Johannesburg - With global sales of nine million units in more than 150 countries, the fourth-generation Honda CR-V was the world’s best-selling SUV, so the new one has big shoes to fill.

Previous CR-Vs made something of an art form of conservatism, and while the fifth-generation is hardly a visual party-animal it’s adopted a little more styling sparkle to help it stand out in a congested SUV market. And I mean sparkle literally, as there’s more chrome work added to the exterior including strips running across the door sills, while all models get LED daytime running lights.

Inside there’s been a space increase and general smartening-up. It’s hard to believe the CR-V is rated as a compact SUV when you sit inside that cavernous cabin, which has grown thanks to a widened body and a lengthened wheelbase, although overall length has actually shrunk by 10mm.

There’s a huge amount of passenger space, enough to comfortably seat four or five full-sized Springbok players. The boot’s also large - it’s grown to a very generous 522 litres - and carries a full-sized spare. The 60/40 split rear bench seat can be folded to create a completely flat loading floor and 1084 litres.

The cabin’s soft-touch surfaces and matt alloy accents radiate a premium feel, and the previous model’s analogue instrument panel has been replaced with a modern-looking colour digital display.

The new CR-V range as before comes in a normally-aspirated two-litre with outputs of 113kW/189Nm, which is paired with front-wheel drive. For the first time Honda’s SUV is also offered with turbopetrol power and this 140kW/240Nm 1.5-litre engine is used in the all-wheel-drive CR-V models.

The turbo AWD versions are clearly the prime choice, especially at Gauteng’s power-sucking altitude, but they come at a huge premium, with the cheapest 1.5T costing over a hundred grand more than the top two-litre model.

We tested the CR-V 1.5T Executive AWD selling for R584 900. If you want the whole shebang there’s also a range-topping 1.5T Exclusive at R626 900 which gets extra gizmos such as a power-operated tailgate, navigation, and three-element LED front foglamps. It also has a full gamut of driver aids, including collision mitigation braking, road departure mitigation with lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and auto high-beam headlights.

The Executive version on test here isn’t quite as gadgeted-up, but still comes decently kitted with leather upholstery, power-adjustable and heated front seats, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, front and rear parking sensors with a rear-view camera, self-leveling LED headlights, active noise control, a panoramic sunroof, and keyless entry and start.

It also boasts a decent infotainment system comprising a 17.5cm centre touchscreen, Bluetooth, HDMI connection, and front and rear USB ports. It has android apps and an internet connection (if you have a smart card). The touchscreen is quite large but it’s not always easy to press icons while you’re driving, so kudos to Honda for still providing a physical volume knob on the dashboard plus additional audio system buttons on the steering wheel.

The 1.5 turbo engine isn’t especially exciting but it’s usefully powered and doesn’t have deficiencies in the grunt department. It cruises easily, gets up hills without huffing and puffing, and drives through the stop-start of urban jungle without major turbo lag.

Step-free power delivery

Keeping it plain-sailing is a continuously variable transmission, which is the only gearbox Honda offers in its CR-V range. It makes for a smooth, step-free power delivery but it still can’t match the responsiveness of a regular torque-converter or dual-clutch gearbox. Like all CVTs it sends the revs sky high and becomes drony when you accelerate harder.

The four-cylinder turbo engine has a slightly gruff sound but in a not-unpleasant way; it adds more to the character than taking away from the refinement. The CR-V’s all-round refinement is impressive, and it does a fine job of keeping unwanted noises from creeping into the cabin.

Smooth too is the ride. Its ability to glide over rough surfaces is one of this SUV’s outstanding features, and the high-profile 235/60 R18 tyres deal happily with gravel roads and potholes.

For a hefty SUV the CR-V handles about as well as you’d expect. Its elevated ground clearance does cause some body roll but the traction’s good and the vehicle stays composed when thrust through turns, without ever becoming sloppy. Stability control is there to bail you out of over-zealous driving.

Useful 202mm ground clearance

An intelligent Real Time traction control system seamlessly transfers power from the front to the rear wheels when additional traction is required. Not having both axles continuously powered has a fuel-saving benefit, and our test car’s 8.7 litres per 100km wasn’t too thirsty for a vehicle of this size and power output.

The all-wheel drive and a useful 202mm ground clearance give the CR-V some mild off-roading ability, although there’s no low range or differential lock.

The range is backed by a five-year or 200 000km warranty, as well as a five-year or 90 000km service plan. Also included is a three-year AA Road Assist package.

Scheduled services are at 15 000 km intervals for the two-litre models, and 10 000 km for the 1.5-litre turbo variants.

VERDICT

It’s a great effort by this popular SUV, particularly in spaciousness and ride quality. But the CR-V finds itself on the more expensive side of a very competitive SUV league.

If you want seven seats the Nissan X-Trail offers better value, while in bang-for-buck it’s hard for the Honda to compete against the cheaper but notably more powerful VW Tiguan.

FACTS

Honda CR-V 1.5T Executive AWD

Engine: 1.5-litre, 4-cyl turbopetrol
Gearbox: CVT automatic
Power: 140kW @ 5600rpm
Torque: 240Nm @ 2000-5000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed):7.0 seconds
Top speed (claimed):200km/h
Boot space:522 litres
Price: R584 900
Warranty: 5-year/200 000km
Maintenance plan: 5-year/90 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Hyundai Tucson 1.6 Elite AWD130kW / 265NmR534 900
Kia Sportage 1.6 GT-Line AWD130kW / 265NmR599 995
Nissan X-Trail 2.5 Tekna AWD 7 seater126kW / 233NmR469 900
Subaru Forester 2.5 XS Premium126kW / 235NmR536 000
Subaru Forester 2.0 XT177kW / 350NmR597 000
Toyota Rav4 2.5 AWD VX132kW / 233NmR518 200
VW Tiguan 2.0 TSI 4Motion Highline162kW / 350NmR559 900

Drive360

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