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BEHIND THE WHEEL

The CR-V's a Hit in Japan, So It's Going On the Road

May 10, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First, we wrestled the 1996 Jeep Wrangler and walked away with bruised knuckles and second-degree windburn.

But to criticize this descendant of the 1941 Willys that won more World War II hearts than Hershey bars, is akin to cussing grandmother or disliking Rhode Island. It's a noticeably softer vehicle, almost comfortable and affordable, and perfect for those who play beach volleyball and drive a little on the wilderness side.

Second, we unraveled Toyota's RAV4. It is earning huge praise as a ladybug commuter car for disciples of Toyota quality, Dali whimsy and hip-hop. But rear room in a RAV4 is undersized, and would you pay $20,000 for a piece of costume jewelry?

Now comes Honda's CR-V to complete this fun trilogy of relatively inexpensive all-wheel-drivers.

The CR-V was built for Japanese showrooms and Honda had no plans for exporting it to America. Ergo, it will go on sale in the United States by year's end.

Because a funny thing happened to the CR-V on its way to not coming here. Japan went bonkers over the vehicle. Sales projected at 3,000 vehicles a month regularly topped 15,000. At one point, the CR-V was outselling the Honda Civic 2 to 1.

And as Japan's sport utility market exploded in search of anything at any price in any size, its American counterpart changed directions--with buyers galore for all-wheel-drivers that are small, nimble and don't cost much.

"Management acknowledged this new growth segment, reviewed the success of the CR-V in Japan and decided it had a place in the U.S. lineup," explained spokesman Kurt Antonius. But for $20,000? "Our intention is to bring it in well-loaded for under $20,000."

That's terrible news for everybody else in this business of selling downsized sport utility vehicles focused tightly on the real needs of suburban owners, who like the high perch and tough looks but aren't interested in expensive off-roaders built strong enough to cross the Klondike.

For such gentler buyers, the CR-V's success undoubtedly will pivot on its inability to answer three questions. Is it a sport utility? Is it a minivan? Is it a station wagon?

Truth is, the roomy, handsomely styled CR-V is a version of each, combining the most popular purposes of all three in one handy vehicle. Or precisely the trio of benefits that Subaru's Legacy Outback brought to market last year.

And Outback sales currently are doubling company estimates, with the vehicle locked into that profitable nuisance of being back ordered nationwide.

Honda describes its CR-V--for Comfortable Runabout Vehicle, hardly an alluring high-tech title--as a "new concept, four-wheel-drive sport utility combining roominess and comfort with fun-to-drive handling."

For once, a car company is understating its product.

Although ultra-smart styling makes this four-door family funmobile appear small, it actually is longer than a Jeep Cherokee, wider than a Toyota 4Runner and taller than a Honda Passport, which is an Isuzu Rodeo.

The CR-V has full-time all-wheel drive--at least, all-wheel traction kicks in the moment front tires start scrabbling for grip--for marginally nasty off-road conditions.

Add respectable ground clearance, healthy approach angles and high seating to its macho measurements, and the CR-V fulfills most sport utility purposes except rhino-butting.

Rear seats fold forward and almost flat, and there's enough snoozing room for a pair of 6-footers and their golf bags back there. Rear access is by a split-level tailgate. There's seating for five adults without irritating one. A gearshift lever mounted on the steering column allows a flat front floor with token walk-through room between the seats.

And there you have the essential appeals of a minivan mated to a station wagon--with catering to leisure and pleasure the CR-V's cardinal purpose.

Hence darling touches. A rear floor panel opens into a picnic table with folding legs and a hole for an Orangina umbrella. A hook inside the tailgate could be for holding a Coleman lantern, solar shower, wet undies or wandering bear cubs. There's a roof rack, grab rails the length of the interior and handles stout enough to tie down Mama Bear.

And when commutes are no picnic, a tray flips up between the front seats with space for two coffees and bagels.

Our test CR-V was fresh from successful public appearances at the Chicago and New York auto shows. It was a Japanese model, which presented serious difficulties--such as guessing purposes for that hook inside the tailgate--because the owner's manual was in Japanese.

It was right-hand drive, so only the ambidextrous could accurately evaluate control positioning and operating pressures. Honda warns that the CR-V's passionate plum paint might not make U.S. versions. Judging from curbside comments we received, that could produce the next Japanese-American trade rift.

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