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Verdict

8.3 / 10

I love a good spreadsheet. Whether this stems from my basic inability to do math problems in my head or my conviction that data makes complex subjects easier to understand, I’m not sure. But lining up figures in neat rows and columns, with pre-programmed formulas doing the algorithmic heavy lifting is my security blanket.

When it comes to analyzing the compact SUV/Crossover market, I actually don’t know how anyone comes to a conclusion without a spreadsheet. Not only is this vehicle segment stacked with competitors – very often the best-selling or best-executed vehicles in a brand’s portfolio – the differences between a car like the 2023 Honda CR-V and its rivals require a bit of math to augment one’s in-person experience. It’s relatively easy to say which vehicle in a cohort is the most fun to drive; what’s difficult is to extrapolate which might be the most useful for the diverse needs of buyers in this space.

In a typical car review, we tend to leave the dry bits – like how much the thing costs – for the very end. But that left-brain stuff seems more pertinent in a CR-V analysis than it would for a first drive of, say, the upcoming Civic Type R.

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Quick Stats 2023 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD
Engine: Turbocharged 1.5-liter I4
Output: 190 Horsepower / 179 Pound-Feet
Fuel Economy: 27 City / 32 Highway / 29 Combined
Base Price: $31,110 + $1,245 Destination
As-Tested Price: $36,505

Gallery: 2023 Honda CR-V: First Drive

Goodbye “Base” Model

Honda has essentially cut to the chase with its pricing strategy for this 2023 model. The front-wheel-drive CR-V EX comes in at $32,355 (that’s a $31,110 MSRP plus a $1,245 destination charge), a price that falls in the low-middle of the spectrum for competitors at Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, VW, etc. Between supply chain issues and skyrocketing average transaction prices, Honda presumably no longer sees the business case for a bottom-tier trim, aka “stripper models” in the $27,000-$28,000 arena, in the CR-V line.

The effects of that strategy on overall unit volumes sold, and resulting residual prices, will be fun to watch over the next decade, but for now your $32k investment nets a pretty wonderful Swiss Army knife of a daily driver.

2023 Honda CR-V exterior
2023 Honda CR-V exterior

The CR-V EX comes with Honda’s turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder under the hood, an invisible-in-action continuously variable transmission, and things like 18-inch wheels, heated seats, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto that will make a driver feel like they’re getting a good value for their hard-earned dollar.

The model that I tested for a week was the EX-L with all-wheel-drive, which is likely to account for a hefty volume of all sales (but isn’t, as I’ll try to outline in a bit, the best overall CR-V value). The second-most-expensive trim at $36,505 all-in, the EX-L AWD offers all-wheel confidence for drivers in Snowbelt states, and quality of life upgrades like leather seating a bigger touchscreen display (9.0 inches vs. 7.0 inches) wireless phone charging, and an eight-speaker sound system (which, frankly, still isn’t anything to write home about if you’re an audiophile).

2023 Honda CR-V exterior

The EX-L shares the same 1.5T and CVT powertrain and cedes a little bit of fuel economy to its blood rival, the Toyota RAV4. The Honda nets 27 miles per gallon in the city, 32 highway, and 29 combined in this configuration, while Toyota’s naturally aspirated 2.4-liter is good for 27 city, 34 highway, and 30 combined while turning all four wheels. A small difference but a big point for comparative shoppers and relative brand pride.

Driving Lessons

However those numbers look on my spreadsheet, they can’t capture just how much better the on-road experience is in the Honda versus nearly all of its competitive set. In weeks leading up to and just following my CR-V test, I was able to get seat time in the aforementioned RAV4, Kia’s new Sportage Hybrid, a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV that I can’t even talk about yet, and the Volkswagen Tiguan. And, of course, I’ve had seat time in competitors from Chevy, Ford, Subaru, Nissan, et al, as well.

Here’s the long and short of it: With the exception of the Kia Sportage Hybrid, the CR-V is the easy choice from a driving perspective. Every brand’s compact CUV has some kind of competitive IP – a bit more space, more power, slightly better NVH, etc. – but as an all-around proposition, Honda really has this nailed.

2023 Honda CR-V exterior

The 1.5T offers up 190 horsepower and 179 pound-feet of torque – not enough to make the CR-V feel anything like “quick,” but better than adequate for the needs of small crossover drivers. More importantly, the power delivery is smooth, with very linear throttle response, and very few hijinks from the CVT transmission.

In stoplight-to-stoplight driving the easy power and quick throttle tip-in actually belies the torque output figure – though, to be fair, when I needed to get up to highway speeds the limitation of this small engine became more evident. (Honda’s upcoming CR-V Hybrid model, with 204 horsepower and 247 critical torques should solve that problem nicely.)

2023 Honda CR-V exterior
2023 Honda CR-V exterior
2023 Honda CR-V exterior
2023 Honda CR-V exterior

Tuning of the steering is downright impressive. As I’ve sampled more of the company’s newest products this year, I’ve realized that Honda has kind of nailed “smoothness” in terms of the steering experience.

While the electronically power-assisted steering rack is pretty much devoid of road feel (nothing surprising there for a crossover in 2022), the weight or effort level is just right: completely stable at a dead-ahead setting while cruising, and velvety when adding in lock or transitioning through corners on a country road. Very few buyers are going to think deeply about the “steering experience” of the CR-V, but even for non-nerds I think this tuning will give a sense of solidity to the vehicle and incrementally reduce the stress of driving every minute one is behind the wheel.

Very few buyers are going to think deeply about the “steering experience” of the CR-V, but even for non-nerds I think this tuning will give a sense of solidity to the vehicle.

Most won’t, but if you do press the CR-V into service on a really good road, Honda’s handling DNA really shines. Push really hard and the front-biased system will of course default into safe understeer, but if you dial it back a hair you’ll discover excellent body control while cornering (relative to the class), good grip, and the aforementioned steering encouraging the whole enterprise.

Ride quality is also really good; perhaps just a tiny bit behind the slick experience offered by the VW Tiguan, but worlds better than the rather jarring lack of composure I found in the RAV4.

2023 Honda CR-V exterior

Not Without Flaws

I was truly surprised, about 90 seconds into my first drive experience with the CR-V, that Honda is not going to be the class leader where noise, vibration, and harshness are concerned, however. Well, noise at least. While vehicle tuning is almost completely spot-on in every other respect, somehow the team missed the benchmark where in-cabin quiet is concerned.

At about 60 miles per hour, the CR-V is far from “loud” but it’s a full letter grade below the utterly sanguine Sportage at the same velocity. Honda’s 1.5T isn’t exactly melodious in the first place, and it can be heard at a low volume, buzzing away from under the car’s sleek hood. Wind rush, too, while well managed, can’t compare to the Kia.

Honda CR-V
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It’s possible that the CR-V Hybrid will be a few percentage points quieter than its gas-only sibling, but that remains to be seen until we can get behind the wheel. Until then, this feels like a miss for Honda, which absolutely lapped the field on all NVH fronts when it launched the previous-gen CR-V. That’s a high standard, but a fair one.

2023 Honda CR-V interior
2023 Honda CR-V interior
2023 Honda CR-V interior

Friendly Confines

Honda’s interior design language took a leap forward with the current Civic, and the CR-V has basically translated it for a larger space. In EX-L trim that means a really smart, clean, easy-to-use cabin that feels almost timeless in its execution. Sure, the Koreans get more inventive with colors and shapes, and Toyota and Subaru offer a bigger lifestyle experience for drivers who fancy themselves as rugged individualists. But the CR-V has comfortable seating, really crisp, clear instrumentation, and a good fat steering wheel that’s nice to hang on to.

The larger touchscreen sits on a plinth atop the slim dash; it’s fair to say that it isn’t as seamlessly integrated as some of the in-dash systems. I actually like having an infotainment screen that’s higher in my eye line, for ease of use, but I get that this reads as “tacked on” to a lot of people. In any event, the screen itself has good resolution and makes a fine place to mirror my iPhone screen (which is basically all I want).

2023 Honda CR-V interior

The gear-lever feels a bit old-school in today’s landscape of knurled rotary shifters and swiveling ball gymnastics, but the only thing actually wrong with it is that it’s not a particularly solid thing to hold onto. It’s possible that this was an issue with my pre-production spec vehicle, but there was a bit of play in the action of the shifter, enough to jiggle the plastic surround when I put it in gear and generally give the vibe that something might crack or chip way sooner than you’d expect. Not a great testament to the overall feeling of quality, as one does tend to use the gear lever pretty frequently.

2023 Honda CR-V interior

Space For A Giant (And His Children)

Honda has made a big deal of how much space it was able to carve out for rear seat passengers, especially. There’s more legroom in the rear chairs these days, some 41 inches, which is second amongst the top sellers to, you guessed it, the Kia Sportage (and the Hyundai Tuscon). As someone who is 6-foot-5 with two kids in car seats, I can attest that the CR-V not only has room enough for me to comfortably “sit behind myself” but it also means I don’t have to adjust my driving position with a bulky rear-facing child seat installed behind me. Bliss.

It’s fair to emphasize that just about every car in this class has enough head, leg, and elbow room in both rows to deal with folks my size, which means normal people will be swimming in space to move. I’m picking on the RAV4 a lot today, but it bears mentioning that the Toyota does feel like one of the more cramped interiors (how do so many of these get sold again?).

2023 Honda CR-V interior

The CR-V also has a really huge cargo hold, too. Its max volume of 75.6 cubic feet, easily accessible via a tall, wide rear hatch, ranks at or near the top of the heap here. For single-car families, this is really critical, as it allows the vehicle to flex from weekly shopping duty, to long-range road trips with a couple of kids, to all but the biggest format home improvement projects.

Bear in mind that the difference between the top tier and bottom tier performers on the Cargo Space line of my spreadsheet is only about 5 cubic feet, and most are within fractions of each other.

I haven’t touched on exterior styling because, well, is there a single small crossover that actually looks good? They’re all kind of wind-tunnel optimized jelly bean boxes, with the primary aesthetic differences being the size and design of the wheels, and creatively shaped LED lighting elements. Honda was bragging a lot about how long the hood of this CR-V is, with notes about stance and aggressive proportions… To me it all falls into the “cool story” category of information, but we’re uploading a lot of pictures so you can decide for yourself.

What does matter, at the end, is that the 2023 Honda CR-V is an intelligently optimized small SUV that will work brilliantly for a huge number of people and families. It is not really a standout in any one measurable category (save for cargo room), but in the magically-mathed confines of my spreadsheet, its competitiveness across a great number of categories makes it hugely compelling in the aggregate.

The CR-V is an all-around superstar. Right now it’s second on my personal rankings behind the Kia Sportage Hybrid, but I’ll need to drive Honda’s hybrid before I can fully stand behind that statement. In the meantime, just don’t buy a RAV4 before test driving one of these.

2023 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD

Engine Turbocharged 1.5-liter I4
Output 190 Horsepower / 179 Pound-Feet
Transmission Continuously Variable
Drive Type All-Wheel Drive
Efficiency 27 City / 32 Highway / 29 Combined
Weight 3,600 Pounds (est)
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 36.3 / 76.5 Cubic Feet
Base Price $31,110 + $1,245 Destination
Trim Base Price $36,505
As-Tested Price $36,505
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