Gee, I've been here before. It just takes closing my eyes to rewind the calendar to 1984, to Honda R&D's Tochigi Proving Grounds, and into the front seat of the then-futuristic new Civic Wagon. At the time, tall, razor-edged boxes like this were experiencing a micro-eruption of popularity: Besides the Civic there were also versions of Toyota's Tercel and Nissan's Stanza with comparable refrigerator proportions. But to most of us at that time, the Honda was the best of the bunch.

Partly this was because the Civic Wagon was exactly the sort of space-efficient, fuel-sipping, Leatherman-like multitasker Honda's engineers seem to respond to like catnip. It's also a configuration that Honda has subsequently revisited, like a moth around a flame, sometimes approaching it from this angle, other times from that one. But the fleeting muse in the fire has always been the same. The same one that -- now opening my eyes -- is represented again here, by the 2008 CR-V surrounding me.

For Honda, perhaps uniquely, the CR-V really isn't a "cute 'ute," a description that implies it's some sort of shrunken afterthought, half-hidden in the shadow of the full-size real McCoy. In Honda's world, this is the real McCoy, the present incarnation of that old Civic Wagon concept -- which found itself revived under the CR-V banner in 1996, at the height of the SUV frenzy. Now in its third generation, how evolved is the CR-V, Gen3?

Stylistically, you have to say this new one has visually morphed from the deflating SUV-category into the expanding crossover one. It's more jelly-bean-shaped, far more emotional in its details. The headlights are flare-back like an extreme facelift; the pursed-mouth grille is now slightly opened, as if it might snap at you.

The stylistic melting that's transformed the bodywork's old right angles into French curves probably helps aerodynamics, but it doesn't benefit many aspects of the CR-V's usability. The parabolicly-shaped side glazing slightly impedes over-the-shoulder glances at adjacent-lane traffic. It also requires taller rear passengers to dip their head getting in and out. And, unfortunately, while the CR-V's rear cargo portal has become rounder, the boxed stuff you get from Home Depot is still as rectangular as ever. On the other hand, the CR-V's crowded with amenities, from always one more cupholder than you could possibly ever need to reclining rear seats. Only Toyota's RAV4 and Subaru's new Forester can compare in this sort of detailing.

The interior is also a case study of the level of artistry that can be achieved with lowly hard plastics. A subtle variety of tones is deployed and arranged to highlight the dash's shapes and functional bits -- but they do no more than highlight. The treatment's restrained and tasteful. The textures are equally sophisticated. And the gauges and controls would make sense to somebody raised by wolves and suddenly plopped behind the wheel. As with all Hondas, there's plenty of front legroom available, novel in an era when so many other manufacturers have decided that six feet shall be mankind's maximum stature.

On the road, the CR-V isn't powerful -- its 166 hp and 9.2-second 0-to-60-mph time (produced by this front-drive version) -- will keep you happily abreast of traffic, but will also probably dissuade you from any particularly daring maneuvers. Our car's five-speed automatic transmission (a rarity in this category that's packed jowl to jowl with four speeds) also has an odd trait: For some reason you can't manually select fourth. But this is probably more a curiosity than a nuisance.

As with all tall vehicles, once you're underway in the CR-V you experience lots more lateral motion than in traditional sedans. But we've also noticed these new CR-Vs have a tendency to periodically "tramline" on certain surfaces -- a quirk wherein the tire tread momentarily follows the highway's rain grooves. It can be fairly unsettling until you realize what's happening. Why does the CR-V use these tires? Maybe the guy who blocked out fourth gear has some idea.

So how far has latest iteration of the quarter-century-old Honda theme progressed? Compared with those old mid-'80s Civic Wagons, the difference feels like 50 years. Six airbags, Honda's ACE crash-safety body structure, and a laundry list of the latest electronic features combine with a feel of sheer substance and quality that make the CR-V a genuine standout -- a vehicle that could wear a three-pointed star as comfortably as Honda's 'H' badge, we'd venture.

And that definably can't be said for those old Civic Wagons. I ought to know -- I still have one in my driveway.


2008 HONDA CR-V EX
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front engine, FWD
Engine type I-4, alum block/heads
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement 143.7 cu in / 2354 cc
Compression ratio 9.7:1
Power (SAE net) 166 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 161 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
Redline 6500 rpm
Weight to power 20.4 lb/hp
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Axle/final-drive ratios 4.50:1 / 2.55:1
Suspension, front; rear Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering ratio 15.7:1
Turns lock-to-lock 3
Brakes, f;r 11.7-in vented disc; 12.0-in disc, ABS, BA, EBD
Wheels, f;r 6.5 x 17 in, cast alum
Tires, f;r 225/65R17 102T M+S Bridgestone Dueler H/T 470
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase 103.1 in
Track, f/r 61.6/61.6 in
Length x width x height 177.9 x 71.6 x 66.1 in
Ground clearance 7.3 in
Approach/depart angle 29.0/21.5 deg
Turning circle 37.8 ft
Curb weight 3386 lb
Weight dist., f/r 58/42 %
Towing capacity 1500 lb
Seating capacity 5
Headroom, f/r 38.9/38.5 in
Legroom, f/r 41.3/38.5 in
Shoulder room, f/r 56.9/56.0 in
Cargo volume 72.9/35.7 cu ft
TEST DATA
Acceleration to mph
0-30 3.0 sec
0-40 4.6
0-50 6.7
0-60 9.2
0-70 12.2
0-80 16.6
Passing, 45-65 mph 4.8 sec
Quarter mile 17.0 sec @ 81.1 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 134 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.76 (avg)
MT figure eight 28.8 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 1900 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $23,585
Price as tested $23,585
Stability/traction control Yes/yes
Airbags Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
Basic warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside assistance N/A
Fuel capacity 15.2 gal
EPA city/hwy econ 20/27
CO2 emissions 0.86 lb/mile
MT fuel economy est 20.9 mpg
Recommended fuel Unleaded regular

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