2023 Honda CR-V Hybrid First Drive Review: The Perfect Recipe

First Drive / 2 Comments

Don't call it a comeback, it's been here for years.

A hybrid electric and gas-powered drivetrain is not new to the Honda CR-V. However, Honda has realized that hybrid drivetrains are the link to what comes next. The big move here for Honda is to bring out an all-new CR-V and integrate hybrid models into the lineup rather than offering them as a powertrain alternative. For 2023, there are four trim levels: EX, EX-L, Sport, and Sport Touring. The Sport and Sport Touring are the hybrid models, using a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated gas engine with an electric motor for power, while the EX and EX-L use a 1.5-liter turbo engine.

The 2023 CR-V is an all-new model with fresh styling, a longer wheelbase, and a wider track. That translates into a roomier interior which, like the exterior, uses the latest design language from Honda that's becoming consistent through its range of vehicles. On paper, the new hybrid is the best CR-V yet. With that in mind, we took ourselves to Santa Barbara in California to find out firsthand.

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Exterior: No More Rounded Quirky Styling

The past couple of generations of CR-V has had a love-it-or-hate-it unconventional approach to styling. However, Honda has discarded that for the 2023 model year. Now, the CR-V has more sophisticated styling, taking its cues from the latest Accord and Civic models with a flatter nose, slim headlights, and a more traditional yet handsome silhouette. It's not immediately recognizable as a CR-V, as there was an evolution of styling until now. The giveaway, however, is the inverted hockey stick-style taillight assembly. That still stands out in traffic, particularly at night.

The hybrid models are both Sport trims and feature more gloss black trim and more aggressive-looking front and rear fascias. Topping off the sporty facades are Berlina Black 18-inch ten-spoke alloy wheels on the Sport and 19-inch split five-spoke alloys on the Sport Touring.

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Interior: Is This A Civic?

Getting into the new CR-V Sport and Sport Touring, you can be forgiven for thinking it might be a Civic Si. But that's far from a bad thing. The seats are comfortable and have red piping for a sporty look, the honeycomb grilling across the dash is well-executed, and the steering wheel is just right. More importantly, the buttons do the things buttons should do, and the knobs do the things knobs should do. It's a masterclass in putting all the controls in the right place so anyone can get in and drive it without complaining.

A lot of thought has gone into the interior, highlighted by the little moveable shelf at the top of the center storage bin. It can slide forward, back, or if you want an easily accessible and ample cubby space, it can be clipped in underneath the armrest and forgotten about.

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The new CR-V is longer and wider than before, and it's now the correct size for a family with kids going from tweens to teens. This six-foot-one adult had leg room with the front seat still set for a tall adult and headroom to spare. The rear seatbacks also adjust at an angle, which isn't new for a crossover, but it is a good thing.

There's plenty of cargo space for a long weekend away, and the rear seats fold flat when you need to take a bigger TV home to replace the old one.

Infotainment comes in the form of a seven-inch touchscreen in the Sport that's perfectly livable or a nine-inch screen in the Sport Touring. The Sport trim gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while the Sport Touring gets the wireless versions and a wireless phone charger. Our Sport Touring version has the Bose Premium audio system, which is fine, but it has the typical Bose boomy bass and over-bright treble that sounds great for the first ten minutes but gets annoying after a while.

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Performance: Big Power & High MPG

The hybrid CR-V trims use a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine with two electric motors added for power. It delivers 204 horsepower, but the real benefit is the 247 lb-ft of torque available. It opens the CR-V up to finally having a towing capacity (1,000 pounds) and an increase in continual top speed, up from 86 mph to 115 mph. That means more headroom for the engine at cruising speed limits which translates into a noticeably smoother and quieter ride on the freeway.

That doesn't mean the CR-V is perfect on the highway, though. While the immediate torque available makes the new hybrid quick off the line, there's not a lot of power to spare when accelerating from 50 mph to overtake. However, it is enough to power and fixes the power issue on the 1.5-liter turbo models, which are fine, but you wouldn't want to load them with five people and a vacation's worth of luggage too often.

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The hybrid's transmission is a CVT (continuously variable transmission) like you will find on the current petrol-powered models and previous generations. However, Honda uses software on the hybrid CR-V it calls Linear Shift Control, which programs in points, or steps, that make it feel like a traditional automatic transmission. In practicality, it's completely unnecessary, but Honda has researched and learned exactly how many people can't wrap their heads around a transmission that doesn't have gears to change. It works well to simulate a standard transmission, so we stopped noticing it quickly.

Sport trim can be optioned with either front-wheel- or all-wheel drive, while the Sport Touring is exclusively all-wheel-driven. The Sport in FWD configuration manages to ring up gas mileage figures of 43/36/40 mpg city/highway/combined, while the AWD hybrids get 40/34/37 mpg.

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Behind The Wheel: Perfectly Poised

Talking with the engineers behind the CR-V, it became clear the challenge was dealing with the extra battery weight while keeping the Sport and Sport Touring fun and precise to drive. The Sport Touring we drove for the day was smooth around the city and hardly batted an eyelid on a rough freeway. We're used to a CR-V getting a little bouncy when things get rough, but the new hybrid refused to become unsettled, even when deliberately provoked. It's closer to the German idea of sporty comfort than we usually see from Honda, and it also pays off in corners. There is a little lean in the body, but you have to push to get it. The steering is more direct and precise than any previous CR-V by a clear margin, making it fun as we delved into back roads in wine country.

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With that said, it's freeways and cities where the hybrid CR-V will live most of its life. The suspension and the hybrid's eagerness off the line make it a car that can zip around if needed, but it's mostly just comfortable and precise. Like the gas-only CR-V trims, the Hybrid trims feature Normal, Econ, and a new Snow mode. We didn't get a chance to use Snow mode, but Sport mode sharpens the throttle dramatically and adds to the fun when driving the CR-V Hybrid exuberantly.

An interesting decision made by Honda is to add an extra mode on the drive selector. The B under the D turns on the regenerative braking. You can then control the amount of resistance when off-throttle using the paddles behind the steering wheel. Honda told us it was to help people get used to the concept in preparation for an all-electric future. It's a nice idea, but we're on the fence over whether people will remember to use it. As it is, most people either don't know what the L under the D means on older CR-V shifters or forget to use it. The regen system is nice and simple to use, but the strongest setting isn't strong enough for our taste; it's not even close to one-pedal driving.

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Verdict: Is The Hybrid The CR-V To Buy?

Absolutely. The hybrid drivetrain is superior to the 1.5-liter turbo when driven back-to-back. The suspension, hence the ride and handling, is also better and markedly so. The gas-only models feel like an evolution of the CR-V, while the hybrid feels like a whole new crossover. That's not to say the gas-only models are bad, but the hybrids are the way to go, and Honda has made sure spending a little extra is well worth it.

The Sport starts at $33,695 (including destination charges) in front-wheel-drive spec, which is $1,340 more than the EX at $32,355. With the hybrid's fuel consumption at 40 mpg combined compared to the EX's 30 mpg, the gas saving will make up for it in just a year or two for average drivers. Plus, it rides and drives better, and not many people genuinely need all-wheel drive. They all have the same standard Honda Sensing safety suite, including adaptive cruise control (ACC) and the Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS). All-wheel drive on all trim levels is an extra $1,500, except on the Sport Toruing on which it is standard.

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Sport Touring tops the trim levels and comes with all bells and whistles at $39,845, including destination. The extra $6,505 is harder to justify over the EX-L in terms of fuel economy, but you'll feel better about your bank account at the pump, and it's a smoother ride. Frankly, we would splash the cash and make sure we planned to own it for at least six years and never regret it. Either way, the hybrid is the way to go, and Honda has done an excellent job of making an easy, fun-to-drive crossover that will suit any small family.

We're already wondering if the CR-V in hybrid form might be the best small family crossover on sale right now. Everything essential for the class, from the calibration of the suspension, steering, and drivetrain to the comfort and controls in the cabin, strikes us as just right for the segment. A full week's test drive will tell us if that's the case.

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