With the compact SUV segment stronger than ever, is the CR-V still the pick of the bunch?
Honda is one of those fortunate car companies that doesn’t need to worry much about opinions. Thousands upon thousands of Honda owners will head straight back to a Honda dealership when it’s time for a new vehicle, without doing much in the way of research or asking a lot of questions.
They do this because their parents, and/or their grandparents, and/or their uncles and aunts have always bought Hondas. Their cars have always gotten them from A to B without giving them much trouble and going back to what they know time and again makes them feel safe and comfortable.
I, therefore, say this knowing that it’s very likely an exercise in complete futility: the 2019 Honda CR-V is a fine vehicle that will serve its owners well in most ways, but I don’t think it’s currently the best compact SUV on the market. It’s comfortable. It’s attractive. It’s fuel-efficient. It’s an IIHS Top Safety Pick. There have been some problems with the 1.5-liter turbo engine – which are outlined in more detail below – but according to Honda, they’ve been resolved. And even at its most expensive, it’s decently well-priced. The problem is that on every one of those points, there’s another car out there that’s doing better. If you’re from a Honda family, go ahead and buy another CR-V. You’ll enjoy it just fine. If you’re feeling open-minded, read on.
Until recently, the Honda CR-V was the natural first choice for those who like their compact SUVs to have a more rugged look because it was easily the most masculine among the segment’s big sellers. Its squared-off and assertive front-end design, muscular wheel flares, and upright rear provided a contrast to the gently curving lines of its major competitors.
But then the new Toyota RAV4 landed, and suddenly the CR-V isn't the only masculine-leaning small crossover on the block. By contrast to the RAV4's shiny newness, this is the third model year of the CR-V's fifth generation, so it will likely be another year or two before a refresh gives Honda's design team a chance to reciprocate.
The LED headlights on this test unit are quite striking, though it should be noted that they're only equipped on the Touring trim while lower-priced models get less attractive halogens. Aside from the 17-inch alloys on the base model, 18-inch alloy wheels are standard for the remainder of the line-up. If you don't like the highly angular design shown here, all three trims have an available upgrade to 19-inch alloys with a more straightforward design as a $2,264 option.
From an engine perspective, the 2019 CR-V can be had two ways. In its LX base model, a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder is equipped that makes 184 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque at 3,900 rpm. Every other trim, including the Touring configuration tested here, comes with a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that’s similar on outright power at 190 hp 179 lb-ft of torque but makes the latter fully available earlier, from 2,000 rpm, and holds it up to 5,000 rpm.
This engine is the one that sparked a service campaign late in 2018 in parts of the United States because cold-weather running was causing excess fuel vapors to mix with and dilute engine oil. Honda says that all 2019 CR-Vs equipped with this engine will have the fix applied before they leave dealer lots – but depending on where in the country you live, this is something that you’ll want to be aware of and monitor.
That aside, whether this engine should be considered competitive depends on each buyer’s priorities. For those not interested in anything but pure internal combustion engine, it does post better figures than the 2.5-liter four-cylinder in the Nissan Rogue (170 hp and 175 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm). The new RAV4’s gas-only engine is also a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which has higher power figures (203 hp and 184 lb-ft at 5,000 rpm) but comes across as less responsive on the road.
Honda’s turbo engine, as is typical, also posts better fuel economy figures than both of these at a combined EPA rating of 29 mpg with all-wheel drive equipped, as opposed to the Rogue’s 27 mpg and the RAV4’s 28 mpg. (In real-world testing over a week of roughly 75-25 city and highway driving, the CR-V returned a reading of 25 mpg, a figure that consistently dropped like a stone in freeway cruising where this powertrain is happiest.)
However, those who aren’t opposed to adopting some electrification will find that both the Rogue and RAV4 have hybrid models available, while the CR-V does not. The Rogue Hybrid has a combined system output of 176 hp and a combined EPA rating of 33 mpg; I haven’t driven this myself, so I can’t comment on its performance. The new RAV4 Hybrid has a net system output of 219 hp and delivers an EPA-rated 40 mpg combined – and, in my opinion, is not only the better of the RAV4 configurations but is the best driving vehicle among all of the models discussed here, including this turbocharged CR-V. It costs $1,550 more than the Touring in the top Limited Hybrid trim, a difference well worth making room for in the budget for those who value a balance in drive feel and fuel economy.
Interior design isn’t the factor that would draw me towards buying a higher-priced model of a CR-V. The premium interior is on the busy side with a lot of converging lines and layers going on, and while the quality of materials is generally high, the wood-look inserts, albeit initially convincing, are fake and come across that way in real-life look and feel. The shifter also takes up a massive amount of space on the center console – although if the alternative is the push-button interface that’s made its way into other Honda vehicles, some people may see this as a good thing. Another potential plus is the gauge cluster, which is laid out with a large digital speedometer that’s easy to read at a quick glance.
Honda’s infotainment system is a definite selling point relative to its competition, at least from the EX trim and upward, where Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality are included as well as HondaLink smartphone connectivity with automatic collision notification and emergency calling, even if occupants can’t respond – a seriously underrated safety feature.
Lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot information with cross-traffic monitor, and auto high-beams are also standard from the EX trim, though if you’re shopping on the budget end of compact SUVs, it’s worth pointing out that these features and more are included in Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 suite, which is standard equipment on all RAV4s – everything except for Android Auto, that is, which might just be the thing that swings certain people in the CR-V or Rogue’s direction.
Between the top three compact SUVs, the CR-V has the shortest wheelbase – 104.7 inches versus 105.9 in the RAV4 and 106.5 in the Rogue – but while the Rogue also bests it on front and rear legroom at 43.0 and 37.9 inches respectively, it’s still slightly more spacious than the RAV4, which measures at 41.0 and 37.8 inches to the CR-V’s 41.3 and 40.4. Taller drivers should note that the CR-V offers less headroom as one moves up the trim line-up: 40.1 inches in the LX versus 38.0 in EX and EX-L and 37.8 in Touring.
Honda works its usual cargo capacity magic in the CR-V: at 39.2 cu ft of space with the second-row seats up and 75.8 cu ft with them down, it outdoes both the RAV4 (37.5/69.8 in most configurations) and the Rogue (39.3/70.0; less if you opt for the hybrid).
Both rows have four cupholders each, and the ones in the front doors have the bonus of being tall and upright, a nice option for taller soda bottles or larger cups of coffee. The center console is sort of an odd shape, but it’s highly modular with a panel that can slide or be removed entirely for greater flexibility.
The CR-Vs on-road dynamics are excellent, even on rougher surfaces. It rides well over bumps, handles smoothly and steadily in curves, and recovers well from jarring motions. Its steering could be considered a little on the vague side, but plenty of people prefer this in an SUV. Some crossovers have a way of feeling like they're larger on the road than they actually are, while others feel like they shrink around you; the CR-V, I would say, drives precisely as one would expect it does when looking at it. It's neither overly heavy and roly-poly nor particularly tight and pin-prick precise - it's a right-sized, easy-driving vehicle that closely suits what most people in this segment are looking for.
From the 1.5-liter turbo, the amount of available power will satisfy most people, although its peppiness is muted somewhat by the inescapable CVT, which is a little slow to get going – Honda has gone a long way in mitigating this sensation by giving its newer CVTs a starter gear – and doesn’t respond very well to attempts at subtle throttle adjustments at freeway speeds.
Apart from the problems with the 1.5-liter turbo engine outlined above, past model years in this generation have had recalls issued for a magnet that can become dislodged in the steering system and a disconnecting fuel supply pipe. Some owners also reported problems with their heating systems.
The unit tested here is a CR-V Touring AWD, which has an MSRP of $34,150. The Touring trim’s unique features include rain-sensing wipers, a hands-free power tailgate, roof rails, LED headlights, dual chrome exhaust tips, on-board navigation, and a nine-speaker 330-watt audio system with subwoofer.
Four trims are available, starting from the LX ($24,350) – which is the only one that comes with the naturally aspirated engine – and stepping up to EX ($27,250), EX-L ($29,750), and Touring ($32,750). All-wheel drive is an option at every trim level at an extra cost of $1,400.
A couple of years ago, I would have very happily recommended the turbocharged Honda CR-V as a top choice in the compact SUV segment. Today, it's still up there on the list since it offers a standout balance of features, provided you're willing to spend on more than the base model. That said - and while recommending a first model year vehicle is often not the greatest idea - the new Toyota RAV4 gives the CR-V a serious run for its money in many ways including drive feel, looks, efficiency with the availability of hybrid powertrains, and balance of features versus price. If you're not an Android user and you feel like expanding your horizons, consider giving both a thorough test drive before you make a final decision.