1998 Honda CRV

First, the good stuff about the CRV (for comfortable runabout vehicle), Honda's first sport utility: Arguably, it's the cutest of the new wave of small "sport-cutes."

Headroom is great, and tall glass all around ensures first-rate visibility.

Could it be that the booming popularity of sport cutes – small, medium and large – stems from buyers' unconscious longing for some serious space around their heads?

Mercedes Benzes, among the world's most desired cars, offer exceptional headroom. A coincidence? I don't think so. The rig's fully automatic REALTIME 4WD. Real time here means the only time this system is on is when it really thinks it should be.

So you automatically go from 100 per cent front-wheel drive (better fuel economy) to a front rear split (better traction), depending on road conditions.

Transfer case levers sprouting from floor humps, and cabin stickers and owner's manuals going on about free-wheeling hubs and 4Hi and 4Lo, can confuse the easily muddled.

The CRV's approach is much more tactful. A good-sized tray with cup holders folds down between the front bucket seats, letting you stride to the rear bench when necessary.

Or, if you're on the bench, you can stretch your footsies up the centre for extra comfort. A simple but inspired design. The tailgate's glass can be lifted at the turn of a key or push of a dash button, allowing access to the sizable cargo area. No need to swing open the lower portion, which carries the spare, unless you feel like it. Those nifty high mounted taillights really get the message to traffic behind. Under the baggage area's carpet you'll find a gray plastic section about the size of a card table. Lift it out, unfold the two metal legs and you're ready to picnic.

And under the table is a waterproof plastic storage bucket. No more tying that wet bathing suit to the aerial for you.

Some not so good stuff: Who would have thought sporty Honda would sell out to the international automotive conspiracy to foist automatic transmissions on consumers at $1,000 or so a pop?

But it's true. The CRV comes only with a four-speed automatic lashed to one available engine an all aluminum, 2.0 litre, transverse four. The motor is rated at 126 horsepower.

A five-speed manual would have enlivened the party.

As it stands, the powertrain is fine for sedate motoring but, in brisk passing or on hills, the strain is obvious, particularly as the onboard load grows.

Toyota's RAV4 sport-ute and Suzuki's Sidekick both can be had with manual boxes.

The Honda's column mounted shifter does have a nice feature. The powertrain is fine for sedate motoring but in brisk passing or on hills, the strain is obvious. Some PRND41 changes such as going from reverse through neutral to D4 can be done with the flick of a finger. That's as opposed to having to grasp the shifter and pull it toward you and then up or down. (The latter method is used to get into park or reverse.) The CRV's $26,800 sticker may give some cause for pause. For that kind of money, you could get into a Jeep Cherokee Sport with a 4.0 litre six, good for 190 horses.

Of course, the roomy Asian is exceptionally well dressed and in fact comes in only one trim level. The only glaring omission is no standard tape or CD player to accompany the radio.

The four door RAV4 4WD with five speed manual and 2.0 litre engine starts at $23,398; with automatic, at $24,768. Option packages quickly elevate those numbers, of course.

If price is of the essence, there's always the four-door Suzuki Sidekick Classic JX, starting at $18,295 (with manual transmission stirring a 1.6litre four). Honda's latest rides high (excellent minimum ground clearance of 20.5 centimetres) in the best sport-ute tradition, yet is car like it’s built on the Civic platform. But there's a shortfall in that feeling of ruggedness and heft that SUV types love.

The CRV passed one key Wheels test with flying colours. When it came time to give back our tester, done up in Flamenco Black Pearl with gray interior, I was sorry to see it go.

Short Turn is an occasional column describing quick impressions of new vehicles supplied by the manufacturer.

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