Honda CR-V

Perhaps I was underwhelmed by this CR-V because it had a Honda badge on the front. This is, after all, a very good truck-car hybrid, with a spacious interior, lots of useful storage space, and reasonably good performance. But measured by the standards against which I measure Hondas&emdash;which, I've got to admit, are slightly higher than the standards I hold most cars to; that's why I drive one&emdash;it falls way short.

Mostly, it's the dash design that did&emdash;or didn't&emdash;do it for me. Everything is there, to be sure, but its layout, especially judged against the ultra-logic layouts so common to every Honda, seems haphazard and poorly planned. To wit: the power window switches, instead of being on the door (where they usually are) or on the centre console (where I don't mind them) are mounted down low on the dash on the driver's side, and are invisible from view from behind the wheel. The mirror switch is located beside the heater vent, and the cruise control switch is mounted all up high by its lonesome beside a defroster outlet.

What's more, the steering wheel itself doesn't point straight out towards you; it points towards the driver's door at an angle, which makes it difficult to find a really comfortable driving position&emdash;which is a shame, because with its excellent multi adjustable seats, it's wonderfully easy to find a comfortable sitting position.

The seating arrangements and the versatility of the interior appointments are the CR-V's greatest strengths. By removing the front headrests and folding all of the seats completely down, you instantly create a very usable, and surprisingly comfortable bed. The rear seats recline independently, and they fold forward to increase the rear compartment's already-generous cargo space.

All by itself, the rear compartment is a model of thoughtfulness; in addition to a large, flat load space, there are covered compartments underneath the floor, a big well into which you can throw toools and other detritus, and a lidded compartment in the rear door with tie-down straps. The floor of the compartment comes out completely and has a set of folding legs, which allow it to turn into a usefully-sized picnic table. (Too bad they didn't find some way to include lawn chairs.)

The new-for-1998 manual transmission really enlivens the CR-V's performance, though it's certainly no race car. Low gearing helps it zip around town with relative ease, though you're always conscious of how much weight the 2.0-litre engine is hauling around. Visibility for such a high car is good, and it corners realtively flat, though certainly at speeds a lot lower than you'd take corners in a car.

Still, you learn to adapt, and driving a big car with a small engine and up-high visibility teaches you to plan better, to look through traffic for ways to conserve your momentum. The five-speed is a willing partner, with relatively short throws and an excellent feel. The brakes are great, and ABS is standard; the steering is communicative if a tad on the light side.

Honda came to the cute-ute party a lot later than the other competitiors in this field&emdash;the CR-V came along a year after Toyota introduced the RAV4, for instance&emdash;and in a way, you can see it as a bit of a rush job. All of the requisite pieces are here, from the intelligent four-wheel drive system through the lean, purposeful styling. But it doesn't feel as much of a piece as other Hondas do, as if it was engineered in a hurry from items already in the parts bin in order to get it out in the shortest time.

Maybe for a few thousand dollars less, I could have stomached the dash design and the slapdash feel of some of the car's other details&emdash;why are there grab bars on top of the armrests in the doors?&emdash;but at $25,800, my base-model LX tester, without even a cassette player, cost $1000 more than an almost fully-loaded Accord LX, whose dash design and whose ergonomics are just about the best in the business. If you don't need the space that the CR-V provides, if you don't need to take a picnic table with you wherever you go, the Accord's performance and overall higher level of execution make it the obvious choice.

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