Head over the parapet and best foot forward
FIRST DRIVE:Honda is once more sticking its head above the parapet that seems to cloak more than a dozen brands in Ireland these days, making them virtually invisible – and forgotten – to all but loyal followers. Spanish brand Seat – owned by VW Group – remains one of those brands, and its tagline tells the tale: “The Irish motor industry’s best-kept secret”.
Carry out a straw poll in the average lunchtime canteen and you will find that there are several serious challengers for that title these days. Honda teeters on the brink of being one of these “secret brands”. Even those who recall the brand without prompting rarely can name more than the Civic from its model range. Honda remains in the motoring mindset, but it’s arguably due to the seepage of quality TV ads running in the UK and catching the eye of Irish viewers.
The problem faced by Honda is one that others with relatively small market shares must also surmount: obscurity. The public simply don’t consider them, and as a result their market share is small and the dealer network is limited, so the number of reminders and access points dwindles. This in turn feeds the limited market share. You get the picture. To break the vicious circle takes money or seriously good new models.
Can the CR-V be the car to do this? In fairness, that’s asking too much of a model that’s operating in a niche market with a quasi-premium price. The SUV craze is over and it will have a limited audience regardless of the brand.
The problem with the CR-V, then, has little to do with the car itself. It’s a competent piece of engineering, a comfortable and compliant family transporter, and competitively priced when you consider it’s a fully-fledged four-wheel drive.
Yet the volumes are unlikely to be high enough to make it as common a sight as the Qashqai, a model that is the only real star in Nissan’s line-up these days. And it’s up against the growing brand presence of the Koreans – both Hyundai and Kia. It’s unfair to a brand whose heritage and engineering prowess deserves to be rubbing shoulders with the premium set.
Admittedly, work still needs to be done on the brand’s interiors, which have improved but are simply not up to the levels of European rivals. Here’s a trivial little example: push your head back in the headrest and, after the initial feel of very soft sponge, you encounter the harsh metal frame of the seat. That’s not the sort of thing you expect to encounter on a €40,000 car. It’s a silly little point but it sums up several areas where the interior doesn’t come up to some of the premium – or quasi-premium – players.
The engine is – as one would expect from a proudly engineering-orientated car firm – a smooth performer. It’s expertly soundproofed, so you hear none of the gruffness that you get in rivals, and there’s a nice, chunky short-throw transmission that instils a real sense that the driver is in full control of the power on hand.
That power is adequate if not exceptional; this engine feels perfectly at home in the CR-V, but when you consider it’s a 2.2-litre block, it should be putting out 170bhp-plus and offering a much greater torque range.
Another positive point about the CR-V is the ride quality, which is remarkably composed. Initially we pitted it against the rugged terrain of suburban Dublin’s vertiginous ramps. Some of these have been known to make agricultural suspensions wilt, but the CR-V soaked up the pitch and toss, and seemed to have more left. Where others were practising the usual ritual of brake-climb-overaccelerate-brake, the CR-V could be left at a steady 50km/h and would soak up all the problems. It boded well for a trip to the west – few if any potholes got the better of this Honda. The seats might not be amply cushioned but at least the car is.
Then there is the four-wheel-drive system; not quite Land Rover Defender territory but smart enough for a car in this class – and in the murky quagmire of an equine field it showed no signs of getting stuck.
The price is contentious. For reasons known only to the upper echelons at Honda, the car firm has opted to launch with the 2.2-litre and save the more economically sound 1.6-litre diesel for autumn next year. Trying to make sense of this, it’s probably about putting your best foot forward. Unfortunately, it’s a foot shod in expensive leather when the market is eager for value above all else. In a market where car firms struggle to get their voices heard, it risks the new CR-V being written off as too expensive before the actual market-maker arrives on forecourts. When it comes it should carry a far more financially competitive sticker price.
The CR-V is a surprisingly smart, comfortable and competent mid-size SUV that will please those who give it a chance. The question remains, though: are there enough of those to make a difference? In an exceptionally tough market I fear the demand will not meet the levels this car deserves. For the sake of a one-of-a-brand rich in automotive pedigree, I hope I am wrong.
Honda CR-V: The lowdown
Engine: 2,199cc diesel putting out 148bhp @ 4,000rpm and 350Nm of torque @ 2,000rpm with a six-speed manual transmission.
Performance: 0-100km/h in 9.7 seconds.
Fuel economy: 5.6 L/100km (50.4 mpg).
Emissions: Manual 149-154g/km (€330 motor tax); auto 174-180g/km (€677 motor tax).
Features: Honda’s Intelligent All-Wheel-Drive system; 17in alloys; dual-zone climate control; cruise control; electric windows; alarm; LED daytime running lights; stability control; six airbags; hill-start assist; USB connection for iPod/iPhone. ES versions add: Bluetooth; front foglights; parking sensors; auto lights and wipers; leather steering wheel; electric folding mirrors. ES Sport add: leather/Alcantara upholstery; heated front seats; 18in alloys; Bi-xenon headlamps; active cornering lights. EX versions add: full leather upholstery; Sat-Nav; panoramic glass roof; power tailgate.
Price: ES version €39,495 (SE starts at €33,785).