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The all-new next-gen Honda CR-V passed a major milestone recently on its way to the marketplace. Of course, given the way the industry works nowadays, I'm not talking about Honda producing a few early models or anything like that: I just mean the automaker has created a mini-site teasing the vehicle's launch and promising to reveal more about it "over the next several months."
It's a start, though, and you have to remember just how challenging things must be for Honda right about now, with the company still recovering from the situation in Japan and supporting the launch of the all-new Honda Civic at the same time. But as vague as the new CR-V's timing is, the vehicle's importance to Honda is crystal clear. After also seeing its two-pronged attempt to jump-start hybrid sales with the Honda Insight and Honda CR-Z get pronged itself, the automaker was already in a deep funk when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and that disaster may actually have worked in Honda's favor, in a way.
Purely from a PR angle, it gave the company something to point to—beyond its aging products—as a reason for its relatively weak recent sales performance, while also helping to lower expectations for the launch of the new Civic. The stage is now set for the kind of gradual recovery at Honda that might have otherwise seemed too little, too late. It's been a long time coming, but a fresh 1-2 punch featuring the new Civic and CR-V should be an effective weapon in Honda's ongoing battle for sales and market share.
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A Last Hurrah for the Crossovers?
At this stage in the evolution of the industry, small to medium crossovers are positioned in a vital role for consumers, delivering extra passenger and cargo room as compared to a car, but without imposing the kind of fuel-efficiency penalty that comes with a body-on-frame SUV. Yet, that penalty can still be surprisingly high. For example, at Honda, the difference in the EPA combined fuel-economy rating between the similarly sized Civic and CR-V is a significant 25 percent, with the former capable of 32 mpg and the latter topping out at 24 mpg.
And this kind of discrepancy doesn't have a lot to do with the fact that these two vehicles are from different generations. Much more important is that the CR-V weighs some 800 lbs. more than a Civic and therefore "requires" a significantly larger engine—a 2.4-liter I4 as opposed to the Civic's 1.8-liter four-cylinder powerplant—to deliver the same level of on-the-road performance.
It's not just Honda, either. The same sort of scenario, in which heavier crossovers use bigger engines to deliver notably worse fuel efficiency than their similarly sized car counterparts, is playing out with all automakers. Excluding the Nissan Juke and the Hyundai Tucson, the smallest crossovers at the eight top automakers all pack engines of at least 2.4 liters while their compact cars all offer 1.8-liter engines or smaller. The Juke is a whole different kind of animal and doesn't really fit into this comparo, and while the base Tucson offers a 2.0-liter mill, it still only goes 23/31/26 with the EPA.
The bottom line here: Although crossovers were an excellent short-term solution to increasing overall fuel efficiency in this country, in the long term, facing drastically higher CAFE guidelines, they may now be at the crest of their popularity with no place else to go but down.
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Going Down Fighting
That being said, however, the redesigned CR-V could be coming along at a good time for Honda. Although the Kia Sportage probably deserves the distinction of being called the first real new-generation crossover from a mainstream brand, it's just barely mainstream, and it's also noticeably smaller than top sellers like the CR-V, Toyota RAV4 or Chevrolet Equinox.
So the Honda stands to be the segment's pace-setter when it debuts—if it offers a hybrid powertrain. With an all-new Ford Escape set to premiere in the same time frame as the CR-V, and certain to continue featuring its own hybrid setup, the Honda will need to do the same to be competitive. And that's where the automaker's recent engineering experience with the Insight, CR-Z and new Civic Hybrid should reap some serious dividends.
And help hold off the return of the station wagon to the mainstream segments for a little while longer yet, because you know that's coming next.
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