skip to content
Driving Line Mark Logo

History of the CR-V: How a "Lifted Civic" Became Honda's Most Popular Vehicle

If you ask most people what Honda's most successful and important cars are, you'll probably hear most poeple bring up the Civic and Accord. And in many ways they'd be right. It was the compact Civic that helped Honda establish a foothold in the North American market and the larger Accord that led it to become the major player it is today.

And while both the Civic and Accord continue to be important vehicles for Honda today, they are no longer Honda's best-sellers in this part of this world. For several years now that honor has gone to the CR-V crossover.

Honda CR-V First Gen JDM Model with a kayak on top

But how did it come to be that way? Let's go back to the beginning and check out the origin story for this CUV and see how it became such a success.

Built from Civic & Integra DNA 

Like its Toyota rival the RAV4, which launched just before it, the Honda CR-V was based on car underpinnings. In this case, the Honda Civic and Integra. 

Honda CR-V First Gen Cut Away

Arriving in North America for 1997 model year, the CR-V took the build quality and driver-friendly feel that Hondas were known for and applied them with a taller-riding, roomier SUV form factor and added optional all-wheel-drive for inclement weather or light off-road use. And if you are wondering what CR-V stood for, the answer is "Comfortable Runabout Vehicle".

Honda First Gen CR-V Off-Road

The CR-V had just one engine option — but it was a solid one. It came from Honda's legendary B-series family, but for CR-V duty the engine now displaced 2.0L for improved low-end torque.

Later on, the CR-Vs B20B engine would become popular among Honda enthusiasts who would combine the larger 2.0L block with a VTEC head for a combination of displacement and high RPM power.

Honda CR-V First Gen Engine

While the first-generation RAV4 is memorable for its two-door body style, the original CR-V only came in the more practical four-door layout — though they both had the spare tires mounted on the rear door.

Honda CR-V First Gen Rear Gate open with a fold-out table

In the late 1990s the sedan was still the primary choice for American car buyers, but the CR-V proved popular right off the bat with its blend of classic Honda driving dynamics and fuel economy applied to a small SUV with all-wheel-drive.

The K-Series Era

Just as the Civic moved to a new generation for 2001, a new second-generation CR-V arrived for the 2002 model year with shared underpinnings.

Honda CR-V 2nd Gen on a trail

The American market CR-V not only got a displacement bump up to 2.4 liters, but the engine was now the renowned K-series four-cylinder found all across Honda and Acura's lineup.

Honda CR-V Second Gen Rear

The second generation CR-V was slightly larger than the first generation, and thanks to its modernized i-VTEC engine it made increased power and torque while delivering the same fuel economy. Naturally, sales figures continued to climb.

Honda CR-V 2.4 liter engine

The third-generation CR-V went on sale for the 2007 model year, with a body shape that had more of minivan or coupe influence to it depending on who you talked to.

Two Honda CR-V Third Gens

It also left behind the old school swing-out rear tailgate and the externally mounted spare tire as part of its modernized look. It worked, as annual sales figures in the U.S. crossed 200,000 for the first time.

Front and rear of Honda CR-V Third Gen Mugen

The Age of Crossover Dominance 

By 2012 the fourth-generation CR-V was on sale, once again adding power and refinement and winning over former Civic and Accord buyers in large numbers.

Honda CR-V Fourth Gen on a trail

When it launched, the transmission was a traditional five-speed automatic, but a mid-cycle refresh brought a new CVT transmission designed to further improve performance and fuel economy from the Earth Dreams 2.4L — which now made 185hp.

Honda CR-V Fourth Gen Rear View

In 2016 the Honda Civic took one of the biggest leaps with a move to the new tenth-generation model, and the equally new fifth (and current) generation CR-V followed for the 2017 model year.

Side of 2017 Honda CR-V with a storage box on top

While the old 2.4L naturally aspirated engine initially carried over as a base option, the big news was Honda's new 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder.

Honda CR-V 1.5 Turbo Engine

As with most modern turbo engines, the idea was to deliver increased power and better fuel economy, and the CR-V succeeded in that. The crossover segment had now come to overtake sedans in America, and for the first time the CR-V outsold the Civic.

Today & Tomorrow

A midcycle refresh for the 2020 model year updated the CR-V's looks, but the larger development was the addition of a hybrid model to the lineup.

Honda CR-V Hybrid 2020 with the sunset behind it

The battery-assisted 2.0L four-cylinder in the CR-V hybrid made 212hp — the most ever in a CR-V — and it came standard with all-wheel drive.

Honda CR-V Hybrid on Nitto Terra Grappler G2 with a bike on top

With improved fuel economy that includes an EPA rating of 40 miles per gallon in the city, the CR-V Hybrid had basically no drawbacks compared to the non-hybrid version, aside from a slightly higher MSRP.

With the current generation CR-V now having been around for six model years, the release of a new sixth-gen model should be imminent. Honda has recently teased the debut of a new CR-V sometime this year during what its calling the "Year of the Crossover".

2020 Honda CR-V with a rooftop tent and topography wrap

Mechanically, the new CR-V will probably be an evolutionary upgrade of the current model when it arrives, likely for the 2023 model year.

The hybrid model will surely return as well, and there's also lot of interest in a possible plug-in-hybrid variant to compete with Toyota's popular RAV4 Prime.

Honda CR-V Hybrid JDM Model from the rear

And just as the first gen CR-V had a more rugged vibe to it, the recent growth in the CUV aftermarket has seen more people upgrading their Hondas for light-duty off-road adventure and exploration. 

Rear of 2020Honda CR-V with a Nitto Ridge Grappler on the rear tire carrier

We should find out pretty soon what exactly Honda has in store for this popular crossover, but you can be certain there's a lot riding on it given how the CR-V has become one the company's most crucial products. Stay tuned.

Return to beginning of article

Recommended For You

Loading ...