Honda's CR-V was not the first small car-based SUV. Following Toyota's RAV4 by a couple of years, it arrived in the U.S. in 1996 as a '97 model. But the CR-V - which means "Comfortable Runabout Vehicle" according to the latest Honda explanation - soon emerged as a top seller in the fast-growing class now widely known as crossovers (CUVs) and one of Honda's best sellers here and abroad.

Propelled by its strong balance of attributes - compact size, utility, fuel economy and affordable price - it has become Honda's most widely distributed vehicle with more than 2.5 million sold in 160 countries. Despite its age, sales of the '02-'06 Gen II CR-V have continued to climb as the segment has grown. In 2005, it was third behind Jeep Liberty and Ford Escape and still on the rise as of spring, 2006.

Still, no one would argue that Honda's practical and popular CR-V was the prettiest, quickest, or most agile in its class. Those are the areas on which project leader Mitsuru Horikoshi concentrated in designing and developing this new third-generation CR-V.

In addition to improving the interior's comfort, convenience, and quietness, he asserts, "we also decided to take the CR-V in a more advanced and emotional direction." That led to the concept direction of "COOL CR-V," which translates, he says, to "emotional styling," fun to drive," and "fun to use."

"Our concept buyer was a stylish young mom," Mr. Horikoshi adds.

The egg is born

Maybe it's that young-mom bent that explains the CR-V's noticeably ovoid new shape. Honda calls it dynamic and sporty - and as such, also fitted the new CR-V with a new double grille, an arching roofline and rugged-looking lower body cladding. It sits lower on slightly wider (+1.2 inches front and +0.8 in. rear) tracks. And the previous model's tailgate-mounted spare is tucked away under the rear floor. To our eye, the new face has a big, flat proboscis, and the nearly flat rear roof that preserves usable headroom and cargo space conflicts with the stylishly arched window line. Different? You bet.

Dimensionally, the new CR-V is about three inches shorter than the '06 (because the exterior spare is gone), an inch and a half wider, and roughly the same height on a 0.2-in shorter wheelbase. Its ground clearance is nearly an inch lower (it's no serious off-roader) and it weighs some 90 pounds more thanks to a stronger structure and increased content.

Inside, the look is tidy and stylish if slightly trucky, with metallic-look vertical and soft horizontal surfaces. The fits are tight, and the soft plastics are grained for a quality appearance. The mid-range EX and top-line EX-L sport a handsome two-tone with the lower dash and doors matching the seats. The large, round tachometer and speedometer are clear and precisely marked, the switches and controls are ergonomically easy, and the shifter has been moved down to a more rightful place below the HVAC controls.

Spirit injection

"Our goal," Mr. Horikoshi says, "was to make it solid and tight and evolve from an SUV to a more sedan-like feel. We were able to achieve this through three main goals: lowering the center of gravity, making a more rigid body structure and improving the driving performance."

The lower center of gravity - accomplished mostly by lowering the powertrain and relocating the spare tire - and stiffer structure combine with wider tracks and larger wheels and tires to move the new CR-V's handling most of the way toward where the engineers wanted it. Beyond that, they redesigned the (front MacPherson strut and rear multi-link) suspension geometries and beefed up the rear stabilizer bar. It's no sports sedan, but we can attest that this works pretty well without detracting from ride quality on rougher surfaces.

The previous model's 2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder carries on with improved valve timing and manifold tuning that yield ten more horsepower (to 166) and one more lb-ft (to 161) over a more linear torque curve, plus one additional EPA highway mpg. That slightly enhanced efficiency - despite the added width and weight - results from a ten-percent reduction in aerodynamic drag and a new standard five-speed automatic transmission with a taller top gear vs. the '06 four-speed automatic. The previously standard five-speed manual has been discontinued. Performance is noticeably improved but far from exciting, and there's no available V-6 to counter the RAV4 and others in the class.

Besides utility, one thing that sets a so-called crossover apart from the average car is availability of all-wheel or four-wheel drive. In the CR-V's case, it's an improved real-time system that cooperates with the standard Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) to sense impending instability and shifts torque where it's needed to prevent it.

Fun to use

The CR-V is mostly about utility and versatility but it handles comfort and quietness well. For starters, a new tilt and telescoping steering wheel combines with increased seat travel and height adjustment range to provide a comfortable position for just about any driver. Rear room and comfort is surprisingly good, and NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) is significantly improved throughout.

A new standard trip computer offers fuel economy and range. Ambient lighting is cool blue, and all switches are illuminated with transparent blue LEDs. Usable storage includes two separate gloveboxes, ample cupholders, an overhead sunglasses holder (with an integrated "conversation" mirror), an underseat storage box, and a retractable center tray or (in EX-L models) a center console box.

The rear seat has a 60/40-split cushion, but the backs are divided 40/20/40 so each section can fold separately. They flip and fold forward to increase cargo room but not flat into the floor. Young parents (a key CR-V marketing target) can attach a child seat in the center or one on each side, then slide the seats forward for better "communication." The low-effort top-hinged tailgate opens high, and an available foldable or removable rear shelf can create two separate cargo spaces.

Safety laden, slickly

Consistent with Honda's mantra of "safety for everyone," the '07 CR-V gets the full package, including six air bags (side curtain, front side, and dual-stage and dual-threshold front), active head restraints, and an Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure designed to spread frontal crash energy more evenly between vehicles of different sizes. "Our goal is best-in-class safety from impacts in any direction," Mr. Horikoshi says.

On top of the impressive list of standard features in the base LX, the mid-range EX adds the two-tone interior, a power moonroof, a security system, rear privacy glass, steering wheel audio controls, the dual-deck cargo shelf, alloy wheels, and an upgraded six-speaker audio with a six-disc CD changer. The EX-L piles on leather upholstery with heated front seats, XM Satellite Radio, a rearview camera (and the option to add a $2000 navigation system with voice recognition), and seven-speaker premium sound with a six-disc CD changer in the center console.

This new CR-V's bolder, more modern look may not appeal to every stylish minivan mom or sport-utility dad, but most should agree it's a major improvement over the bland little box it replaces. Same for the driving dynamics, comfort, quietness, and utility, though the automatic-only four won't run with the competition's available V-6s.

With seemingly everyone moving to small and mid-size crossovers from larger trucks and SUVs above or smaller cars below, this segment is forecast to grow from 2005's 1.5 million U.S. units to 2.5 million by 2010. And with prices starting in the low $20k range, Honda should easily move the 160k-plus 2007 CR-Vs they're planning this year, and beyond.

See Honda CRV Slideshow Here

2007 Honda CR-V

Base price: $21,500 (est.)

Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC i-VTEC four, 166 hp/161 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front or four-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 178.0 x 71.6 x 66.1 in

Wheelbase: 103.1 in

Curb weight (2WD/4WD): 3389/3501 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 23/30 (2WD); 22/28 (4WD) mpg

Major standard features: Keyless remote; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering wheel; power windows, locks; power folding side mirrors; air conditioning with air filtration; AM/FM/CD four-speaker audio with MP3 capability; trip computer

Safety features: Anti-lock brakes with EBD and Brake Assist; stability and traction control; dual front, side and curtain airbags; front active head restraints; daytime running lights

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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