Cute 'utes, once disdained by hard-core off-roaders and eschewed by status-conscious soft-roaders, are now in vogue--as is anything that gets better than 15 mpg. Honda has been part of the compact-crossover SUV game since 1997, when the first CR-V was launched. Slightly gawky like the Toyota RAV4, it nevertheless combined reasonable internal volume with excellent fuel economy to score well in sales.

The CR-V, which is based on Civic architecture, joined the Toyota RAV4 in a burgeoning car-based category soon to be populated by many players. The Honda came out swinging, finding a niche between the truly small first-generation RAV4 and the popular body-on-frame midsize SUVs of the day. With a 103.1inch wheelbase, the CR-V was longer than the RAV4 by a useful margin, enough to provide incrementally more interior room and about three cubic feet more cargo volume.

The CR-V was a bit of an iconoclast, with its side-hinged rear gate, exterior spare tire, and standard pull-out picnic table. From across the parking lot, the CR-V looked like what it was: a tall Civic. Underneath, Honda fitted independent suspension in the basic front-drive architecture, which is what the CR-V fundamentally was.

Honda began tentatively. The first Honda-designed SUV (ignoring the Isuzu-built Passport) came in all-wheel drive with only a four-speed automatic. By 1998, Honda had filled out the line with two trim levels, LX and EX. EX models had all-wheel drive, but the LX also could be had as a front driver. By 2000, a third model was added, the SE. Only the LX could be had in two-wheel-drive form, and the five-speed manual was standard on all but the SE, but any model could be optioned with the four-speed autobox. Important to note, Honda added ABS this year, standard on the EX and SE. In 2001, the CR-V changed little, though the SE carried over its leather-lined interior.

Keeping in mind the CR-V's role as a poor-weather car, not a rock-bashing truck, Honda called the drive system Real Time 4WD. There's no transfer case, but instead a viscous coupling sends power to the rear wheels when the fronts have no grip, so it handles like a tall front-drive sedan most of the time. There's no low range available, and even though the CR-V has acceptable ground clearance, it shouldn't be considered a 4x4 trail machine.

For the first years of this generation, power came from a Civic-based 2.0-liter DOHC inline-four, rated at a comparatively wheezy 126 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque, which is adequate for a 3150-pound vehicle. But for 1999, Honda tweaked the engine to produce 146 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque. That's still not small-block Chevy territory, but an improvement that was worth the effort.