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2023 Honda CR-V First Drive Review: Bigger, better, pricier

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The 2023 Honda CR-V is a big deal. It helped establish its segment a quarter century ago and has been a benchmark for it ever since. It’s Honda’s best-selling model by a wide margin. Last year, Honda sold nearly 100,000 more CR-Vs than Civics. And then there’s the fact that this newest version is literally the biggest example yet, an upgrade that’s among many improvements that helps keep the CR-V toward the top of the compact SUV mountain (one that’s quite tall at this point). After spending a limited amount of time with the regular, non-hybrid model, we can say that the 2023 CR-V is still an excellent choice, and it’s an improvement over before, but we’re not ready to give it the compact crown outright.

Our time with the CR-V was limited to an EX-L version with the turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder. No hybrids were available at the time, but aside from its powertrain and some minor styling tweaks, the SUV driven for this review in Nashville is the same one as the hybrid we’ll drive in the near future. 

No matter the powertrain, every 2023 CR-V is significantly bigger than its predecessor. This would be a highlight of the new model. Honda added 2.7 inches to the length overall, and 1.6 inches between the wheels. It’s 0.4 inch wider, too. Cargo space behind the rear seats hasn’t particularly grown at 36.3 cubic feet (right between the old gas model and hybrid model), but fold those seats down, and the CR-V has a huge 76.5 cubic feet. That gives it the most maximum space in the segment. 

Where the space is really noticeable is in the passenger area. The front occupants have plenty of space in every direction, and it’s easy to find a comfortable seating position. The seats themselves, covered in leather in the EX-L, have thick padding, are sizable, and have good side bolstering that provides just enough security that you don’t feel like you’re going to spill out of them. The rear seating is even more impressive. There’s oodles of leg- and knee room, amplified by a surprising amount of space under the front seats for feet. The seats are firmer and flatter than the fronts, but still comfortable, and they’ll recline by up to 10 degrees. It would be easy to kill hours on a long trip snoozing in the back of a new CR-V.

Another big improvement is the overall interior design. If you’ve been in a new Civic or HR-V, you’ve basically been in the CR-V interior, and that’s a good thing. It has a low dash that helps both with visibility and making the cabin feel spacious and airy. Everything is made from a nice mix of soft-touch plastics with different grains. The physical controls for the climate control system are welcome, too, and they feel impressively robust and expensive.

That being said, the old CR-V’s interior wasn’t bad. Its infotainment system, on the other hand, was abysmal. The new one thankfully has upgraded to the system used in the Civic, Accord and Acura Integra. On the base EX, it features a 7-inch touchscreen with volume and tuning knobs. On the EX-L, it comes with a 9-inch screen and just a volume knob. Compared with the old system, it’s vastly more responsive with a higher-resolution screen and colorful, easy-to-touch icons. Menus aren’t overly deep and we didn’t experience the sort of glitches constantly suffered by the old system, either. It’s now one of the better touchscreen infotainment systems, especially when compared to the Toyota RAV4. The Hyundai Tucson’s and Kia Sportage’s are still better.

While the CR-V interior is one of the best around (if lacking some of the flair of a RAV4, Sportage or Mazda’s CX-5 and CX-50), the driving experience is pretty average. It shares underpinnings with the new Civic (and therefore the front end of the new HR-V), which is noticeable in the solid feel and fairly light feel. The suspension tuning is quite comfortable and although that results in a fair bit of body roll, it’s not wallowy. Like the HR-V, though, the steering is a disappointment for a Honda. it has little feedback, is quite slow and requires a surprising number of mid-corner corrections. The CR-V doesn’t turn in particularly quickly, either. “Fun to drive” has hardly been a main reason so many folks have purchased CR-Vs over the years, but it’s been responsive enough to keep people from trying the competition. That may have changed. 

Honda touted efforts to improve quietness and refinement in the new CR-V. It does seem to be an improvement, but it’s behind the impressively quiet machines from Hyundai and Kia. Tire noise is omnipresent, providing a light hiss at many speeds. The engine, while smooth, can get buzzy at higher rpms. At least road and wind noise are kept well under control.

As for that engine, the 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-four is pretty much carried over from the previous model along with the standard continuous variable automatic. It once again produces 190 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, which is hardly inspiring, but acceleration is at least adequate and the bar is quite frankly low for the segment. The CVT is the weak point. It attempts to mimic some automatic transmission behaviors, but the revs rise and fall atypically in its Normal mode, making the engine feel sluggish and less responsive. Popping the transmission into its Sport setting improves things and keeps the revs up more, but it doesn’t make the CR-V feel much faster, and it does increase the noise. As for fuel economy, the CR-V is exactly as efficient as before, delivering 28 mpg in the city, 34 on the highway and 30 in combined driving with front-wheel drive. The all-wheel-drive version gets 29 mpg combined. The hybrid is quite a bit more efficient, though still close to the previous model at 43 mpg city, 36 mpg highway and 40 combined with front-wheel drive, and 40/34/37 with AWD.

Fuel economy may be practically unchanged, but pricing isn’t. The CR-V got a fair bit more expensive, in part because the entry-level LX trim has been discontinued. The new base model is the EX, and it starts at $32,355 with front-wheel drive and the included destination charge. All-wheel drive adds another $1,500. This new price makes it the most expensive option in the mainstream compact segment, with rivals such as the Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, Ford Escape, Subaru Forester, Mazda CX-50 and many more all starting under $30,000. Some even offer standard all-wheel drive. And that seriously hurts the CR-V’s value proposition, despite its impressive amount of real estate.

Unquestionably, the new CR-V is a major improvement over its predecessor, and it’s a strong competitor in some key areas. It’s far more spacious than before with quality materials, comfortable seating and easy-to-use technology. But a mediocre driving experience and high price keep it from being the segment’s best option. Keep the CR-V on your shortlist, but don’t let it be the whole list.

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