Honda Australia 50th Anniversary – Original CR-V
It takes a special kind of car to define a whole vehicle category, but that’s exactly what the Honda CR-V has done since it debuted more than 20 years ago.
The CR-V arrived on the scene in 1997 as one of the pioneers of a new breed of 4WD – a sports utility vehicle that fused the cross-country mobility and stability of a traditional 4x4 with the utility space of a wagon and the driving characteristics of a passenger car.
Where 4WDs of the time were typically big, heavy, cumbersome and a handful to drive away from the bush, the CR-V’s car-like monocoque construction and relatively compact dimensions made it perfectly suited to urban driving.
The CR-V was an instant success, both globally and locally.
In 1998, its first full year on sale, it was the country’s best-selling light 4x4 – coming close to dislodging Australia’s perennial Honda favourite, the Civic. It did surpass Honda’s famous small car the following year and by the end of 2000, well over 30,000 CR-Vs had been sold in just three years.
The CR-V’s appeal was easy to understand beyond its rugged design, because its five-seater interior proved Honda’s reputation for ingenuity extended beyond technology.
A walk-through cabin was created by the segment-first flat cabin floor with no intrusive transmission hump, and the ability for occupants to remove the table (complete with cupholders) positioned between the front seats.
The front and rear seats all included a reclining function, while the rear seats provided 50-50 split-folding functionality as well as dual fold-out armrests.
CR-V users could store wetsuits or ski boots in a plastic storage area below the cargo floor, which doubled as a removeable folding picnic table perfect for camping or spontaneous breaks during a scenic drive. However, owners had to provide the chairs!
The large boot could accommodate chairs easily, of course, with its 688-litre maximum cargo capacity helped by the external spare wheel, which was also positioned low to ensure excellent rear vision.
There were also functional advantages for the tailgate. A split, two-way design comprised a roof-hinged glass hatch for quick, easy access to the boot, and a side-hinged lower gate for full access.
Reaching scenic spots was made easier by the CR-V’s Real Time 4WD system, which could send power to all four wheels as required without any action from the driver.
The front wheels only were used in normal driving to help save fuel, but when extra traction was needed the rear axle was engaged automatically via a multi-plate clutch.
The system, which was lighter than a conventional 4WD set-up, was complemented by the CR-V’s generous 205mm ground clearance and relatively short overhangs that created useful approach and departure angles.
The CR-V was originally launched with just a single specification, which included dual airbags, high-output air-conditioning, keyless entry, remote central locking, electrically adjustable side mirrors, AM/FM radio/cassette stereo and power windows.
In February 1999, a model update introduced a revised look and a new variant called the CR-V Sport. The Sport adopted many of the features from a limited-edition CR-V that in 1998 helped celebrate 50 years of the Honda brand.
The feature list comprised anti-lock brakes (ABS), alloy wheels, roof rails, seatback pockets, electric sunroof, body-coloured side mirrors, bumpers and door handles, spare-wheel cover and a storage tray under the front passenger seat. Integrated foglights were also added.
There was also a change under the bonnet to the CR-V’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, with a 15 per cent boost extending power output from 96kW to 108kW.
A $29,950 starting price remained unchanged from 1997, with a Grade Logic automatic transmission adding $2000 over the standard five-speed manual gearbox. The CR-V Sport was priced from $33,950.
The CR-V Sport would go on to win a significant comparison test conducted by Wheels magazine in June 2000 – beating not just a key rival from Toyota but also new challengers from Ford, Hyundai and Mazda.
“…the CR-V is nicely priced, has bank-vault resale value and offers the light four-wheel drive enthusiast a great drive,” wrote Wheels in its test conclusion. “As a car for the city and country, it’s hard to pass, with supple ride, sprightly performance, good fuel consumption and excellent interior space. And that’s why it wins.”
Industry journal GoAuto acknowledged the CR-V’s trend-setting status in 2001: “In terms of grooviness for the family man, Honda's CR-V is the vehicle to be seen in at the moment.”
Motoring experts continued to praise the original CR-V retrospectively, perhaps best summarised by CarsGuide’s used-car review in 2009.
“The CR-V hit the road running in 1997 and hasn’t looked back. The CR-V wasn’t the first to enter the market … but it was the first to really appeal to families as an alternative to the old full-sized station wagon.
“Honda’s on-demand four-wheel-drive system isn’t really designed for heavy off-road going, it’s more an intelligent all-wheel drive system that handles loose or slippery surfaces with aplomb, and tackles rough tracks with assuring competence, and that makes it an ideal family fun off-roader.”
The Honda CR-V, now into its fifth generation, has continued to evolve to meet the demands of family-car buyers, yet one thing has never changed: its popularity.
In 2018, more than 16,000 CR-Vs were sold in Australia, setting a record for Honda’s landmark SUV.