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2008 Honda CR-V

When Honda launched its latest CR-V in 2007, the Japanese automaker took some heat for not keeping up with rival compact utility vehicles that were offering more powerful six-cylinder engines.

When Honda launched its latest CR-V in 2007, the Japanese automaker took some heat for not keeping up with rival compact utility vehicles that were offering more powerful six-cylinder engines.

There was no doubt that the latest in a line of five-passenger five-door CR-Vs dating back to 1997 was the most luxurious, best-equipped and safest ever. It had even lost its parochial slab-sided styling for something a little more sexy (for a Honda, anyway.)

Trouble was, the perception with some critics was that all Honda's four-cylinder-only CR-V offered was great gas mileage – I mean c'mon, who cared about that?

Yeah, well that was then and this is now, and fuel economy is about the only thing selling cars these days.

So where those V6 CUVs suck dino juice in the 12 L/100 km range, the four-cylinder-only CR-V (along with Nissan's new $24,998 Rogue cute-ute that I have not tested yet) leads the class with a real-world fuel rating of less than 10 L/100 km.

My $35,190 CR-V EX-L tester was loaded except for nav (all-wheel-drive, heated and powered front seats, leather throughout and an upgraded sound system), but the standard CR-V attributes of safety, build quality and roomy accommodations for five and their stuff are all available on the front-drive $27,790 LX base model as well.

Essentially a tall Civic wagon, the new CR-V's step-in height is low, and its driving position is excellent. Driver instrumentation and cabin controls are clear and intuitive to use throughout. Robust and supportive, the front seats look like they came from the Accord midsize sedan. Plus everything is screwed together well – arguably the best in segment, and equal to the pricier CR-V-derived $41,400 Acura RDX.

In addition to such CR-V family favourites as the retractable tray between the front seats that offers minivan van-like rear access to deal with squabbling offspring, there's lots of rear leg room once back there, with seats that recline and a centre pass-through for hockey sticks, snowboards or polo mallets.

The middle rear seat can even slide forward to refill sippy cups– just like in a $50,995 Volvo XC90.

Don't let the CR-V's swoopy rear glass fool you into thinking it can't haul. Its cargo volume is better than the Rogue, Toyota RAV4 ($27,400) or Saturn Vue ($26,990.)

Also like Volvo, Honda loads on safety features as standard kit. Because of this, the CR-V receives National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's top five-star safety rating across the board.

Out on the road, as long as you don't thrash the engine, the Honda's rigid body structure delivers a quiet, refined and relaxed driving experience. And with the help of a suspension shared with the RDX, understeer is less than in previous models. Plus an increase in steering feel means the CR-V drives more like a tall car than an SUV.

Just remember: compared to more performance-oriented CUVs, say, like Mitsubishi's Outlander, the CR-V is a bit of a wallflower.

There's no manual transmission option. That means when you drop the throttle, the CR-V's high revving 166 hp mill and five-speed automatic make more noise than forward movement. Taking almost 11 seconds, getting from rest to 100 km/h is more of an eventuality than an instantaneous moment. All the while it moans and whines like a kid who's been in the car too long.

On the CR-V EX models and up, part-time AWD is standard. But because it's the slip-n-grip variety and its engine only has a measly 161 lb.-ft. of torque, its off-roading is limited to light cottage trails and unplowed winter city streets.

Okay, so the CR-V is no off-roader. In fact, if you like to drive on pavement and you don't need your buns swathed in leather and heated or your tunes blasting, the base model FWD LX is the way to go.

It's lighter by 69 kilograms, which aids steering feel, acceleration and fuel economy (it's rated about 0.5 L/100 km less than the quasi-AWD models.) For most drivers, a good set of snows will suffice.

Ubiquitous in Canada as doughnut shops and hockey rinks, the CR-V is easy to overlook among flashier, sportier, more powerful, or newer competitors.

Yet as a purely rational proposition, the Honda makes a good case for itself beyond great gas mileage – mainly because for the majority of drivers in this segment, the CR-V's weak powertrain isn't an issue.

Instead, they'll appreciate the Honda's well-thought out and nicely-put-together interior, quiet and comfortable ride, versatile rear seating cargo hold, and high crash test scores. Oh yeah, and compact car fuel economy.

One could say it's Revenge of the Nerd time for Honda's CR-V.

Freelance auto reviewer John LeBlanc can be reached at [email protected]

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