1997–2001 Honda CR-V: The Crossover’s Origins Explained


The Honda CR-V is so common today, its numbers so thick on the ground in most places, that you’ve probably never stopped to consider what the compact crossover’s name means—or that it means anything at all. As a standout member of a mostly drab segment, the Honda’s name could just be the same old alphanumeric mumbo-jumbo applied to any number of modern vehicles. But did you know that it actually means “Comfortable Runabout Vehicle”? The funky name reflects the newness of what the CR-V represented back in the mid-1990s: there literally wasn’t a term for what it was, so Honda made one up.

Among the first of a new kind of in-between vehicles (not quite a car, but not quite an SUV), the Honda, and others like it, would sometimes be called “soft-roaders” before eventually going by the “crossover” name. Whatever you call them, the CR-V was on the vanguard of a rapidly proliferating number of tall, car-based, wagon-like vehicles that Americans just can’t get enough of. The Honda CR-V’s blend of an endearingly SUV-like shape—right down to its little externally mounted spare tire bolted to the tailgate—carlike handling, and fuel economy helped establish the crossover formula (alongside the truly first-into-the-fray Toyota RAV4, which was introduced a few years earlier).

Now, the CR-V and other crossovers like it didn’t appear out of thin air; Japanese automakers had for years been toying with literal car-based, all-road vehicles such as the Civic 4WD Wagon, Subaru Justy, and Toyota Corolla All-Trac. Honda, like Toyota with the RAV4 and Subaru with the Forester, simply swapped an SUV-mimicking body atop fortified car mechanicals to create the CR-V.

When Was the CR-V Born?

Honda first debuted the CR-V back in 1995, but the brand wouldn’t send it to the U.S. until the 1997 model year. It is heavily based on the contemporary Civic, and the crossover sports a fully independent suspension and a flat interior floor. Honda’s stylists gave the CR-V a mini-SUV appearance, with an up-kicked front bumper that resembles a skid plate and a cute externally mounted spare tire hung on the swing-out tailgate. Weirdly, at least for the American market, the CR-V’s tailgate swings open to the right—toward the curb. As such, when owners need to walk around the open tailgate to reach the sidewalk. At least the tailgate glass opens separately, swinging up and out of the way for quick deposits of groceries or bags.

At first, only a single trim level was offered—the CR-V LX—but shortly after its first year on sale, the EX joined the lineup. The higher-end trim adds aluminum wheels and anti-lock brakes to the model. Every CR-V comes with a picnic table (no, really), that deploys from beneath the cargo floor. The rear seats also fold flat, and there is plenty of bin space throughout the interior.

Other cute details include a column shifter for the automatic transmission, a flimsy folding console between the two front seats, and taillights integrated into the rearmost roof pillars, leaving unadorned sheet metal between the bumper and the rear glass. For reasons unclear, Honda stuffed the majority of the CR-V’s secondary controls into a panel to the left of the steering wheel, including the door mirror controls, window switches for all four windows, and gauge-pod dimmer switch.

SUV Style, Car-Like Performance

In the late 1990s, most SUVs relied on truck-like body-on-frame underpinnings, making them heavy and ponderous on the highway. The CR-V, on the other hand, is more like a tall station wagon. As with other period Hondas, its body boasts a low shoulder line and a tall greenhouse, so there is plenty of glass to aid outward visibility. If not for its higher-than-a-Civic seating position, the CR-V feels almost exactly like a car from the driver’s perspective.

While not a car, neither is the CR-V an SUV in the traditional sense. Front-wheel drive is standard, and even Honda’s optional “Real Time” all-wheel-drive favors the front axle. When slippage is detected at the front wheels, the setup shifts engine torque to the rear axle—although not quite in the “Real Time” Honda branding suggested, but close. With 8.1 inches of ground clearance, the CR-V is certainly better suited to off-roading than a Civic, but its lack of low-range gearing or a lockable center diff meant it prefers the pavement to the unbeaten path.

Light as the CR-V is, it doesn’t need a great big engine to slog it around. Honda fitted every CR-V with the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine; initially, the motor produced a so-so 126 hp and came only with a four-speed automatic transmission. In 1999, however, that output was bumped up to 146 horses, and buyers could choose between a five-speed manual transmission or the four-speed auto. Acceleration with either transmission is leisurely compared to today’s CR-V and its ilk, but competitive at the time. Fuel economy was similarly impressive then, if not now; the original CR-V posted low-20-mpg efficiency.

No one thing gave the CR-V its magic appeal. It was the blend of all of its friendly attributes—from its useful and roomy interior to its carlike driving behavior to its affordability (around $20,000)—that earned it adherents. Sales quickly topped six figures in the U.S. Stir in Honda’s reputation for reliability, and it’s little wonder the CR-V gained enough longevity to help put the crossover formula on the map. Not only can you still buy a CR-V today (it is Honda’s best-seller in the U.S. ), but nearly every SUV-ish thing on the road relies on the same basic format of car-like underpinnings with SUV-like looks. It’s called a crossover, but in 1997, it was the Comfortable Runabout Vehicle.

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