HAVE YOU EVER been somewhere so cold your teeth hurt? The summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado is that cold. At 14,000ft every breath of Colgate-fresh air is like an electric current searing through your molars. But so astonishing is the drive up there, so endlessly challenging the serpentine tarmac climb, that by the time you reach the top the buzz is such that you won’t feel the cold. And because you chose to tackle America’s most famous hillclimb in a CR-V and not, for instance, an NSX, you’ll then be able to top up that adrenaline hit by grabbing your roof-mounted mountain bike and free-wheeling all the way back down. What better test for a lifestyle SUV, particularly one as important as the new CR-V?
The CR-V is a big deal for Honda, especially in the US. In 2017 it was the third best-selling SUV; for the five years previously it was America’s favourite SUV. Indeed last year it was America’s favourite Honda of any sort, shifting 377,286 units – that’s more CR-Vs than all the VW-badged vehicles combined.
Since its 1995 introduction, the CR-V has always been an en- tirely competent SUV but not a particularly lifestyle one. In the UK at least, it’s a gently beige counterpoint to the stereotypical SUV marketeers’ ideal of hip transport for active people living athletically adventurous lives. Just why is the CR-V so damn popular? With the new one arriving in the UK this September but already on sale in the US, time for a mountain-high, temper- ature-low adventure.
It’s late afternoon when photographer Richard Pardon and I touch down in Denver and meet our CR-V – and immediately double-take to make sure it isn’t the old one. There’s a same- again nose and tail bookending a slightly wider body on a longer wheelbase. The packaging change, together with a narrower fuel tank, unlocks more cabin and luggage space. The boot’s wider and longer, and easily takes our bags and Pardon’s photography gear without any need for us to fiddle with the two-position floor – which also conceals the spare wheel – or drop the rear seats.
(New CR-V fact: it can now be specced as a seven-seater, though ours is a five-seater.)
It has none of the visual drama of, say, a Velar. But our car stands out in Molten Lava Pearl red paint, which we’ve neatly accessorised with roobars, a mountain bike carrier and a snow- board rack. We value our limbs too much to risk any boardingon this trip, but we make a beeline for the Cycleton hire shop in downtown Denver, surrounded by rows of serious-looking mountain bikes. They entrust a Specialized Stumpjumper into our dubious care without many searching questions about where we’re going or what we’re planning.
A balloon-tyred ‘fat bike’, the Stumpjumper initially looks like it will be too obese for our bike rack – it might have to come in the car with us, where there’s more than enough space. (New CR-V fact: the previous-gen car had particularly clever rear seats that folded and tumbled forwards like cushioned Transformers. The seven-seater still does, but the five-berth instead features a ‘dive-down’ hinge system so that the seat bases simultaneously sink into the footwell as you fold the backrests, for a fully flat load bay.) As it turns out, the bike’s big boots squeeze into the rack’s trough-like base with only minimal fiddling, and it’s simplicity itself to clamp the frame in place with the central locking spar.
Have Do-Anything Honda, Will Travel
THE OLD CAR
THE NEW CAR
And the CR-V instantly looks about 200 per cent cooler. Denver feels like it’s just been finished and no one’s yet moved in. Everything’s implausibly clean and tidy, and although pock- ets of the city are vibrant and cosmopolitan, others are almost deserted. Drive anywhere and you soon realise you’re surround- ed by CR-Vs of all generations. Ordinarily you wouldn’t clock them but once you start looking you can’t stop seeing them. Rich and I count 46 over a six-mile stretch of central Denver highway.
It’s proof, were it needed, that in the USA today CR-V is Honda. We’re on the road at daybreak, heading from the Mile-High City to the Rocky Mountains National Park. If you think Nor- folk does big skies, try Denver. It’s flat here, the roads out of the city stretching across a barren and dusty expanse before taking an abrupt right turn at the horizon and climbing vertically, like a toy car running into a skirting board.
The CR-V is towards the large end of the spectrum in a UK context but it’s only average-sized here, lost in the freeway’s lanes amid jacked-up six-wheel pick-up trucks the size of actual trucks.
It packs a tiddler of an engine, too, a 1.5-litre petrol, and there’ll be no diesels this time. (New CR-V fact: a hybrid joins the range next year, teaming a 2.0-litre petrol engine with two electric motors and, intriguingly, a single gear ratio.)
The 1.5 is a little engine for a big car on a big journey but it cruises well, and the CR-V is impressively refined. Less so the bike, whistling in the wind like a pan-pipe moods album. As a gantry overhead flashes up a weather warning for high-sided vehicles, and crosswinds set about battering the CR-V’s body, Rich and I look up through the full-length glass roof to check the Specialized is still there. Like the CR-V, it’s rock solid.
To drown out the increasingly worrying wind howl, we tune the stereo to one of satellite operation Sirius XM’s vast choice of radio stations and keep it there, although every now and then my palm catches one of the various buttons on the wheel and plung- es us into country and western, political debate or leftfield jazz. The steering wheel controls are part of a switchgear set that shares plenty of DNA with the current Civic (as do the underpin- nings), while the dash gains new digi-dials and some like-’em- or-loathe-’em wooden trim inserts. The seven-inch touchscreen interface is similar to the Civic’s too, with equally unfathomable menus on first acquaintance, although it does become more intuitive with use.
As the freeway ramps up towards the sky and its lane count reduces, so too does the temperature. Stillwater lives up to its name today: a frozen slab of ice with snowmobiles at play. A nearby Help Prevent Forest Fires sign puts today’s fire risk at ‘low’ – no kidding. In a rocky plateau overlooking the equally well named Shadow Mountain Lake, we take the bike off its rack. By now we’re practised hands at removing the bike and big fans of the rack’s design, which now feels as quick and easy as taking a big book off a shelf (although it’s a lot easier with two people, admittedly).
Cheerfully wobbling about on the Specialized’s go-anywhere tyres, a curious thing happens. I can feel myself falling under the lifestyle spell, and start mentally pricing up a mountain bike and roof carrier. I’m beginning to understand why people choose cars like the CR-V; there’s definite appeal in its easy, activity-en- abling practicality. (New CR-V fact: its ground clearance has been increased by 40mm for better off-road scrambling, and the doors’ lower edges now wrap around the sills, to keep mud from your trousers when you clamber out. Both front-and all-wheel- drive cars are available; this one’s all-wheel drive, the system optimising the torque split when traction is compromised and prioritising front-wheel-drive running for better fuel efficiency.) Active shutters behind the grille reduce drag at speed and aid engine warm-up, but they can’t do much about a bike strapped on the roof. Still, the fuel gauge has been moving encouragingly slowly and the trip computer reckons we’re averaging around 29.5mpg (official, unencumbered combined figure is 39.8mpg) when we stop at the slightly sketchy-looking town of Kremmling for fuel.
Inconveniently, the Rockies are closed today. Heavy snowfall has closed the road inside the National Park just before it gets interesting. Immediately beyond the roadblock, there’s a stun- ning vista tantalisingly out of reach, like a National Geographic screensaver blocked by desktop icons. We consult the map, change tack and set out for Pikes Peak.
A stretch of Highway 40 East between the Rockies and the I-70 is one of those roads, all fiendish hairpins and well-sighted fast curves. Twist the overly light power steering in thedirection of a bend and the CR-V grips gamely, albeit with a hefty side order of bodyroll. The suspension is tuned more for comfort than agility, but the CR-V’s such a tidy handler that you? quickly tune yourself into its behaviour, our car’s all-wheel drive adding to the sense of confident composure.
That the Honda can enjoy decent body control and a delicious- ly supple ride is partly thanks to ‘reactive’ (but not electronically controlled) dampers specially engineered for European-spec CR-Vs (US-spec cars neither ride as well nor handle as sharply).
They control oil flow via two different-sized apertures: one to mitigate small, sharp bumps (for a smooth ride) and the other to parry more sustained inputs (trimming bodyroll). And while the CVT might not match the best twin-clutchers for intelligence or swiftness of response, it’s pretty good.
Our route to Pikes Peak gives us several hours to try out the new lane-keeping assist system. It works well enough, following its lane with all the tongue-out concentration of a kid colouring inside the lines, and never pinballing from white line to white line as some less convincingly calibrated rivals can do.
Hat-tip to the hugely comfortable front seats, too, with high-quality leather on higher-spec versions, but also some less convincing stitching moulded into the dashboard’s soft-touch plastics. There are some tougher plastics low down, but they’re inoffensive and underline that this is, above all else, a family car designed to be used and abused. In the same spirit, the door pockets have now grown (achieved by moving the speakers up- wards within the door cards) and there’s a vast storage bin under the broad centre armrest, with a secondary tray for smartphones and the like.
Driving through Granby in Grand County (elevation 8000ft), we pass the kitsch-tastic Trail Riders Motel, bathed in pink neon lights, and on to Colorado Springs. It sits at the foot of Pikes Peak, a ghost town at the bottom of a hill. A gold rush city, Springs sprang up after gold was discovered nearby in the 1850s but these days it’s sustained by tourism, much of it drawn by Pikes Peak itself – and its annual hillclimb, originally created to entice tourists in 1916. VW and Bentley dominated the 2018 event, the Germans with their astonishing ID R electric proto- type, driven by Romain Dumas, and Crewe with its very un-elec- tric Bentayga, which annihilated the production SUV record. Pikes Peak is known as ‘America’s Mountain’ (even though it’s ranked 31st in elevation out of Colorado’s 54 ‘fourteeners’), and it’s as famous for the 19-mile highway that runs to its 14,115ft summit as it is for its incredible views – and occasional reported sightings of Big Foot.
The trip to the top and back is 38 miles but uses what would more typically be 80 miles of fuel. Warnings about altitude sick- ness are everywhere. At the tollbooth we’re told the temperature at the summit is -25°C with wind chill, and reminded to keep the windows cracked open to help balance pressures. We slide the CR-V’s CVT into Sport, check the bike mounts and set off.
We’re lucky – it’s cold, but also clear and beautiful. The view over Colorado is breathtaking, with most of the climb not clut- tered up by barriers. It really does feel like you’re driving along the edge of the world. Legend has it that Mario Andretti was told not to worry about getting hurt if he went over the edge, ‘because you’d starve to death before you hit the bottom.’
For decades the Pikes Peak Hillclimb was a gravel event but since 2011 the surface has been paved all the way to the summit, allowing thinly veiled race cars as well as rally cars to storm up the hill. Even meandering up at the road’s gentle speed? ? limit leaves you with redoubled respect for Dumas, Loeb,Mouton and friends. Ari Vatanen’s 1988 record run in a Peugeot 405 T16 was so good it was quite literally art: the footage was turned into the short film Climb Dance , which won awards at non-automotive film festivals. Recreating the moment where he takes one hand off the wheel to shade his eyes from the sun feels quite daring in an air-conditioned SUV, let alone a Group B rally car on gravel with big power and generous turbo lag.
The CR-V’s struggling with a different sort of lag. There’s no lag to the 1.5-litre turbo engine – and not much speed either, in all honesty, although it’s plucky enough. But this is not a happy hunting ground for the CVT, which always seems to be straining after something that’s not quite there.
Like the powertrain, the bike rack’s getting a serious workout, too, shockwaves from the wind rocking the car as it moves across the peaks, but again it holds firm. Consider the rack thoroughly tested: a $188 option in the USA (plus $249 for the crossbars), it feels worth every cent.
The CR-V isn’t the sportiest thing to ever tackle this most hallowed of climbs but it makes a decent fist of it, particularly for such a tall-bodied vehicle. It can’t cheat physics; attack the hillclimb’s tightest hairpins with too much gusto and its mass overcomes momentum, forcing you to start all over again. Guide the CR-V into turns with steady inputs, though, and it communicates its gratitude with faithful front-end grip and fine body control for such a big unit.
Then, with (sort of) manual control of the CVT, the all-wheel drive lets you get back on the gas just as soon as you see the road ahead unfurl. More power would be nice, as might a diesel’s easy torque, but exclusively petrol power for the Mk5 CR-V feels right, says Honda – Soichiro was no diesel lover, and the company’s timing in dismissing diesels in favour of smart turbos and a still smarter gearbox-less hybrid (coming soon) looks immaculate.
In a time slightly slower than Dumas’s 7:57.2 record in the ID R, we reach the summit and its gift shop, a weather-beaten hall of tat at half the height of Everest. But there’s still a mountain bike to use. And so, shivering with two scarves wrapped around my face, a hat under the cycle helmet and yellow-lensed glasses, I set off downhill.
Within moments I discover two things: that those fat tyres make an amazing amount of noise at speed on tarmac; and that they make the bike terrifyingly unstable. Following in the CR-V behind, like a support vehicle for the least well-prepared Tour de France competitor ever, Rich reckons I hit 40mph. It feels like 400mph. I also discover that cycling in thin air is hard work, more so when there’s a strong headwind, which can make cycling downhill feel like cycling uphill. The wind occasionally stops me dead, invariably next to a barrier-free drop (at one point near where Ken Block nearly disappeared into thin air on his Climbkhana video – a project I’ve renewed respect for, having seen for myself just how narrow the course is).
At the bottom, fingertips numb, brakes hot, adrenalin pumping, I’m mentally clearing a space in my dream garage for a high-end mountain bike and a high-riding SUV as a go-any- where sports holdall. And you know what? A Honda CR-V (with roobars and bike rack) would do the job nicely. A quiet hero, it’ll do pretty much anything you need it to without fuss. No cape-toting Superman, it’s the Clark Kent stuff that really makes this car: the massive luggage capacity inside a footprint that’s easy to thread around city streets, the refinement that shrugs off a thousand windswept miles without so much as a twinge of a bad back.
Why is the CR-V so popular? Take a short test drive and you may well be none the wiser. Live with one and you’ll know.