A HYBRID version of the Honda CR-V might not exactly get the pulse racing but for Honda, this is a crucial new entry into its model line-up. “This is our most important powertrain for last 10 years,” Honda UK’s managing director told us at the car’s launch in Seville, Spain. “It’s a really big car for us.”
Why? Because since the dieselgate crisis, in which VW was found to be cheating diesel emissions tests and anti-diesel reports in the media subsequently reached fever pitch, sales of Honda’s oil-burning CR-Vs have been tumbling. So much so, in fact, that the company decided to ditch the fuel entirely for the latest (fifth) generation of its mid-size SUV, which launched earlier this year in petrol form only.
And this has happened with the SUV market still booming, and every car maker finding gaps in their product line-up to fill with the high-riding soft-roaders.
So Honda needed an “electrified version” of its long-running CR-V — the first in a raft of new hybrid models as the company aims for two thirds of its cars to be electric or hybrid by 2025 — ready to take the diesel’s place as the sole alternative to the 1.5-litre petrol model. Honda expects 50% of CR-V sales to be hybrid next year.
But if you’re a diesel SUV owner looking to upgrade, don’t think the CR-V Hybrid is a direct replacement — there are a couple of important things for you to know. Read on.
Of course, Honda is no stranger to hybrids. Its first — the original Insight — arrived in 1999, around the same time as the Toyota Prius. But while Toyota stuck at it, and the Prius went from strength to strength, Insight sales were slow and Honda took a less confident approach, with piecemeal offerings in the intervening years. Honda’s attempts have proven marginally less efficient and less practical than those of its Japanese rival, which has now rolled out hybrid tech to most of its models.
So Honda’s latest attempt had better be a good one.
Before we get to the economy and performance bit, it’s worth pointing out that, as SUVs go, the latest CR-V is quite attractive, and the hybrid model gets a few unique details that help lift the exterior even more, including chrome trim along the door sills and rear tailgate.
Inside there’s good news, too. Honda’s reputation for top build quality is evident, with tight and flush gaps between panels. The mix of leather with soft- and hard-touch touch plastics help lift the cabin, with the only questionable material being the wood-a-like veneers on the dash and door trim, which appear to have come off a laser printer rather than a tree. It’s relatively inoffensive, though.
The 7in touchscreen is standard across all models and a vast improvement on Honda infotainment systems of the past, but fans of Android Auto and Apple Carplay will be pleased to hear that both are standard across the range.
There’s acres of space up front and in the rear, where even giant people have plenty of leg room, thanks to a 30mm increase in distance between the wheels over the previous generation car (cabin space has increased by 50mm, in fact). Sadly the seats aren’t that deep, meaning taller passengers’ knees hang a long way off the squab, and the passenger and rear seats’ low position mean hips end up below the knees.
But the rear floor is almost flat, even in the 4×4 models, and rear passengers get two USB sockets even in base SE specification – clearly Honda understands its customers’ need to keep the kids in the back entertained. The boot is vast and square with higher spec models getting kick-to-open power tailgates.
“If you’ve been sensing a ‘but’ coming, well done… the CR-V Hybrid is a bit of a weakling when it comes to towing”
So what’s it like out on the road? Well, let’s get our heads around the hybrid system for a moment. Without getting overly technical, Honda’s “Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive” (i-MMD) uses a 2-litre petrol engine to power a generator motor, which in turn sends power to either a lithium ion battery pack or an electric propulsion motor, which drives the wheels.
There’s a front-wheel drive model but also an all-wheel-drive model, with power being sent to the rear mechanically via a prop shaft, rather than adding an extra electric motor to the back axle, as you’d find in a Lexus NX or RX.
Under some circumstances, the petrol engine can drive the wheels directly but Honda has done away with any form of gearbox, so this only happens between around 50mph and 75mph, via a “lock-up clutch” and single ratio. This is at the engine’s revs-per-minute “sweet spot”, Honda says, providing maximum efficiency for motorway driving.
At lower speeds there’s also an EV mode, with the car able to run on pure-electric power for around 1.2 miles, meaning some zero emissions running in urban environments. We found we could get at least that range on electric power, in fact.
The good news for buyers is that they don’t need to know any of this, really, as the car’s computer will work out the best mode to run in at any given time.
More important to customers will be what it all means for performance and efficiency: peak power is 181bhp, with 232lb ft of torque, which enables a zero to 62mph time of 8.8 seconds in FWD guise, and 9.2sec for the AWD model, with a top speed of 112mph for both.
Neither version feels at all sluggish, and while the sound from the engine is unlike you’d expect from a traditional petrol automatic car, it relates more closely to the speed you’re travelling at than the Toyota Hybrid Drive system; the Toyota’s “planetary gearbox” and continuously variable transmission systems means the engine can be screaming away with the car seemingly making comparatively sluggish progress. Honda’s i-MMD has a much more “natural” engine note and power delivery.
Not that you’ll hear it much; noise is kept in check thanks to extra sound deadening and active noise cancellation, via the stereo speakers. That does mean tyre noise is more evident, as is wind noise, mainly around the larger wing mirrors, but it’s certainly at more-than-acceptable levels.
The Hybrid system is pretty decent in the fuel economy and emissions stakes, with the front-wheel drive CR-V Hybrid rated at 120g/km of CO2 and average fuel economy of 53.3mpg, and the four-wheel drive version only a little less efficient, with CO2 emissions of 126g/km and average fuel economy of 51.4mpg.
We found the 4WD model averaged more like 42mpg, with the 2WD version getting around 47mpg; lower than most diesel CR-V drivers have been achieving, according to owner forums, but certainly impressive for a big car like this. And when you factor in the higher prices at the pump for diesel fuel, the potential for diesel cars to be banned from cities in the future, and pricing similar to the petrol automatic, the CR-V Hybrid is starting to look like a seriously good proposition.
Handling errs on the sporty side, and the suspension gives the car a slightly firmer ride than some rivals, but it’s not jarring over broken roads and it means the CR-V doesn’t roll much through corners, and remains stable. We preferred the 2WD model in most situations, as it felt noticeably more sprightly.
Interestingly, it has paddles behind the steering wheel but they’re not for changing gear — there are none, remember. Instead, they decrease or increase the amount of force applied to the regenerative braking, changing how quickly the car decelerates when lifting off the throttle. Having it on max doesn’t increase how much battery is topped up, we were told; it recoups the same amount, but over a shorter distance.
Strangely, it resets back to the least resistance after a few seconds, so you then have to use the left paddle again to add resistance; this is because it’s meant to mimic a downshift in gears, and is designed for use as you approach a corner — like using engine braking.
Standard across all trim grades are safety features such as auto emergency braking with forward collision warning, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, road departure mitigation, adaptive cruise control and traffic sign recognition.
Honda’s active cruise control and steering assist is one of the best we’ve tried, actually, with strong support in turning the wheel allowing you to cruise for miles with just the lightest of touches.
If you’ve been sensing a “but” coming, well done… the CR-V Hybrid is a bit of a weakling when it comes to towing. Whereas the petrol model can pull up to 2,000kg (braked) and Toyota’s rivalling RAV4 Hybrid can tow up to 1,650kg, Honda’s CR-V hybrid is only rated up to 750kg. This rules it out if you want a car for pulling a caravan or large-ish boat.
Also of note is that the CR-V Hybrid is strictly a five-seater, whereas the petrol model can now be specified with a third row of seats. And be aware an all-new Toyota RAV4 is on the way.
Those negatives aside, this a compelling alternative to the current RAV4 Hybrid, with an enjoyable driving experience, decent economy, plenty of tech as standard and heaps of interior space. It’s definitely worth a test drive when it arrives in showrooms in February 2019, but if you have a lot of towing to do, you’ll have to go for the petrol or nip across to the Toyota dealership instead.
Head to head
Honda CR-V Hybrid vs Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Drive
|2019 Honda CR-V Hybrid SE AWD
|Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Design AWD
|Economy (official combined)
|Boot space (seats up, to tonneau)
|Towing capacity (braked)