What I'm Driving At: Gadget to Go

You wouldn't know it by looking at my desktop or poking around my garage, but I am actually quite obsessed with the timeless dictum that scolds, "A place for everything, and everything in its place." (My problem, of course, is the accretive nature of the term "everything." I simply refuse to consign my junk to the capital punishment of the rubbish bin.) I am in awe, then, when confronted with some new gadget that puts all manner of compact functionality at my fingertips: the Swiss Army Knife, with its blades and tools galore; or my new favorite, the backpack with manifold pockets, water bottles, and a padded stadium seat that folds out from between the arm slings. On the other hand, I fully admit to suffering from creeping irascibility over the present mania for sport/utility vehicles. The bandwagon effect of so many manufacturers and consumers trucking around in four-wheel-drive is approaching a collective delusion of a scale that the business world hasn't seen since Dutch tulip bulbs burst their florid bubble in the 1630s. (The used market will be the key to averting or inviting disaster -- if the bottom falls out of prices there, even the best traction system will be useless for getting SUVs out of that mess.) So when the perennial smart-guys at Honda finally come up with their own SUV this late in the game, it's hard to tell if the end is near or whether we've just opened a new chapter. Frankly, I'm inclined to feel especially sanguine about what amounts to a leap forward in the state of the art. Driving the all-new CR-V for the first time--in town, on the highway, and for a recreational field trip off-road--was the most fun I've had in a sport/ute in a long time. And one of the primary reasons why is that Honda has built what is essentially a Swiss Army Knife of a four-wheeler, where everything has its (often unexpected) place and works like it should. To avoid confusion at the outset, it bears pointing out that the CR-V is not a special-purpose mountain goat for Xtreme-sport off-road fanatics. More suitable for that role is the Honda Passport model, which is really Isuzu's venerable Rodeo wearing different badges. Designed from a blank sheet of paper, the CR-V is Honda's up-to-date interpretation of a runabout. It features a dandy powertrain that's front-wheel-drive until slippery conditions automatically bring the rear wheels into play--often without driver or passengers being any the wiser for it. Otherwise, the CR-V feels for all the world like Honda's tried-and-true Civic (on which it's based, after all). But this baby-faced sport/ute is immensely cuter, and it's chock full of enough clever features to make gadget guys and gals go ga-ga. A case in point is the fold-and-stow picnic table that serves as the floor for the cargo hold behind the rear seats. Not only does the table latch securely into and out of place, but it also serves as the lid for a wet-storage sump for the likes of damp bathing suits and soggy sneakers. Symbolic of the meticulous fine touch that has massaged nearly every aspect of the CR-V, however, are the tiny grooves in the corners of the folding table: On a windy day, they're just right for securing a checkerboard tablecloth with four rubber bands. How gosh-darn thoughtful. Not that you can drive a picnic table very far. Just the same, thoughtful flourishes abound in the CR-V--some out of sheer kindness, others because of interesting "packaging" considerations. In the former category are the stowage bins in every door, including one with tie-down straps in the rear hatch; there's even a fold-out change tray in the dash. The packaging novelties sometimes lead to odd locations for things, but they accord well with Honda's mumbly design maxim: Man Maximum, Mechanism Minimum. For example, the four (standard) power window switches for the driver fit in an escutcheon in the dash rather than on the door. The pull-up releases on top of the rear seats let you fold and tumble the seatbacks to make room for large cargo, as you'd expect. But since they also adjust seatback angles for the rear passengers, it takes a little session of hide-and-seek to discover the adjuster is not under the leg but over the shoulder. The only real curiosity in this welter of good design is the lack of a folding armrest for the front passenger seat. Oddly, all the other seats have one. Since Honda designed the CR-V as a runabout, it's only fair that it should drive like one. In other words, it's no hot rod. But it is a plucky Little Engine That Could, and its 126-horsepower four-banger and four-speed auto transmission translate into great mileage for the SUV category. Honda likes to tout its fancy Grade Logic shifting system, which cues the transmission to downshift when heading uphill (for better climbing) and down (for engine braking). But it doesn't quite eliminate gear "hunting," which is the plague of small motors with auto trannies. In fact, an aggressive driving style can sometimes give the Grade Logic processor the automotive equivalent of a migraine. More impressive yet at the mechanical level is the CR-V's four-wheel independent double-wishbone suspension. This is world-class, roadrace-quality technology, and only Honda uses it in an SUV to deliver nimbleness on the road and precise wheel placement over irregular terrain. Moreover, combining a suspension of this sophistication with a one-piece body-and-frame design gives the CR-V a reassuring poise and solidity that belie its miniature exterior proportions. Of course, I realize that making merry over Honda's cute little gadget-car risks contradicting my own cantankerous appraisal of the SUV phenomenon. But even a curmudgeon is susceptible to an artful flirtation. If it's true that good things happen to good people, then for the good many folks who've yet to stick their toes in the SUV waters, Honda's CR-V sport/utility runabout may well be what happens to them.

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