentially allowed us to read the menu options as they appeared onscreen to narrow our search down by type, proximity, or name. Other functions, such as zooming in and out of the map were also available. With the addition of address and POI entry, the score was set at six voice commands to a single button press.
Just for kicks, we pressed the button and spoke, "Temperature, 72 degrees." We didn't expect anything to happen, but to our surprise, the voice spoke, "Set temperature, 72 degrees," which was reflected in the climate control display! We tried a few more commands such as, "Air conditioner on/off", "rear defroster on/off", and "fan speed, up/down." The Honda handled just about every command we threw at it.
By the time we were done playing with the climate control, we'd stopped keeping score. Our test had proven that just about every nondriving-related function of the CR-V's cabin tech could be controlled through the Talk button: audio, navigation, and climate control. Sure, it's not an intelligent system and commands must be learned, but they are all logical and easy to guess. If we got close to a command, the system spoke aloud the correct command and went along with the operation. Thanks to this voice prompt and onscreen help system, we'd memorized the most commonly used commands within a week, and the instruction manual never once left the glove compartment.
In the cabin
The CR-V's interior is a great example of how to create a cabin out of plastic that doesn't feel cheap. Treated with an interesting matte finish, the CR-V's interior won't fool you into thinking that you've settled into a luxury SUV, but it still feels high quality and sporty. The surfaces were pleasant to the touch and felt solid and substantial. The EX-L's addition of a leather-wrapped steering wheel and leather trim on the heated front seats upgrades the tactile experience of both places the CR-V comes in direct contact with the driver.
Though CR-V's interior is composed mostly of plastic, it still feels high quality.
The steering wheel is home to the button that activated the CR-V's most impressive feature, voice recognition, which comes as a part of the EX-L with Nav trim level. The voice-recognition system controls audio source, selects channel presets for XM/AM/FM radio, and controls the GPS navigation system. Coupled with the steering wheel buttons for volume and cruise control, the voice activation system allows the driver to control most aspects of the CR-V's cabin tech without ever touching the dash.
Though Honda has begun to offer Bluetooth connectivity in some of its 2009 models, the CR-V isn't one of them, so don't expect to use the voice command for making calls. We're fairly certain that the CR-V will gain Bluetooth in its next iteration.
The heart of the CR-V's cabin tech is the touch-screen navigation system. The system is DVD-based, and featured quick retrieval of points of interest and trip routing. Points of interest can be displayed continuously on the map with brand icons, or searched by name or type. Once a destination is chosen, the navigation system reads aloud approaching turns, but doesn't support text-to-speech, so no street names are read aloud. For a system that understands speech-to-text inputs as well as it does, we're surprised that Honda didn't choose to include text-to-speech functionality.
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.
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.