Honda CR-V, 2012: Ugly duckling SUV gets makeover

The Honda CR-V is one of the most unheralded automotive success stories of the past decade. Consistently selling more units than the competition and often besting them in comparison tests, the CR-V is the little SUV that could, even if few bothered to notice.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of attention is the Honda's looks. With a buck-toothed front end and curved flanks, the CR-V has always been more ugly duckling cute than aggressively rugged and handsome.

2012 Honda CR-V

But for 2012, Honda has given the SUV the more assertive exterior the segment requires. The nose now features a more prominent slotted grill that resembles other recent Honda designs, such as the new Odyssey and Crosstour. The rear of the car is more square, which combined with the vertical taillights makes for a very Volvo-like appearance.

Although still not a handsome design, the new exterior should help the CR-V make a stronger first impression. Unfortunately, what lies underneath the new sheet metal is largely unchanged. Honda seems to have taken the approach that if it isn’t broken, why fix it?

While I agree the CR-V has always been a competent performer, I wish Honda had done something new with the powertrain. The 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine from the last model is still here, and after a few small tweaks now makes 185 hp and 163 lb-ft torque. Acceleration is no more than just adequate, but the CR-V does OK when driving around town at normal speeds.

2012 Honda CR-V

Spend any amount of time outside of the suburbs, however, and you’ll wish the CR-V had some more get up and go. Passing on the freeway requires deliberate planning, and anything more than a short hill will expose the lack of low-end grunt.

Perhaps more to blame than the engine for the CR-V’s lackluster performance is the outdated 5-speed automatic transmission that also carries over. The gearing is ridiculously tall, with redline in first gear not coming until almost 40 mph. The lack of available gear ratios means the engine is often in the wrong place, which mandates a shift or two before anything really happens.

With almost every manufacturer using at least six forward gears, even in their economy cars, it seems strange for Honda to lag behind. While Honda has always been a bit conservative, the company used to be known for pushing performance and technology boundaries. It’s a shame to see Honda's reputation get tarnished by an engine and transmission no longer competitive.

2012 Honda CR-V instrument cluster2012 Honda CR-V Econ button

Honda increased the CR-V’s fuel efficiency. Internal friction has been reduced with the engine and transmission, and the payoff is a modest increase in mileage. There is also an Eco Assist feature that changes throttle response and other parameters to encourage more frugal driving. The EPA rates front-wheel drive CR-Vs at 23/31 mpg (city/highway), and all-wheel-drive models now earn 22/30.

During my brief test in an AWD model, I was able to get close to 30 mpg on a short 200-mile road trip. Around town, however, the average quickly decreased to the low 20s. Unless you have a long freeway commute, the CR-V is not the best choice for the mileage conscious driver.

Although most SUV buyers aren’t looking for a sporty ride, one of the CR-V’s best qualities has always been how it handles the road. The suspension is car-like, with an excellent balance between comfort and handling. A week of exceptionally nice weather prevented me from being able to test the all-wheel drive system, but I have no doubt the CR-V would remain poised even in inclement weather.

2012 Honda CR-V interior

The interior receives a significant update for 2012, and the results are not half bad, although some elements proved frustrating. The dash now features dual display screens, one placed high and farther back, and a larger one in the middle primarily for the nivigation system. Integrating the various functions into one display would have been more user friendly and visually appealing. The knobs and buttons stacked around the center screen could also be larger and more intuitively organized.

The CR-V is well built. Noise levels were quite low and there were squeak or rattles. My EX-L test car featured heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, moon roof, and a rearview camera. Although not a luxury cars, the CR-V is a comfortable place to spend some time. The rear seats also fold down easily, turning the CR-V into a capable little cargo hauler.

The 2012 CR-V starts at $22,295 for the 2WD LX model. My AWD EX-L tester topped out at close to $30,000 with the optional navigation system. Although I wish the CR-V had received a more thorough update, buyers will likely continue to flock to this reliable, competent small SUV.

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