Honda's market research apparently shows that the CR-V buyer was always very clear about what he wanted. The fact that the CR-V was a petrol-only offering hasn't been a deterrent and in fact, four out of five buyers actually bought the top-trim variant of this crossover SUV. But, that was during its heydays when the fact that it was an import and the price disadvantage that it had weren't deterrents either. The second generation CR-V was launched here in 2003 in completely built (CBU) form and it set the stage for the third generation to really capture the attention of premium SUV buyers from 2007.

But since then there have been many more compact premium and luxury SUVs, offered with petrol and diesel engines, that have walked away with the market leaving the CR-V far behind.

Before the Amaze sedan arrives, next up on the agenda for Honda Cars India is reviving the CR-V's prospects with the launch of the latest, fourth generation model. The new CR-V comes to India nearly a year after its global debut. And, though it is available with a diesel engine in most of the markets in Europe, it will only be available with two petrol engines in India. So, Honda's traditional strengths with petrol engines will have to help it hold on to its share of the pie.

Familiar exterior

Honda has chosen to keep the fourth generation CR-V very recognisable and carry forward many lineage traits. So, unlike the changes from the first to second generation, the third to fourth are substantial, and yet meant to keep the CR-V instantly recognisable.

The new CR-V's design further explores the crossover concept with a more gradually sloping up roof and an even more practical tail-gate. When you look at its side profile, one realises that the CR-V is still snub-nosed and has a short bonnet, but the roofline makes it seem more sedan-like. This crossover profile also hides the fact that the new CR-V is marginally taller (5mm) than the outgoing model and instead makes it seem shorter. While the wheelbase of the new CR-V has been retained at the same 2,620 mm, the overall length has been increased by 30mm.

The face of the new CR-V is its most aggressive angle. With what seems like a slightly raised bonnet slab, the CR-V now gets larger, wraparound headlamps with twin projectors. The top-end variant of the new CR-V also gets HID (high intensity discharge) lamps. The chunky, three-slat bonnet grille cuts deep into the headlamps. The simple, wide-set chrome slats do a good job of making the CR-V look much more aggressive. The front fender has been designed to make it look more like a crossover, and features a symmetric layout for the airdam and the fog-lamps. The streaks at the lower portion of the new CR-V are an India-specific modification meant to improve its aerodynamics and consequently fuel efficiency too.

The rear of the new CR-V is more upright and SUV-like. It also has a lot of carried forward lines from the previous generation. The straighter rear is more evident when you look at the chrome window-line that traces the roofline till the B-pillar and then plunges down to form a sedan-like quarter glass area next to the rear window. The rear glass is quite compact, though it doesn't affect or compromise on the visibility for the driver. But it could have been much smaller if the roof had sloped down towards the rear. The vertical tail lamps wraparound and form a triangle on the side panel at the bottom. They stretch up all the way to the hinge at the top where the hatch door meets the C-pillar. It looks like a split tail-gate, but the hatch door is a single unit. Hidden just below the rear glass and the Honda logo is the rear parking camera. A shark fin antenna is also part of standard fitment. There are two optional body kits available called Inspire and Elegance. Depending on the optional package chosen, these add on some neat features like a rear spoiler, running boards and side-step garnish etc.

Some of the other India-specific changes that have been made in the new CR-V include raising the ground clearance to 170mm from about 155mm. The suspension too has been made a bit more pliant and a lot of work has gone into the noise isolation package to ensure that the passenger cabin is quieter.

Interiors

The interior of the CR-V is again a classic Honda. A neat dashboard layout, which is very evocative of the Accord with a lot of its horizontal elements greets the passengers. But the overall feedback that one gets from the design of the dash is that of an SUV, especially with the gear-shift stick positioned on the dash's centre stack. Honda designers have given the new CR-V a dual-tone interior theme in Siena Biege and Grey, which attempts to give the interior a more premium sedan-like feel to it. There is also a general feeling of space with consider legroom and headroom available in both the front two seats and the rear row. One of the reasons for this is of course the lowering of the floor by 38mm, which has led to an increase in the amount of headroom available at the rear and also an increase in the amount of luggage space in the boot.

But, the commanding drive position at the front remains very SUV-like. Honda has tried to make the cabin plusher by choosing lighter coloured leather seats, and by adding faux wood inserts and brushed aluminium trim. Every part of the interior including the panels and knobs and switches are almost perfectly finished and fit together nicely, except for the uneven gap at the joint where the centre stack and floor console meet. But, while there is no specific points to complain about, I felt that the interior elements could have been a bit more premium in terms of perceived quality.

However, Honda has managed to load more features into the new CR-V to make sure that the feeling of premiumness gets a boost. There are features like a sunroof, an audio-video navigation system with a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity and an central information display with interchangeable wall papers. I test drove the new CR-V in Udaipur and the one feature that didn't work very intuitively was the navigation system, but that could be more of a software glitch. To make it more appealing to an increasing number of owner-drivers Honda has also chosen to add steering mounted controls for pretty much all the functions that might need to be accessed. The instrument cluster was a feature that I liked for its layout and design.

In addition to the usual rpm-meter, speedo, fuel and temperature meters, the new CR-V's cluster also features a pair of unique LED-backlit indicators. The bracket shaped indicators surround the speedometer and turn green, light green or white based on your driving style and indicate economical, less economical or high consumption driving styles. Honda calls this 'visual coaching' because the driver is being prompted to stay in the green zone by accelerating moderately and shifting into a higher gear at the appropriate rpm range. Smaller digital displays also indicate the driving mode chosen in the automatic gearbox variants and the gear chosen too. There is also a real-time fuel consumption indicator and to boost fuel efficient driving there is also a ECON button that brings into play many sensors to ensure that throttle input is restricted, fuel injection optimised and the air conditioner performance is stepped down, so that fuel efficiency is maximised under any driving mode.

Performance

For the power trains in the new CR-V Honda engineers have chosen two new petrol engines and one each of manual and automatic transmissions. The engines include two 4-cylinder units - one is a two-litre SOHC engine and the other a 2.4-litre DOHC mill. I test drove versions with both the engines and they are both typical Honda mills in terms of refinement and performance. Though it is available with the automatic transmission too, I test drove the manual gearbox version of the two-litre. The 1,997cc engine generates a peak power of 156PS at 6,500 rpm and a maximum torque of 190 Nm at 4,300 rpm. The 2.4-litre engine is offered only with the automatic transmission, but thankfully also comes with paddle shifters for manual gear selection. This 2,354cc mill manages a peak power of 190PS at 7,000 rpm and a peak torque of 226Nm at 4,400 rpm - that is nearly 130 PS per tonne for this one and a half tonne SUV.

I tried out both the engines over a mix of narrow city roads and open highways in and around Udaipur and Chittorgarh. The 2.4-litre delivers big chunks of power on demand and really makes the new CR-V nimble footed. Paired with a five-speed automatic gearbox, the 2.4L AT with Real Time 4WD (four-wheel drive) offers much more in terms of performance than what the average urban driver is going to be able to enjoy during his daily commute, but clearly it has enough for boosting his bragging abilities. The two-litre engine variants are offered as regular two-wheel drive variants and these are powered by the same five-speed auto and, in addition, a six-speed manual transmission. I test drove the manual gearbox version and found it be adequately powered for any kind of user profile. We are still about over a 100 PS being available per tonne. The manual gearbox itself is very smooth and the ratios have been set for optimising efficiencies without compromising performance. The point that I remember from the test drive of the 2.0L MT was while the gearshift stick position on the dash was perfect in terms of it being within easy reach, the acute angle possibly made it a bit of long throw stick.

The parallel 3 shaft type 5-speed AT sports features like direct clutch control, low viscosity fluid, a fluid warmer, a low friction clutch and high gear ratios. All of these contribute in making it fairly fuel efficient. Both the engines are said to be more powerful and yet more fuel efficient than the outgoing model's two engines. The new CR-V's 2.0-litre and 2.4-litre engines deliver a fuel efficiency of 13.7 kmpl and 12 kmpl respectively.

Ride and handling

The best features in the cabin of the new CR-V is the much lower noise levels and the ride quality. A new NVH package with new materials for insulation and the new underbody panels for achieving a near flat floor make sure that both engine noise and road noise are much lower (actually 3 decibels lower). Together with the new design, the flat floor underbody panels also manage to reduce drag by about 8 per cent. For its segment of vehicles, the CR-V has always offered good handling. In the new fourth-gen model, the CR-V continues to be a good handler. The new model's chassis is said to have been stiffened and the static rigidity is also said to have been enhanced by improving torsional and bending rigidities. The damper capacity has also been increased by about 10 per cent to ensure a smoother ride. The suspension though has been raised and tuned to have a bias towards softening the impact of bad roads. The result is that the new CR-V doesn't get unsettled by rough patches, but it also means that there is mild body roll. Nothing very damaging though and the ride continues to feel confident and comfortable.

Bottomline

The new CR-V is likely to miss a diesel engine in its range, but it has enough to keep Honda fans happy. The new model is likely to be launched in the coming weeks and it will be offered in two trim levels each for the two-litre and the 2.4-litre engines. The former will have one variant each of the automatic and manual gearboxes and the latter will have two AT variants, with the top trim variant sporting the navigation, sunroof features Unlike the previous generations, the new CR-V will be assembled locally and that is really good news for the SUV's fans in India. We can expect prices to be more competitive, while the equipment levels are already a notch up over the previous generations'. A couple of variants at a sub-18 lakh price point will be just fine, but we'll have to wait to find out what Honda India's sticker prices are going to be.

muralidhar.s@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on February 11, 2013)
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