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Click to view picture gallery“Many people will
  buy one of Honda’s
  all-new CR-V ‘soft-
  roaders’ for no other
  reason that that it
  wears a Honda badge
  on its nose. But there’s
  more to it than meets
  the eye...”

THEY NOW COME in all shapes and sizes — large, medium and small, soft and hard, with four- and even two-wheel drive. I
'm talking about SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles), or 4x4s/4x2s.

There seems to be no other sector in the UK car market that has such a diversity of models, each targeted at very specific groups of customers. Some have five seats, some have seven and now some are being styled and camou-flaged to look like MPV people carriers so they are less likely to be targeted as anti-social by the eco-police.

UK sales of 4x4s fell last year, but much of this was put down to the run-out of two old major model ranges — the Land Rover Freelander and the Honda CR-V. According to The Society of Motoring Manufact-urers and Traders, the industry does not expect 4x4 sales to fall again this year and it expects overall 4x4 and SUV sales to be in the region of 170-180,000 units.

Normally, the Freelander just outsells the CR-V in the UK. Last year, during the model range transition period, the CR-V came out the overall top-selling 4x4 with 15,522 sales. The new model range went on sale from 1 January, and Honda expects the new CR-V to achieve 22,000 sales in 2007 in the UK and 70,000 in Europe.

The Honda CR-V is built in Britain at Honda Manufacturing's Swindon plant. UK prices start at 18,700 and rise through a huge model range and extra-cost options list to 28,075. Just two engine choices are available: a 2.0-litre petrol and a 2.2-litre common-rail direct injection turbodiesel with S, SE, ES and EX model grades. The ES grade will take 50 per cent of all UK sales followed by the range-topping EX which should account for a further 35 per cent. The split between petrol and diesel is expected to be 60 per cent in favour of diesel. Most models have the option of a manual or automatic transmission.

For the record, 70 per cent of CR-V owners are male. But many, in fact, are driven by women. The vehicle is popular as family transport, although the average age of owners is fifty-something. Honda intends to drive down the average age of ownership to the late 30s or early 40s and more 'yummy mummies' are their target.

To do this, Honda has, with the launch of the latest CR-V, moved away from the 'Chelsea tractor' image. The styling and the choice of two low-emission, fuel efficient engines has allowed Honda marketing to launch the latest CR-V with their 'Not all 4x4s are the same' cam-paign. Honda says that the footprint of the CR-V is no larger than a Ford Mondeo estate car and that the 2.0-litre petrol engine models have lower emissions than a Mini Cooper S 1.6-litre. Plus, of course, the CR-V 2.2-litre diesel models have even lower CO2 emissions.

The new CR-V takes on more of the look of an MPV — it has seating for five, a flexible seating and load carrying arrangement and is com-prehensively specified, has a lower centre of gravity for a flat and level ride and has a high safety rating with a relatively low 12E insurance grouping.

And it will tick all the right boxes for many people who want a SUV
that looks like an MPV, as well as for those who really do not need their vehicle to be a rough 'n' tough, go-anywhere 4x4 off-roader.

Although the CR-V 2.2 i-CTDi ES — priced at 21,400 — is expected to be the best-selling model, a considerable number of customers who want a fully specified model will fork out the extra money and go for the model I tested — the 2.2 i-CDTi EX with the advanced safety pack option, priced at a hefty 27,925.

On the face of it expensive, but at least your money is marginally safer with the CR-V over other off-roaders. Glass's Guide — the industry's bible for residual values — says the CR-V should retain 47 per cent of its value over the traditional three-year/60,000 period.

The exterior of the CR-V is very conservatively styled and — apart from the nicely-stacked rear vertical light clusters — the vehicle is under-stated with not a hint of brashness about it. At first glance,
you really are not quite sure if this is a 4x4 or an MPV. Or even a
large five-door hatchback on steroids!

Inside, it is well appointed and has flexible rear seating. It lacks cabin storage areas, although load space — depending on how you configure the seats — ranges between 527 and 1,568 litres. The cabin's low,
flat floor makes it easier to get into this generation of CR-V and the 60:40 spilt rear seats fold and slide individually, offering some clever pack-aging for a combination of passenger or load carrying uses. The lack of a transmission tunnel running through the car means even more leg-room and space for the family feet, while the large boot and top-hinged hatch tailgate come in handy and are welcome features.

The low front screen line provides really good forward visibility, and large door-mounted rearview mirrors help with the blind spots caused by the unusual styling — for an SUV — of the rear sloping roof line and larger rear corner pillars. All the controls are well laid out and logical, with the facia-mounted gear lever a joy to use.

Most models have a vehicle stability programme as standard with trailer stability assist (that includes an anti-snake towing function), ABS and emergency brake assist. The vehicle has driver, passenger, side and curtain airbags with a roll-over sensor. The top-of-the-range EX adds 18-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, heated front seats, elect-rically-operated adjustable driver's seat, DVD satellite navigation, Bluetooth hands free telephone kit and a rear parking camera. The latter is of real use as rearward visibility from the CR-V is not so good.

There is also a premium sound system and a panoramic sunroof.
The price of my test car also included adaptive cruise control with a 'collision mitigation braking system' — effectively an early warning function that, at speeds above 9mph, warns you if you get too close to the vehicle in front.

With air conditioning plus all the items already mentioned, this is a pretty well thought out package and being a Honda you can safely bet on the fact that it is well built and it will prove to be reliable.

The four-cylinder Honda 2.2-litre direct injection turbocharged all-aluminium engine is one of the most modern available today. It has 138bhp of power and 251lb ft of torque at 2,000rpm. Top speed is 116mph and 0-62mph takes a brisk 10.3 seconds. Honda quotes the average fuel economy as 43.5mpg although I have never been able
to get near the official figures quoted for this engine in the other vehicles that use it. The CR-V was no exception — 37mpg was the best I could achieve, and that included a fairly gentle motorway journey.

Drive to the front wheels is through a six-speed manual transmission which is smooth and precise. However, the gearing for fifth and sixth
is very high, supposedly to improve fuel economy and keep the emiss-ions low. In reality it means more A and B road driving is covered in fourth or fifth gear rather than sixth — there just isn't the flexibility in the engine and transmission set-up to stay in higher gears.

One of the CR-V's strengths is that its 'smart' 4x4 system is completely automatic and only comes into use as and when four-wheel drive is really needed. Four-wheel drive is automatically engaged as and when it is necessary: for wet, muddy, icy and snowy roads or, of course, off-road. It has no complicated differential locks or low-ratio transfer gears so, just as you would with a 'normal' car, it's simply a case of 'get in and drive'. When grip is being lost at the front, the power is diverted to the rear and to any of the four wheels that actually has grip. The system allows for some off-roading, but surfaces other than grass or gravel roads and tracks are best avoided.

The diesel models have a useful 2,000kg towing capacity so the 4x4 system and the trailer stability function make the CR-V a possible choice for caravan, horse trailer and boat towing — ideal for an 'active' family. The lightweight engine also improves the on-road handling performance of the CR-V. The steering is responsive, and the body roll is low compared with many 4x4s of a similar size.

With its low-key 4x4 styling and all-wheel drive, the new CR-V is sure to retain current CR-V customers and — because it has less of a 'Chelsea tractor' image — it should attract conquest sales from other brands. The sum of all its parts makes the CR-V a pretty complete vehicle. It will do most things for most people who really do not need a rugged bruiser of an off-roader. For me, though, it just lacks character and while it has no real faults, it didn't create any real desire in me to own one. Demerits are poor rear visibility, high gearing in fifth/sixth gears and so-so off-road ability.

However, the newly-targeted 'young mums' will definitely feel safe driving a CR-V. They can go anywhere, at any time, in good or bad weather to pick up their children. And — thanks to its combination of estate car, family mover and part-time 4x4 — the same school-run vehicle can easily double as family transport at the weekend.

And the CR-V does have a number of good points to recommend it, including a refined driving experience, well-equipped specification, high levels of safety equipment and a strong Euro NCAP rating. In addition, it's spacious and practical — and it's built in Britain. Add to that the fact that because it's a Honda it goes without saying that the CR-V is well put together. That alone will, for many private customers, be a major reason to buy one. — David Miles

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Honda CR-V 2.2i-CDTi EX
| 27,925
Maximum speed: 116mph | 0-62mph: 10.3 seconds
Overall test MPG: 37mpg | Power: 138bhp | Torque:
251lb ft
Visit Honda's website Click to go there now

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