SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The 2023 Honda CR-V represents a whole new generation, and this time it’s trying something radically different: it’s actually trying to look good. For five generations, Honda’s pioneering and best-selling compact SUV has tested just about every possibility in terms of practicality, so buyers have had a hard time finding an objective reason to say no. Subjectively, however, their designs are best described as “utilitarian,” “anonymous,” or, more recently, “ugly”. Most parents don’t buy a stroller or car seat based on looks, so why should an automotive tool for parents like the CR-V be any different?

Being the best-selling compact SUV in every year of its existence suggests that thinking is popular, but really, why can’t the CR-V look good and still deliver all that practicality? We’re happy to report that the answer is yes. Style will always be subjective, but this generation is so much more cohesive and visually appealing than its chunky, smart-shoe predecessor that it’s hard not to dwell on it. Especially when you complete the Sport trim, which is now exclusive to the 2023 Honda CR-V hybrid, there is a pure design sophistication that harkens back to Honda’s glory days of the 80s and 90s. It may not be a Mazda CX-50but now there is a chance for someone power actually choose the 2023 CR-V based on how it looks. How about this?

And here’s the best news: there’s no compromise for that good look. The CR-V is just as much a practical parenting tool the vehicle it replaces. The rear seat reclines to eight positions instead of two, and has 0.6 inches of extra space between the first and second rows thanks to the increased wheelbase, resulting in more legroom and child seats. The latter also benefit from LATCH anchors that no longer dig in between the seat back and the bottom – instead, they’re in little plastic niches that simply can’t be accessed. Unfortunately, the CR-V’s fifth lower LATCH anchor, which made it easy to place a center child seat, was removed, but it was a feature that was rarely used.

Specs say cargo volume behind the rear seat is virtually unchanged in this latest generation, putting it just below the giants in the segment from Kia and Hyundai. We’ll have to wait for a good old-fashioned luggage test to see how it performs on the real thing, but there are a few obvious luggage-related caveats. Maximum cargo volume is now the best in the segment at 76.5 cubic feet, but the rear seat does not fold. Also, power may be the same regardless of powertrain, but the spare wheel of the turbocharged model is replaced by battery pack into a hybrid. The Kia Sportage and Toyota RAV4 hybrids manage to keep their spare parts.

Aside from that one trade-off, however, the 2023 Honda CR-V excels as the hybrid we’re reviewing here for the first time. While the base turbocharged engine carries over virtually unchanged, the hybrid is new. This includes a new 2.0-liter inline-four engine, a larger traction motor and electric generator, various refinements and a total increase of 3 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque to 204 hp. and 247 lb.-ft. Now, keen observers will note that the 2022 CR-V Hybrid’s specs say it made more horsepower, but that was achieved using outdated International Organization for Standardization (ISO) horsepower measurements. Based on the new measurement, the old CR-V Hybrid was indeed less powerful.

However, the biggest improvements to the hybrid powertrain can’t be found in a spreadsheet. Simply put, it’s just a better ride. Honda engineers managed to simulate gear changes when starting a gas engine, providing a more natural driving experience and eliminating the buzzing blenders of a moving car. This makes the CR-V look more like a Kia Sportage or Hyundai Tucson hybrid than the still humming Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, even if it remains a very different hybrid powertrain than all of the above.

Again, the CR-V’s hybrid powertrain relies almost exclusively on the electric motor to drive the wheels – the motor is only directly engaged at constant cruise for maximum efficiency, and to that end, a new second gear allows it to operate at higher speeds. Otherwise, the engine acts only as a generator, and given that there is no traditional transmission, it is would be better for efficiency and acceleration so the engine stays at the right rpm to keep the electrons flowing to the engine. The problem, as already stated, sounds terrible. Or, as CR-V chief engineer Koji Ito puts it, “doesn’t match the human senses.”

So the new CR-V Hybrid sounds like it’s shifting gears, and there’s even a bit of that old-school Honda in the engine note as it nears 100 on the dash’s power meter. The amazing thing, though, is that it never loses momentum, as it usually does in a car when shifting gears, since the engine isn’t actually connected to the wheels. The electric motor continues to rotate and draws energy from the battery during those fractions of a second when the engine “switches”. Ito admits that a small amount of acceleration and efficiency is lost, but says the handling advantage is worth it. We agree. Not only is this setup better than its hybrid predecessor, but it also provides a more satisfying acceleration experience than the base turbo engine and its traditional CVT, which still hums along. It’s not just about change. Everything about the hybrid transmission is quieter and more refined.

As for fuel efficiency, the 2023 CR-V Hybrid achieves 43 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway, and 40 mpg when paired with front-wheel drive, which was not previously available. The all-wheel drive system, which is now capable of a 50:50 power split compared to the old 60:40 split, can achieve 40 mpg city, 34 mpg highway and 37 mpg combined. That’s 1 mpg worse than before combined, but with figures this high, that doesn’t matter. All-wheel drive is optional on the Sport and standard on the Sport Touring, and incidentally, those are the only trims available as a hybrid. The EX and EX-L come exclusively with the turbo.

Another key upgrade related to hybrids is the new B mode, which increases regeneration braking to a point that is maybe 80% of the way to single pedal riding. It won’t stop the CR-V completely like many electric cars can, but it’s significant in terms of efficiency and driver fatigue in traffic. It’s selected by moving the traditional gearshift lever through D to B (the old CR-V Hybrid’s push-button shifter has been done away with, thank goodness), and the driver can adjust it by selecting one of four levels with a paddle on the steering wheel. The car won’t go back to the maximum default settings when you start the car again if you’ve used it before, which is a bit annoying.

As for the rest of the driving experience, the 2023 Honda CR-V is a noticeably more refined and stable car than its predecessor. It was surprising how much the old CR-V wobbled due to excessive lateral body motion. According to chassis engineer Yuki Morita, fixing this was a top priority for this generation, and stiffening the body was the main solution, making the 2023 CR-V much more stable and balanced. It also allowed engineers to use components with a lower coefficient of friction throughout the steering system, which increases its smoothness and allows precision to remain unchanged even when effort has been reduced. Some might complain that the CR-V’s steering has lost some of its direct, relatively sharp character, but Morita says that was largely done on the old model to counteract the under-stiff body and subsequent body roll. Overall, the CR-V is now much better to drive.

It also has a much better interior. Aesthetically, this is perhaps an even bigger improvement than the exterior. The CR-V’s cabin has always felt a bit van-like in design, and the outgoing one suffers even more with a plastic trim that can best be described as “close to the wood.” The new interior, on the other hand, is a lot less Odyssey and a lot more Civic, right down to the hexagonal metal vent cladding that cuts very coolly through the dashboard. So better than what was made of wood. It may just be a matter of perception, but this new interior design does much of the heavy lifting in making the new CR-V look less like a child-rearing tool.

It’s not just aesthetics either. There’s improved internal storage—your phone is less likely to fly off the wireless charger, and there’s room for a second phone nearby to rest and/or charge via the adjacent USB-A or USB-C ports. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, but you might not need them all that much, as the CR-V’s own infotainment system has been vastly improved over its clunky, slow, menu-rich predecessor. They’re basically the same 7- or 9-inch units you’ll find in the Civic, with one key exception. The integrated navigation system, included in the Sport Touring’s 9-inch touchscreen, no longer looks like Honda outsourced the job to TomTom, but actually works with the hybrid drivetrain to improve efficiency and/or performance. For example, if the programmed route shows an incline ahead, the car will effectively conserve battery power to reduce the load on the engine.

Standard safety technology has also been improved, as was the case with the Accord, Civic and HR-V. The forward collision warning system is less likely to trigger false alarms, the adaptive cruise control behaves more like a human driver, and the lane-keeping assist system does a better job of what its name describes. There are also four extras airbags: two front knee airbags and rear side airbags.

None of these new features and improvements come cheap, however, as the 2023 Honda CR-V is significantly more expensive than its predecessor. This is largely due to changes in Honda’s line-up:

  • The base trim level LX has been discontinued, as only about 10% of buyers went for it (to everyone’s credit, the old EX was much better). That would still be around 36,000 sales given how many CR-Vs were sold last year.
  • The new base trim is now the well-equipped EX, but even that is about $3,000 more than last year, starting at $32,355, including a $1,245 destination charge.
  • The Sport hybrid is the next step up the ladder at $33,695 and really only adds styling cues, a leather wheel and rear USB-C ports in addition to the powertrain. We will definitely start our shopping there.
  • The EX-L turbo ($35,005) and Sport Touring hybrid ($39,845) share most of the same luxury upgrades, but the hybrid goes further with standard four-wheel drive, 19-inch wheels, in-car Wi-Fi, that nifty navigation system, heated steering wheel and a surprisingly good Bose sound system.

Basically, if you want a hybrid drivetrain and don’t care about equipment or making the best fashion appearance, the Honda CR-V hybrid is no longer a good choice. You can pick up a base Sportage, Tucson or RAV4 hybrid for much less (that is if you can find it on the lot without a significant markup). Compared to comparable versions of rivals like the RAV4 SE, Sportage SX Prestige and Tucson Limited, the CR-V is competitively priced.

However, is it a class teacher? We’ll need a full comparison test to determine that, but it looks like the CR-V Hybrid is at least putting up a hell of a fight. At the very least, there’s no doubt that its sharp new look could boost its popularity even further.

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