The sport-utility vehicle market did not come naturally to every Japanese manufacturer. While some companies such as Toyota and Isuzu had been building and selling a variety of off-road and other truck-like vehicles around the world for a number of years, there were those such as Honda who had virtually ignored the SUV trend in order to focus on their automobile production. The Japanese domestic market had traditionally never demanded a wide range of sport-utility options, and in some ways this lack of preparation left Honda flat-footed when these vehicles surged in popularity in North America towards the end of the 1990s.
When faced with rapidly changing customer demands, a company needs to move as quickly as possible in order to remain relevant. Honda knew that they weren't capable of responding to the demand for SUV's with a homegrown, truck-based solution. They decided to engage the market with a two-pronged attack. The first order of business was to work together with a partner company in order to provide an acceptable, co-branded SUV option to satisfy buyers in the short term. While some Honda fans were discouraged by the appearance of thinly disguised third-party SUV's in Honda showrooms, others were happy to finally receive some kind of sport-utility effort from the company. Honda followed this up by leveraging their strengths - a solid line of inexpensive, economical car platforms - and using them to create a new class of sport-utility vehicles that would attract an entirely different group of buyers. These crossover 'cute-utes', as they were called served to let the world know that it was possible to combined all-wheel drive and excellent cargo and passenger capacity with handling and fuel economy similar to that found in a standard sedan.
Given their expertise in producing small cars, it is no surprise that Honda have been able to build some of the most enduring compact sport-utility vehicles available on the used market. While other manufacturers such as Jeep and Toyota decided to actively pursue the smaller slice of the SUV pie that craved outdoor adventure and 4x4 capabilities, Honda restricted themselves to serving families who were tired of the standard minivan and who wanted to drive something with a little more style and a lot more utility. This article takes a look at the three best used Honda compact SUV's to be found on second-hand car lots and evaluates them based on their practicality, their features, and their overall package.
2002 - 2006 Honda CR-V
The 2002 - 2006 Honda CR-V was the first re-design of the vehicle which was initially built in response to a clamoring from fans of the brand for a sport-utility vehicle. Once again, the CR-V made use of the Honda Civic platform, in this case the most recent version from the seventh-generation edition of the sedan / coupe. The CR-V had always been a vehicle which traded more on ride comfort and cargo capacity than any kind of off-road credentials, and the Civic's chassis and drivetrain were a good fit for the small SUV.
The sport-utility vehicle's 2.4-liter power plant generates 160 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. These are healthy numbers that mesh well with the CR-V's light curb weight of just over 3,000 lbs. The engine's i-VTEC system uses an advanced computer control program which manages valve timing in order to radically improve both engine response and low-end torque over the previous version of the vehicle. Later versions of the CR-V also acquired electronic throttle control. Until 2005, the CR-V came with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission, after which point a 5-speed automatic became the only option. Front-wheel drive versions of the CR-V turn in 23 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway, with all-wheel drive editions showing slightly higher fuel-consumption numbers.
The interior of the CR-V is focused on function, not necessarily frills or luxury. That being said, Honda has put a lot of effort into making sure that there is plenty of leg and shoulder room for all five passengers. Cargo room is also impressive, more generous than any other compact SUV of the same era. The CR-V even provides a picnic table for families heading out camping or tailgating.
The 2002 - 2006 Honda CR-V shows that while it may not be a valid choice for 4x4 excursions, it is definitely a great used option for those who need a small but spacious people mover.
2003 - 2006 Honda Element
The 2003 - 2006 Honda Element was somewhat of an experiment for the Japanese automaker to see how far they could stretch the definition of compact sport-utility vehicle without straying too far into the world of wagons or hatchbacks. Similar in shape to the boxy vehicle which would eventually be sold by competitor Toyota as the Scion xB, the Element adopted a squared-off, wheels at each corner design which maximized interior space and allowed for the addition of half-doors behind each of the main doors in order to to ease entry into the small vehicle.
Honda were able to make use of their trusted 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, a 160 horsepower unit that is shared amongst the company's sedans and SUV's. Base models come equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission, with the option of upgrading to a 4-speed automatic. Buyers of the Element also have the choice of front-wheel drive or Honda's 'Real-time' all-wheel drive, which activates the rear wheels in the event of traction loss at the front of the vehicle.
Inside, the 2003 - 2006 Honda Element is designed to be as passenger-friendly as possible. The rear seats of the SUV fold forward and can also be pulled to the side in order to get them out of the way of large cargo that needs the entire floor space of the vehicle. The floor itself is made of a durable, easy to clean material which is set up to be low-maintenance, making the Element a solid option for anyone who regularly hauls instruments and amplifiers or even merchandise - it makes a great delivery vehicle that can double as a daily driver. Despite the vehicle's size and wide-open center door section, the Element is quite safe, and is available with side-impact airbags.
The 2003 - 2006 Honda Element is a niche compact SUV, designed to cater to a specific audience who don't want a van and don't want a truck but still need a used utility vehicle to help them manage the multiple transportation and hauling demands they face.
1998 - 2002 Honda Passport
The world of badge-engineering can create some unusual bedfellows, and such is the case with the Honda Passport. Built by Isuzu and also sold as the Rodeo, the Passport became Honda's first foray into the world of sport-utility vehicles in the mid-1990's. While still a compact, the Passport is Honda's only truck-based SUV available, and as such offers a very different driving experience when compared to either the Element or the CR-V.
The 1998 - 2002 Honda Passport should definitely not be dismissed by those who would look down their noses at the vehicle's non-Honda heritage. The Passport is powered by a 3.2-liter V-6 engine that generates 205 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of torque. The vehicle boasts the option of true four-wheel drive, making it a viable option for leaving the safety of the pavement for the unknowns of the back woods. Indeed, the Passport has developed a following amongst off-road enthusiasts who compare it to the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner in terms of trail capability. All four-wheel drive versions of the truck come with a locking rear differential and anti-lock disc brakes at each corner. The Passport can be ordered with a 5-speed manual transmission or a 4-speed automatic.
The Honda Passport also has a lot to offer on in terms of passenger accommodations. The base Passport LX is replete with standard features such as power door locks and windows, air conditioning, cruise control and skid plates. Stepping up to the EX adds wood trim and a moon roof, along with optional leather seats and a CD player. Although the Passport is big on the outside, taller passengers might find themselves cramped for headroom, particularly in the rear of the vehicle if the moon roof is installed. Seats are comfortable however, and the compact SUV also offers excellent cargo space that trails only the first generation Dodge Durango in terms of how much luggage it will swallow.
While at times difficult to find on a used Honda lot, the 1998 - 2002 Honda Passport is the most rugged of any Honda SUV available on the used car market.