Quick, what's the best-selling CUV/SUV in America? Here's a hint: It doesn't come from Detroit. In fact, it outsold by the Chevrolet Malibu sedan last year 204,000 to 198,000. You probably know someone -- a relative, a friend, a co-worker -- who owns one. If you said Honda CR-V, give yourself a gold star.

Whenever you're dealing with a product that popular, you've got to proceed with caution when it comes time to make changes. The CR-V has built a loyal following of repeat buyers, and an ill-conceived update could torpedo sales. Presumably wary of such consequences, Honda plotted a careful, conservative approach to its redesign, and the result is a vehicle that's largely the same as the one it replaces, but about 10 percent better in every way.

At face value, this may sound like damning with faint praise, but it's really a compliment. After all, the last CR-V trounced the competition in its final comparison test (MT, March 2010), and this one is (only) 65 percent new by parts content, according to Honda.

Take, for example, the ride. For 2012, Honda's rejiggered the damper mounts on the rear suspension to allow for larger dampers whose performance is less affected by changes in the suspension geometry as it cycles through its range of motion. The result is a slightly softer, smoother ride. The real achievement, though, is that, while we can detect a small improvement in ride quality, it hasn't come at any expense to the handling, which remains remarkably sporty for a crossover. Equally impressive is the new electric power steering system, which doesn't appear to give up any of the old hydraulic unit's road feel or directness.

The 2012 CR-V will give loyalists everything they loved about the old model, plus a little more.

Or take fuel economy. Thanks to obsessive anti-friction measures, Honda has picked up another 3 mpg highway on 2WD and AWD models and 1-2 mpg city, respectively. To get there, Honda reduced friction everywhere from the engine's piston rings to the transmission's clutch packs, and reduced the body's aerodynamic drag. The engineers added everything from underbody aerodynamic panels to a transmission fluid warmer that lets them run a lower-viscosity fluid in search of extra efficiency. It's a bit lighter, too. The effort even netted an extra 5 hp and smoother curves for both horsepower and torque output.

Then there's the AWD system, which is now much more active. Whereas the old system was effectively a 2WD unit until the front wheels slipped, the new system routes power rearward right from the start. Rather than let the rear axle go slack at a stop, the new system maintains pressure on the drivetrain, and routes power to the front and rear wheels under acceleration for faster, smoother launches. To the average driver, it will simply feel like the rear end isn't squatting as much under acceleration, as there's less weight transfer. Once underway and at a steady cruising speed, the system reverts to 2WD for better efficiency.

There are plenty more examples. Thanks to additional insulation and sound deadening, the new CR-V is a bit quieter inside. Despite being about 1 inch shorter in height and length, the new car doesn't give up any interior volume or passenger space. In fact, clever packaging has added 1.5 cubic feet to the cargo area and lengthened the load floor by 5 inches by folding the rear seats. Those seats now feature Honda's one-touch folding system, which drops the headrest, pops the seat cushion up and out of the way, and folds the seatback nearly flat, all by simply pulling a strap under the seat cushion or a handle in the cargo area. The rear seats still recline and provide more legroom than most sedans.

And did we mention the standard Bluetooth, USB connections, Pandora Internet radio support, a three-way reverse camera, and the ability to read incoming SMS text messages aloud through the stereo speakers?

If there's one area where Honda has delivered more than a 10-percent improvement, it's in the styling. The Jay Leno chin is banished in favor of a sleek, modern front end complemented by a more raked windshield and a new tail that wouldn't look out of place on a Volvo. The new interior is more modern as well, and feels larger and roomier than the exterior would suggest. The new dash is more stylish and less utilitarian, and we like the standard 5-inch color display up near the windshield almost as much as we dislike the comically oversized buttons on the stereo. And while you'd think those massive D-pillars would be a hindrance to outward visibility, they fall right behind the rear-seat headrests in your line of sight, and really don't cause any trouble.

There are some places where Honda has been too conservative. It's finally begun to put six-speed transmissions in some of its cars, but the new CR-V still isn't one of these. Worse, Honda has made the five-speed's gears longer for better efficiency, to the detriment of passing performance. Drop the hammer, and you'll often find yourself in a higher gear than you'd like, and below the powerband, which peaks rather high in the rev range. The CR-V is also still louder inside than the competition; there's too much engine vibration in the cabin at idle; the SMS texting only works with Blackberries; the Pandora integration works only with USB-tethered iPhones; the nav is still showing its age; and those taller than 6 feet will hit their heads on the open tailgate.

To CR-V buyers, though, these are likely to be small quibbles. The 2012 CR-V will give them everything they loved about the old model, plus a little more. While a bit of polishing here and there isn't all that exciting for a new model, this isn't an "exciting" market segment. The new CR-V is exactly what it needs to be: another heart-of-market people-mover that'll sell hundreds of thousands of copies to buyers who rank fuel economy and versatility above all else. For that, Honda's nailed it again.


2012 Honda CR-V
BASE PRICE $23,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD or AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.4L/185-hp/163-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 3300-3550 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 103.1 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 178.3 x 71.6 x 64.7-65.1 in
0-60 MPH 9.0 sec (MT est)
EPA FUEL ECONOMY 22-23/30-31 mpg
C02 EMISSIONS 0.75-0.78 lb/mi
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 147-153/109-112 kW-hrs/100 mi
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently