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2020 Honda CR-V Test Drive Review
Honda’s compact SUV has been satisfying buyers for more than two decades, with more than five million CR-V’s sold. Such a legacy means the CR-V has long had its wrinkles smoothed out into a comfortable and capable crossover package that’s only downside may be its sheer inoffensiveness. This year’s model gets engine and safety upgrades, which improve fuel economy and help to make Honda’s bestseller an even better value.
Look and Feel
This fifth generation of Honda’s compact crossover has been on the market since the 2017 model year, so its design is now as familiar as it is fun. Honda’s designers have always taken a soft approach to penning the CR-V’s lines, which are as curvy and car-like as ever. With a family resemblance to Honda’s sedan lineup in its front and rear fascias and an overall look that leans more station wagon than SUV, the CR-V's styling defines the paradigm for modern family transportation—at least on the outside.
Inside, however, is another story. The CR-V’s interior is a mish-mash of textures and materials. Some are nice, like the wood-look trim and leather upholstery that can be found in the pricier models. But those upscale touches clash with some of the low-quality plastics, which remind the driver that an expensive version of the CR-V is a pricey upgrade of a commodity car, rather than a truly premium product.
Indeed, the base CR-V, a front-wheel-drive (FWD) model in LX trim, starts at an MSRP of just $26,270. Just as it does with the rest of its lineup, Honda keeps things simple with the CR-V, which has just four trim levels: the aforementioned LX, EX (starting at $28,720), EX-L ($31,270), and Touring ($24,470). Each comes with Honda’s standard three-year or 36,000-mile warranty All-wheel drive (AWD) is a $1,500 option on all CR-V trims.
A striking set of 17-inch alloy wheels is standard, while CR-V EX trims get 18’s, and the otherwise optional 19-inchers are fitted to the CR-V Touring. Fabric seating adorns the two lowest trim levels, with real leather available for the front and rear seats in the top two. Honda includes a retractable moonroof on all but the LX trim, but this is a far cry from the panoramic-style sunroof that’s available on the Toyota RAV4 and Volkswagen Tiguan. In keeping with the CR-V’s car-like mien, roof rails are only fitted on the top-of-the-line Touring model, and even these are about as low profile as they come.
For the 2020 model year, the CR-V lineup has been even further simplified, as Honda has done away with last year’s base engine. That 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine has been replaced by the 1.5-liter turbocharged engine that was previously reserved for EX trims and above. Making 190 horsepower and 179 pound-feet of torque, and mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), this turbo four-cylinder powertrain is well matched to the CR-V.
Although some CVT’s have earned a reputation for sluggish response and a propensity to allow the engine to drone away at high revs, Honda’s engineers have done a good job in applying this fuel-saving technology. The CR-V does take a moment to get going, but once it’s moving, it feels quick, especially when it’s in the Sport drive mode. The transmission does a credible imitation of a conventional automatic well enough that most drivers will not notice the difference.
The CR-V’s car-like demeanor is reflected in its road manners, which are excellent. It drives much like a small sedan, with a nicely weighted steering feel and nimble handling. The CR-V is hardly sporty, but its chassis is well buttoned-down, firm yet comfortable, with minimal body roll. The CR-V never feels portly, in part because its curb weight is low—just 3,337 pounds for the FWD LX model.
That the CR-V is among the lightest vehicles in its class helps not only with acceleration and handling, but fuel economy as well. FWD CR-V models are rated by the EPA at 30 miles per gallon combined, while AWD CR-V’s manage 29—a 2-mpg improvement over last year’s 2.4-liter-equipped CR-V. Those numbers put the AWD CR-V at the top of its class, matching the Subaru Forester, and 1 mpg ahead of the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.
For those buyers looking for the highest fuel economy, Honda has also introduced a hybrid version for 2020, covered in a separate review. The CR-V Hybrid will compete with hybrid versions of the RAV4 and Escape.
Form and Function
Honda has a reputation for masterful packaging, and the CR-V is no exception. Its cabin is every bit as roomy as the class giant, the Volkswagen Tiguan, but without feeling like a one-size-larger vehicle. Head- and legroom is good in the driver's seat and in the passenger seats. Part of the reason is the CR-V’s excellent seating position, which is just right for taking advantage of its low cowl and excellent front visibility. The cargo compartment is also roomy, matching the Tiguan in volume despite the CR-V measuring three inches shorter.
The packaging excellence works on both the macroscopic and microscopic level, as clever storage solutions abound in the CR-V. The center console between the front seats has a deep well with a sliding cover, a design clearly influenced by Honda’s Odyssey minivan, and made possible because the gearshift lever actually sticks out from the dashboard. This bin is great for stowing items that would otherwise bump around while driving, and itstill permits cell phones and wallets to sit on top.
In the rear, a similarly smart two-position load floor lets owners choose between maximizing cargo space or creating a flat floor with the 60-40 split rear seats folded for a total of 75.8 cubic feet of cargo space. With the floor in its raised position, there’s quite a bit of room at the tops of the spare tire compartment, which works well for storing dirty or wet gear without soiling the carpet.
Even the door pockets in the CR-V are big, with the compartment extending behind the lower door panel for extra room. The bottom line is that it is easy to live with the CR-V because it is so good at swallowing all your stuff.
In its fourth year on the market, the CR-V is really showing its age when it comes to infotainment. In LX trim, a 5-inch screen is fitted standard, which is woefully undersized and lacking in features; Bluetooth connectivity and Pandora compatability are just about all it offeres. Even the 7-inch touchscreen found in higher trims seems tiny compared to the dazzling 8-inch screen that’s optional in the Tiguan. And Honda offers nothing that compares to the VW’s optional Digital Cockpit, a full LCD instrument panel.
Furthermore, the CR-V’s infotainment system was pretty miserable even when it was first introduced. It doesn’t have hard buttons outside of its single power and volume knob, unlike the system in the RAV4. This makes the Honda infotainment a challenge to operate, as it often requires two or more taps to change from one function to another. Even using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto—which are only available with the larger screen—is not a panacea, as the smartphone apps feel tacked on, rather than smartly integrated. Still, they both provide better navigation than Honda’s system, which can be found only in the CR-V Touring.
That said, Honda has done well to outfit the CR-V with plenty of USB ports—provided you get the EX trim or better with the 7-inch infotainment system. There are two in the front, one for the smartphone connection and one just for charging. An additional two in the backseat are high-powered, delivering 2.5 amps. Honda also added a wireless phone charger to the Touring trim for 2020, giving that model the ability to charge as many devices as it has occupants.
The CR-V includes the “Honda Sensing” system as standard equipment, meaning even the base LX trim gets forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, road-departure mitigation, and adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assist. These systems are slowly but surely trickling down to almost every price-point. The RAV4 has Toyota’s version as standard equipment and VW will be making similar equipment standard on all grades of the next Tiguan.
Automatic high beams also come on all CR-Vs, although only EX trims and above get blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic monitoring. Industry-mandated safety equipment such as stability control, LATCH anchors for car seats, and airbags are all standard, as well.
In crash testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the 2020 Honda CR-V earned five stars, the highest rating. The CR-V scored five stars in the frontal crash test, five in the side crash, and it earned four stars in the rollover test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) also tested the CR-V, awarding it a Top Safety Pick designation, with caveats for trims below Touring. This is because the halogen headlights on those models scored only Marginal. The Touring is the only CR-V model with LED headlights, which do a much better job of illuminating the road, improving nighttime visibility.
NHTSA has issued one safety recall for the 2020 Honda CR-V for a possible rear subframe failure, although it affects only 358 total vehicles. The recall began in January 2020, and also applies to some 2019 model year CR-V’s.
Thanks to its new engine, the base CR-V has become a much more attractive value proposition for the 2020 model year, but not enough to recommend the LX. The extra $2,510 Honda charges to upgrade to the EX is a lot, but we can’t imagine too many people being happy without the larger infotainment screen and smartphone integration features it comes with. That you also get blind-spot monitoring, heated seats, rear privacy glass, a moonroof, keyless entry, a better audio system, and a few cosmetic enhancements makes it worth the money.
Moving up to the EX-L primarily adds leather upholstery (that’s what the L stands for), but you also get power adjustment for the front passenger seat, a power tailgate, and a Homelink built-in garage door opener. For $2,490, that’s not a bad deal.
Spending another $3,200 for Touring trim, however, seems less worthwhile. The audio system upgrade that comes with this trim adds a subwoofer, but it doesn’t sound all that great, and the Honda navigation system is inferior in every way to what your smartphone can supply. A heated steering wheel and wireless phone charging are nice, as are the cosmetic enhancements, such as ambient lighting and fancy exhaust pipes. However, it’s a shame that the Touring’s most important exclusive feature—its LED headlights, the ones that IIHS likes for their improved margin of safety at night—are unavailable without paying this much money.
Still, a loaded Honda CR-V Touring with AWD costs only $35,970, while a comparable RAV4 or Tiguan ring the bell at nearly $40,000. No compact crossover SUV seems like much of a bargain at that price.
For many years Honda has set the standard for the class—or at least been the one to craft the template that the rest of the industry follows. It’s no secret that vehicles in this segment are more similar than they are different. That this current generation of CR-V doesn’t stand too far apart from a crowded field of competitors, including the Subaru Forester, Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, and Volkswagen Tiguan, is a testament to its merits.
Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over more than two decades in automotive journalism, including Autoblog, Automobile, Car and Driver, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine.
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