SAN DIEGO -- Honda's redesign of the CR-V crossover is the third of four product changeovers that will define the brand for most of this decade.
The Odyssey has proven a hit, while the Civic has drawn barbs for its decontenting. The CR-V and upcoming Accord will determine whether Honda has lost its mojo or the Civic was just a one-off mistake.
The basics: Although mechanically similar to the previous generation, the 2012 CR-V is shorter in height and overall length. But in a neat packaging trick, there is more interior room for occupants and storage, made by moving the windshield forward and by lowering the cargo floor.
Perhaps most important is that, although the vehicles share many components, the CR-V gets a better instrument panel design and far superior materials than the Civic, its platform sibling.
Notable features: Thanks to improved aerodynamics, less weight and engine friction reduction, the CR-V gained a couple of miles per gallon in fuel economy, despite using a mostly carryover powertrain. Honda also made the gear ratios taller to help with fuel economy, yet the car is 0.3 seconds quicker to 60 mph.
Honda increased the CR-V's torsional rigidity by strengthening the tailgate area and by using some thicker gauge steel in crucial areas.
A neat interior touch: The split-folding rear seats will flop down flat with the touch of a lever easily reached from the tailgate. The center console has a cubbyhole that will swallow a small purse.
Honda claims the CR-V has "electronic all-wheel drive," but it's mostly a carryover hydraulic system with an added electronic actuation of the torque-split mechanism between the front and rear wheels. The old system would start in fwd and send power to the rear wheels if wheel-spin was detected; the new version always supplies some amount of power to the rear wheels at startup. Up to 100 percent of engine torque can be sent to the front or rear wheels.
Honda also changed from hydraulic to electric power steering.
Standard features across the line include air conditioning, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rear-seat heater ducts and a 160-watt AM/FM/CD player.
Standard telematics include Bluetooth connectivity, rear backup camera with three angles, USB audio with Pandora link, multi-information display, and SMS texting that works with Droid X and most BlackBerry phones.
What Honda says: "People want something more economical and environmentally sensitive, but people's true wants and needs haven't changed," Akio Tonomura, CR-V large project leader, said at the press preview here.
Compromises and shortcomings: There is no hybrid version -- for now. Honda is notorious for tire and wheel noise creeping into the cabin, although this version is somewhat dampened. The five-speed automatic often resorts to downshifting into second gear when more power is suddenly needed at freeway speeds, creating a riotous racket in the cabin. There is no "sport-shift" feature with the gearshift. The rear quarter-window framing gives the butt of the car a distinctly droopy appearance from the side view. Some journalists complained of a vague on-center steering feel.
The market: Until the Japan earthquake, the CR-V was the best-selling compact crossover in the country -- a title it ceded in May to the Ford Escape. But with a goal of exceeding its 2007 peak of almost 220,000 U.S. sales, Honda looks to regain the crown.
Honda expects its typical buyers to be young and female, or Gen Y families. The marketing campaign changes somewhat. Whereas the old model transformed "CR-V" into the word "CRAVE," the new campaign uses the "V" as a stylized checkmark inside a box.
Because the CR-V is pitched toward Gen Y, Honda created a social media campaign featuring a "Leap List" -- a "bucket list" for young people before they marry and have kids -- which the CR-V is meant to help them achieve. The marketing launch begins Jan. 2 with the BCS bowl game bonanza.
Despite the flooding in Thailand that has damaged its supplier base, Honda believes it will still hit its Dec. 15 launch date.
The skinny: A modest improvement over the old model, though keeping much of the same underpinnings. The cargo area is impressive. The interior is stylish and capable. It should do well.