They—whoever they are—say it is difficult to be humble when you’re the best at what you do, but apparently they forgot to tell that to the 2021 Honda CR-V, the family hauler that we rate number one among compact SUVs. It’s not hard to believe that Honda would make the best compact SUV in the segment—but what exactly makes it so good? We took a refresher drive in a top-of-the-line 2021 Honda CR-V Touring with all-wheel drive and were reminded of everything we love about the CR-V. Let’s take a tour, front to back.
We’ll start with the engine, a 1.5-liter turbo-four that delivers 190 family-friendly horsepower and 179 lb-ft of torque. It’s an engine we waited quite a while for: While other automakers plunged headlong into small-displacement turbocharged engines, Honda bided its time before entrusting the CR-V to such newfangled technology. The engine is a good and decent public servant that pulls the all-wheel-drive CR-V from 0 to 60 mph in an acceptable 7.8 seconds. The engine’s wide torque peak—stretching from 2,000 to 5,000 rpm—means it’s always ready with a solid shove when you need it.
The powertrain’s killer app is its continuously variable transmission. CVTs may be the bane of car fanatics everywhere, but this one allows the engine to deliver both good response and respectable fuel economy, with the added bonus of smooth, shift-free acceleration. Stab the accelerator, or just mat it from a standstill, and the CVT snaps off rev changes to better emulate a traditional (and arguably inferior) automatic transmission, reducing the motorboat-like pitch changes to which so many gearheads object. Speaking of noises, we much preferred the 1.5T’s constant din to the screaming-or-silent soundtrack in the hybrid version of the CR-V.
Let’s move next to the front seats, where the driver faces a large, sensible, and mostly digital instrument cluster. The dash is wreathed with stowage spaces and places to plug in electronic gadgets. Overall, we like the design, especially the way Honda’s designers turned the panel seams into design elements. But we hated the Touring’s wood trim, which seems awkward and out of place, as if it was used to fulfil some sort of corporate mandate. We think the CR-V’s cabin is a much more cohesive design without it.
Our bigger beef with the CR-V concerns the infotainment system, which we find unnecessarily complex and difficult to navigate. Most modern stereo/navigation systems have some sort of a learning curve, but no matter how often we drive Hondas—and that’s pretty darn often—we just can’t get used to their menu structure and the number of button presses it takes to access commonly used features. We’re also convinced that the voice-recognition system isn’t as good as those in rival SUVs.
Move back to the second row, though, and once again we find little to complain about save for the silly wood trim. The CR-V is one of the roomiest SUVs in its class, and its comfort belies raw numbers, with thoughtful elements such as the generous toe space under the front seats that grants comfort to the long-legged and the 2.5-amp USB ports that charge the devices of the perpetually bored.
Our tour must include the cargo bay, which is big and boxy and lined with hard-wearing materials. On each side you’ll see what look like plastic interior door handles from an old Civic. Pull them, and the seat back on that side of the car drops down to extend the loading bay—again, one of those simple things that makes life with an SUV so much easier. Our Touring had a power-operated liftgate, with a second button that makes it a snap to set a lower maximum opening height of the liftgate for low-clearance garages or short-stature owners.
Closing the liftgate reveals one of our favorite styling elements: the taillights, which seem to float above the sheetmetal. The CR-V isn’t exactly the most stylish thing on wheels, at least not compared to the Mazda CX-5, nor the most attention-getting, especially next to the new Hyundai Tucson. Still, kudos to Honda for not trying to make it look like the rough-and-tumble off-roader that it isn’t. And those taillights are really cool.
How Does the CR-V Touring Drive?
So those are the pieces, but how do they come together on the drive? For the uninitiated, that will likely prove to be a pleasant surprise. We at MotorTrend are not among the uninitiated, so we headed for our favorite curvy road, where the Honda CR-V once again impressed us with its unexpected competence. Drive the CR-V through the turns at family-unfriendly speeds, and it remains stubbornly composed, with good grip from the tires and very little body roll. The steering is magnificent, with a heavy feel and excellent feedback. The inevitable understeer sets in gently and predictably, and only after prolonged howls of warning from the front tires.
We purposely aimed at some of the trickier midcorner bumps, and although the CR-V did bounce around on its springs more than a sports car might, it refused to lose its composure. We could justify our twisty-turny outing by saying it’s a good indicator of how well the CR-V would handle a sudden emergency maneuver, but the truth is, we had more fun out there than we’d likely admit under direct questioning.
Of course, handling usually comes with a trade-off in ride quality. Here the staff splits; some say the CR-V’s ride is fine, while others find it a bit too firm for a family SUV and would gladly trade a little (but not too much!) of its cornering prowess for a little more compliance. While it may be presumptuous to make blanket statements generalizing consumer behavior, we figure most CR-V buyers will encounter irritating jiggling on sectional freeway pavement more often than they’ll find themselves clinging tenaciously to curvy canyon roads.
In town the CR-V is easy to see out of and easy to maneuver, if a bit stiff-legged. On the highway the CR-V tracks straight and true, though it lets in a fair amount of wind and road noise, and its adaptive cruise gets tripped up trying to maintain speed on downhill grades. Overall, the driving experience is competent and unfailingly pleasant. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Honda had been building CR-Vs for a quarter-century and had the formula pretty well worked out.
And what of the competition? The CR-V’s longtime rival is Toyota’s ubiquitous RAV4, though it comes a distant fifth in our ranking of compact SUVs. We prefer the Mazda CX-5 for its slick styling and excellent driving dynamics, as well as the Subaru Forester for its fuel economy and overall value. A notable newcomer is the freshly redesigned 2022 Hyundai Tucson, which offers back-seat and cargo space to rival the CR-V’s. If you can get over the controversial exterior styling, it’s an SUV worthy of note.
But noteworthy is one thing; best is another. The 2021 Honda CR-V comes across as humble and unassuming, but it is also unfailingly capable—reasonably powerful and efficient, outstandingly practical, and surprisingly rewarding to drive. That’s what makes it number one.
2021 Honda CR-V AWD Touring Pros and Cons
Unexpectedly good handling
Good balance of power and economy
Intractable infotainment system
Silly-looking wood trim
Some might find the ride too stiff
|2021 Honda CR-V AWD Touring Specifications|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$36,720|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||1.5L/190-hp/179-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,521 lb (58/42%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.1 x 73.0 x 66.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.8 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.1 sec @ 86.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.3 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||27/32/29 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||125/105 kWh/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.67 lb/mile|