Honda has a natural sweet spot amongst David McWilliams's cast of characters. The incisive economist has caricatured the inhabitants of post-recession Ireland, and amongst this motley crew is Sliotar Mum, summed up by McWilliams as the suburban GAA goddess with a trio of well-timed children and the organisational skills of a field marshal. For her and her US cousin, the soccer mom, Honda has developed its CR-V.
And, in keeping with their reusable water bottles, she wants to showcase her eco credentials on the road. Ideally the family transport would be fully electric or at least come with a plug, but regular trips to the family in the west means that’s impractical.
The thing about Honda is it has always held premium aspirations. Admittedly, some may struggle to remember the Japanese brand’s model range. It spent the start of the century bombarding us with fantastic ads boasting their engineering prowess in developing everything from sewing machines and scooters to jet skis and jets.
Its cars chimed with the middle classes, even regarded as an Asian alternative to the entry-level models from premium German car giants. It even had a “whispering diesel”, though it really only whispered in the Accord.
Then the recession bit and it slid back into its niche. It’s pricing was out of sync with consumers, while most of its engines didn’t fit the bill for our emissions-fixated consumers.
Banging its drum
Now it’s back, banging its drum with a hybrid aimed to sell to Sliotar mums. To lure their interest there’s the option of seven seats on a petrol version, but it’s the five-seat hybrid that may sell best.
For Honda these days, diesel is dead. Two engines are offered up in Ireland: the 2-litre petrol-electric hybrid – tested here – and a 1.5-litre turbo petrol.
Underpinning the new CR-V is the same chassis as the latest Civic, although the wheelbase is stretched a further 30mm, giving Honda the chance to boast the seven seats on the petrol version.
For once the somewhat forgotten brand has a strong entrant. The styling is slightly bulkier and than the outgoing version, and looks the better for it. It’s not sleek, but it’s stylish in its own way.
There are nice premium touches with the cabin, most notably the move to adopt button controls for the auto transmission: it’s intuitive and tidy. The touchscreen system, however, still needs some work, particularly the graphics. It’s spacious seating in five-seat format combines with a decent boot, and colleagues who have tested the seven-seat version say the extra row can actually accommodate adults – at least for a short haul.
Like nearly every well-equipped car these days, it comes with adaptive cruise control that also boasts steering assist. It’s got a problem, however, in that on motorways, when overtaking slower traffic, it regularly braked slightly as it passed the vehicle, as if it wasn’t quite sure if the slower vehicle was to the left of us or in front. Perhaps it was simply an issue with the radar calibration, but it was very annoying.
On a morning run up and down to Belfast from Dublin, the CR-V was a proper mile-muncher; but it's not fast, with an official time of 8.8 seconds that seems about right, despite an overall power output of 181bhp for the 2-litre petrol engine and battery combination. The other issue with motorway runs is that it loses a lot of its fuel-saving benefits on such long trips.
Where you get the real benefit of hybrid – and the potential to use the electric mode – is around town. We managed to average 7l/100km (40.3mpg) during our week behind the wheel, which is respectable for a car of this size. Perhaps it was our heavy right foot, but our figure is notably higher than the official tally of 5.1 litres (55.4mpg) for the all-wheel-drive version we were testing.
There are three driving modes for the CR-V: sport, eco drive and EV mode. The first two are pretty self-evident, while the last one uses the battery alone to power the car for short distances. The car can flip between the trio seamlessly, and the full-electric mode will get you down a few streets at 30km/h or so, but any faster or longer and you soon hear the rumble of the petrol engine back in business.
Honda has been slow to react to changing consumer tastes on the ground, particularly in Europe
This Honda is a really comfortable cruiser, though it can be slow to react when you kick down. One weakness is the driving dynamics: it’s not pacy and that’s also reflected in the steering feel. There’s little to suggest this car is even remotely related to the NSX. Or even the Civic.
Ultimately Honda is making a welcome return to the public’s consciousness after several years where the brand struggled to be relevant to Irish buyers. With a sharp new Civic and this new CR-V, they’re right in the mix once more. And it’s preparing to embrace an electric future, with the long-awaited production version of its cuddly Urban EV concept on the way.
The problem for Honda remains a corporate one: it has been slow to react to changing consumer tastes on the ground, particularly in Europe. It was late to diesel and, despite its incredible engineering pedigree, will be late to electric as well.
The CR-V is one area where the brand should and could do really well amongst Irish consumers and the Sliotar mums. And it’s a solid performer, which still retains a strong pedigree of premium appeal, something more mainstream rivals envy.
Heel of the hunt
Yet, in the heel of the hunt, the Honda no longer has the lead against the likes of the new Toyota Rav4 hybrid. Whereas the Honda starts at €38,000 – after the VRT hybrid allowance – the new Rav4 starts at €35,900. Stepping up through the Toyota grades and you still seem to be coming in at less than the Honda.
Start adding some equipment to the CR-V and you quickly see the model range is really priced in the early to mid-€40,000s. Take the second grade level – Lifestyle, which includes features like parking sensors – and you will pay €40,500. A further €3,000 will get you all-wheel-drive.
The CR-V deservedly puts Honda back on the Irish consumer map
Honda may regard itself as a step above its Japanese rival, and to some degree it has a point, but not everyone will see the added value.
And if hybrid isn't top billing, but rather you're a sliotar mum with a crossover craving, it's still hard to look past the favoured duo of the Irish Times Motors team: for family comfort and refinement, Peugeot still delivers an edge with its 3008 and 5008 crossovers.
The CR-V deservedly puts Honda back on the Irish consumer map. It still lacks the breadth of model range of some rivals, but the carmaker is working from a strong history and heritage of engineering prowess: perhaps it just needs to remind people of its pedigree.
Lowdown: Honda CR-V Hybrid AWD auto Elegance
Engine: 1993cc 139bhp petrol engine combined with electric motor putting out 181bhp @ 6,200rpm and 175Nm of torque @ 4,000rpm.
Official fuel economy: 5.5l/100km (51.4mpg)
CO2 emissions: 126g/km
Motor tax: €270
Our rating: 3/5
Verdict: Catching the hybrid hype and putting Honda back in the public's mind