Driving over mildly rough pavement, the 2016 Honda CR-V's ride felt like the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. It subjected me to every nuance of the road when, in a small SUV like this, I would prefer some serious cushioning.
Heading down the freeway, I tried unsuccessfully to turn on the adaptive cruise control. It wasn't until I pulled over on a surface street and could safely poke around that I figured out the button on the steering wheel labeled "Main" enabled cruise control.
The CR-V wasn't making a good first impression.
I would like to say that the Honda CR-V finally won me over through sheer precociousness, but there was no Hollywood ending here. While I eventually gave the CR-V respect for its on-road handling, I wouldn't buy a small SUV for fast cornering. That's why the gods made sports cars.
As a small SUV, the CR-V has always been a practical alternative to a midsize sedan for families, offering seating for five and a good amount of cargo space, coupled with decent fuel economy. The upright seating position and ride height make for a nice view of the road, putting drivers on par with the rash of full-size SUVs hogging the lanes. Honda gave the CR-V a few upgrades for the previous model year, including a powerful yet economical engine.
However, unlike Honda's most recently upgraded models, such as the Civic, the CR-V suffers from an older dashboard infotainment system that doesn't include Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
A litany of quirks
I mentioned the "Main" button above, which most automakers would simply label "Cruise." Pushing that button, then setting my speed, the CR-V used its radar sensor to automatically match speed with slower traffic ahead, a reasonable adaptive cruise-control system. But the CR-V also has collision warning, and these two systems don't talk to each other.
For example, the cruise control sensed slow traffic ahead, so it began braking from 65 mph down to about 30 mph. At the same time, the collision-warning system sounded an alert and flashed me a "Brake" warning. Um, the cruise control had me covered here, although maybe the collision system was prepping me for the fact that the cruise control cuts out under 20 mph.
The collision system also proved error-prone, flashing its warning and even hitting the brakes as I approached one of San Francisco's steep hills.
Rather than a typical blind-spot monitor system, with a warning light to right or left when there are cars to the corresponding side, Honda insists on using its LaneWatch system, showing a right-side camera view on the center display when I hit the right turn signal. The left side merely uses a larger side mirror.
And don't expect a volume dial for the stereo -- I had to contend with plus and minus buttons on the head unit bezel and steering wheel.
As another quirk, putting down the rear seat backs to maximize the rear cargo area first requires lifting the seat bottoms. That may lead to a flatter load floor, but the overall cargo space of 70.9 cubic feet is only average in the segment. And most owners will likely prefer the simplicity of just pushing the seat backs down, as in the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.
Less of a quirk, and more just old tech, the navigation system was painful to use. Entering an address through voice command or onscreen, I had to input each part (city, street and number) separately. The onscreen keyboard responded slowly, making me take a beat after touching each letter. No thank you -- I typically gave up and just used Google Maps on my phone.
The audio system, even in this top trim CR-V Touring, only had six speakers and a subwoofer, with mediocre fidelity for music playback.
Handling over comfort
Those issues aside, I like the throttle response from the direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. That power plant gives the CR-V 185 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, impressive specs for a non-turbocharged four-cylinder. Touching the gas, power goes to the wheels without hesitation.
That response can also be put down to the the CR-V's continuously variable transmission, which uses pulleys and bands instead of gears to find the optimum drive ratio between engine and wheels. Along with its normal Drive mode, it also features Sport and a Low range. Sport kept the revs just a little higher than Drive, ensuring more immediate power delivery, but it didn't make that big a difference.
Although I would have preferred a softer ride, the CR-V's suspension proved its worth when I was trying to make some time on a twisty highway. The car responded adroitly, with no wallow, as I powered through the turns. However, I don't imagine too many people buying a small SUV expect a performance driving experience.
Honda reports fuel economy at 25 mpg city and 31 mpg highway for the all-wheel-drive version, and a 2 mpg gain if you opt for front-wheel-drive. I came in low, around 25 mpg, even with significant freeway miles, but that might have been due to my use of the adaptive cruise-control system.
During a test of the CR-V against the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape at an off-road park, I got a chance to really experience the all-wheel-drive system. While the CR-V's 6.8 inches of ground clearance mostly kept the underbody from scraping, it didn't do particularly well on a hill climb. Going up a moderately steep incline of loose dirt, the car began losing traction, at which point the drive system had enough, refusing to put more power to the wheels. While that prevented the wheels from digging themselves in too far, I also couldn't make it up a hill that the RAV4 and Escape easily handled.
An engaging driving experience
The weak navigation head unit aside, most people will likely be content with the 2016 Honda CR-V, but there are better choices available. The CR-V's small SUV body provides decent utility and space. Those who prefer an engaged driving feel will appreciate the CR-V's on-demand power delivery, suspension and responsive steering. However, for this type of car I would prefer the more comfortable Toyota RAV4.
Honda has some odd ideas about how things should work, taking a unique stance among automakers. Over not too much time, I can learn the CR-V's quirks, but I didn't find any of them particularly endearing. LaneWatch works okay, but I would prefer the symmetrical blind-spot monitor systems found on competitors.
False alerts from the collision-warning system would certainly take a toll on my appreciation of the CR-V over time.
As for that navigation head unit, Honda has a much better system deployed in the Civic and Accord, with support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which should eventually find its way into the dashboard of the CR-V. But it isn't there for the 2016 model year, and whats is available comes off as old and annoying to use.