2010 Honda CR-V - Click above for high-res image gallery

The Honda CR-V charged into the breach back in 1996, showing traditional SUV buyers that a rapier could work as well as a broadsword. When gas prices turned the body-on-frame market topsy-turvy, might didn't necessarily equal right. The meek crossover inherited the Earth, or at least a lot of conquest sales from former SUV buyers. The CR-V lead this charge against traditional SUVs and following a complete makeover in 2007 it surged to the top of the sales charts. This supposedly weak little softroader stole the SUV sales crown from atop the Ford Explorer's head where it had sat untouched for 15 years from 1991 through 2006.

But the battlefield has changed and the 2010 Honda CR-V is facing formidable challengers on all sides. Most offer a V6 engine, having grown in size and power to resemble those mid-size SUVs they once displaced. Rather than bulk up the CR-V with an optional V6, Honda did what Honda does best and just made its four-cylinder better. The 2010 model is armed with 14 more horsepower and a long list of standard and optional equipment. So... is the CR-V this segment's once and future king or is time to crown another? Read on to find out.

Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

All-new back in 2007, the 2010 updates include a redesigned front fascia with fresh horizontal chrome slats in the grille and a honeycomb insert cut into the bumper. It's not bad, except the severe underbite in that front fascia. Think Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade, minus the homicidal urges. The hood has been re-contoured in the freshening process, although you probably would have missed it if we hadn't told you.

This newest CR-V still has the same Outback-aping lower cladding and controversially curved D-pillar in profile, but the rear bumper gets a bit of liposculpturing to differentiate it from the '09. It's not a bad look overall, but compared to the more straightforward shape of the previous generation, it's no Lancelot either.

Our "Polished Metal Metallic" (new for '10) EX-L also sported the new split five spoke (a.k.a. 10-spoke) 17-inch alloy wheels that you'll find on EX and EX-L models. They look great and although they don't quite fill out the wheel-wells, they do manage to keep this thing from looking too much like a hippo on roller skates.

Once praised for its tidy dimensions, the 2010 CR-V is larger than its forebears, but now finds itself in a class with vehicles like the Chevrolet Equinox that are up to eight inches longer, or ones offering (admittedly compromised) three-row seating like the Toyota RAV-4. Ironically, that means many of these compact CUVs are now just as big as the mid-size SUVs they dethroned. Prices have climbed too, and although this CR-V is competitive at its loaded sticker of $30,455, several of its rivals give you a V6 option for that money, which the CR-V does not.

Besides the aforementioned styling tweaks, the little-SUV-that-could gets a bit more equipment and a much-appreciated boost in power. The 2010 Honda CR-V EX-L w/Navi 4WD (an irksome mouthful) is the top-of-the-line model and comes ready for battle with a sunroof, Bluetooth, touch-screen navigation, TPMS, leather, back-up cam and automatic headlights – a first for the CR-V.

With all that kit, we can't help but think back to the scrappy little cute-ute of 1997 with its picnic table cargo floor and rear-mounted spare. My, how these CUVs have grown up. That MSRP, we might add, is the highest price you can pay for a CR-V. The base model starts at $21,545 and we're guessing most will sell in the mid-$20k range. So what do you get for all that gold? Step inside.

The interior of our EX-L tester was quite surprising. Had you sat us in it blindfolded, we might have guessed this was an Acura. The black leather, brushed aluminum accents and wide array of electronics are fit for royalty, its peasant roots only betrayed by the assortment of plastics in the cabin. We counted at least six different colors, textures and finishes on the dash and doors alone.

Questionable materials aside, the controls are all easy to reach, have a good feel and are logically placed. The steering wheel is nice and thick, with controls for just about everything at your thumb-tip, and a voice-command trigger that makes almost everything else accessible by the spoken word. The electronic "ears" in the Honda system did a great job of listening too, only flubbing our commands once or twice.

The circular door pull design and cornucopia of plastic are among our biggest quibbles, and we wonder how well the metal accents will hold up, but overall the interior is quite regal in this trim level. There's Bluetooth on models with the voice-command touchscreen navigation system and auto on/off headlights on the EX-L, and we also got a USB jack in the glovebox as part of the package.

Despite the Black Knight color scheme of our tester's interior, the environment inside isn't too claustrophobic, except when glancing over our shoulder to check traffic. We had a lengthy debate over the downwardly curving D-pillar and whether or not it really blocked anything important from our rear view. The previous generation's full glass worked just fine, so covering part of it for style's sake seems a bit foolish. Still, it's much better than the reverse upward kink popular among its rivals, which tend to block more of the road with their thicker bases. Overall, it just made us feel like somebody was sitting in back, even when the seats were empty.

Those seats, by the way, are wonderfully firm and supportive. The front thrones are a bit narrow, perhaps, but that's mainly because of their hip-holding bolsters. The 40/20/40 split rear bench is really slick, disappearing with a simple tug and flip act worthy of Merlin's wand. It's a big cargo hold, measuring 35.7 cubic feet even before you fold down the rear bench. Over a week's worth of use, we weren't able to find anything we needed to move that didn't easily fit in there.

Over a few hundred test miles, what stood out was the general lack of complaints we had with this little SUV. The stereo sounded great, the navigation system got us where we needed to go without hassle, the climate control system worked perfectly and calls using the Bluetooth system were clear. The back-up camera really came in handy when we almost ran over a tripod while positioning the CR-V for its photoshoot. We also got a kick out of the large flip-up LCD screen that hides the navigation DVD slot. Its "I'm not a serving tray" graphic when in the horizontal position is priceless.

From command central the view is clear to all corners once you make friends with those D-pillars. The gauges are straightforward analogs bracketing a small information screen that delivers fuel economy, doors ajar and outside temperature on a click-through rotation. The overhead console features a handy conversation mirror/eyeglass holder along with the reading lights and sunroof controls. That sunroof, by the way, did a fair job of letting in some fresh air while keeping buffeting to a minimum – even at full gallop – and gallop it does.

The CR-V's upgraded 2.4-liter DOHC i-VTEC four-cylinder has corralled 14 more horses since last year, with output now rated a more class-worthy 180 horsepower. It never felt lacking, and could even be described as "spritely" at times, especially when you dig your spurs in and the VTEC comes on. Fuel economy has improved to boot, with EPA city/highway going up one mile per gallon across the board. We saw an overall average of 24 mpg and better than 30 mpg on the highway, to the government's 21/27 prediction.

Around town, our grown-up softroader felt like a fortress on wheels. The body was incredibly solid, almost Mercedes-like. While it's a reasonably able handler, there's definitely a bit of body roll to go along with its somewhat harsh ride. The stiff suspension does keep body movements from getting too far out of hand though, so it more than compensated for the extra vibrations in our backsides.

While the 2010 power boost is much appreciated, this CR-V is definitely not as fast as a RAV-4 or Equinox. But what the 2.4-liter four lacks in grunt it makes up for in smoothness and offers more than enough power in most situations. Combined with the sure-footed handling the on-road performance of this CR-V didn't give us much to complain about. The engine even made a nice growl when given the spurs, easily getting up to highway speeds and smoothly summoning velocity for passing at will. If more competitors start dropping their V6 options like the 2011 Hyundai Tucson did, this Honda might find itself right in the sweet-spot once again.

Not only was acceleration was good, but scrubbing off speed wasn't a problem either. The binders felt strong, although there was an initial half-inch or so of travel in the pedal before they started to bite. After that there was a nicely proportional feel to the system. It was the same with the steering, with a degree or two of play before the chunky 225/65R17 Bridgestone Dueller H/L 400 tires heeded our commands. Those tires contributed to the noticeable road noise at freeway speeds, but the CR-V's cabin isn't any louder than its competitors.

Times have certainly changed in the SUV world. The body-on-frame dinosaurs that once ruled these lands have been supplanted by CUVs that offer almost as much room and similar performance. Our admittedly loaded 2010 Honda CR-V EX-L w/Navi 4WD was priced at a healthy $30,455, but offered more amenities than most shoppers will need. As we mentioned, the one thing noticeably lacking from the Honda's spec sheet is a V6. While the competition has been making a big deal of offering a half-dozen firing chambers, we quickly realized that this CUV doesn't really need more than a four-cylinder in the engine room.

The CR-V's numbers, however, don't make it a standout on paper. It's a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, and although that might seem like a deterrent in such a competitive field, its mid-pack horsepower rating, length, width, height, wheelbase and curb weight belie the CR-V's appeal. It has more room inside than you'd expect and a long list of standard and optional features that help set it apart from other suitors.

Make no mistake though, the 2010 Honda CR-V is no Prince Charming. It has a somewhat choppy ride, loud cabin and looks that would make any princess seek a different frog to kiss. But we'd still put it on our short list if we were shopping in this class. Although it's not a champion in any test of mettle, it does a yeoman's job on any everyday task. The CR-V may have bumped the Explorer from its throne and held the sales title for three years running, but it needs to keep its sword sharp to retain that crown. The extra power, equipment and refinement of the 2010 model should keep it near the top a bit longer.

Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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