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The good and bad of buying a used Honda CR-V

To call the Honda CR-V a Canadian favourite is a bit of an understatement

Published: March 12, 2019, 10:30 PM
Updated: March 25, 2019, 5:13 PM

2015 Honda CR-V

If your street is anything like mine, you can throw a Frisbee from your front steps and hit at least three Honda CR-Vs parked at your neighbours’ homes. My kids can recount this from personal experience.

To say the CR-V is a Canadian favourite is a bit of an understatement. It ranks right up there with maple syrup, Tim’s double-double and complaining about taxes as Canuck birthrights – especially now that Honda is assembling its compact crossover in Alliston, Ontario.

“Compact” is a bit of a mislabel, actually. This is one deceivingly big little Honda. While it owes its platform to the diminutive Civic sedan, the tall-riding CR-V is especially accommodating on the inside, which owners are more than happy to exploit.

“The space in the back is amazing,” remarked one owner. “I’ve been able to get a wheelbarrow in and a treadmill, neither of which would ever have been able to fit in the (Volkswagen) Tiguan.”

This crossover’s reputation precedes it, especially when it comes to reliability. The fourth generation CR-V, encompassing model years 2012 to 2016, uses the venerable “K-series” 4-cylinder engine, which has powered millions of Hondas. In this application, however, there are some caveats. Read on.

The fourth generation CR-V

The redesigned 2012 CR-V was instantly recognizable by its smooth front fascia, having corrected the unsightly underbite that made the previous CR-V a little hard on the eyes. The width and wheelbase remained unaltered, while the trucklet lost about 2.5 cm in height and length – changes that had an imperceptible impact on interior room.

The CR-V is an accommodating conveyance for five people; some scribes have compared the cabin space to that of a minivan (take it as a compliment). The floor at the split-folding rear bench is flat, which means occupants don’t have to play footsies to avoid the hump. Too bad the bench doesn’t slide fore and aft. Cargo capacity is generous, partly because there are no third-row jump seats to compromise the space.

The pleasing interior had shifted upmarket. Most models came with two display screens, although the graphics were oddly pixelated. The cabin is airy and inviting with its tall seating and great sightlines. However, some owners disliked the CR-V’s firm chairs and intrusive headrests.

The headrests, designed for better whiplash protection, rubbed a minority of owners the wrong way. “The headrest pushes my head forward into a very uncomfortable position,” one owner protested online. “After 1.5 hours’ drive, my neck hurt for five days.”.

Just a hunch, but these might be people who keep their seatbacks rigidly upright. Definitely try before you buy.

Powering the CR-V

Making a return engagement was the aluminum K-series 2.4-litre DOHC 4-cylinder engine. This version boasted a 5.4% reduction in internal friction, yielding improved output of 185 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. There’s no 6-cylinder option – an apparent deficiency that was soon adopted by many of the CR-V’s competitors anyway.

Also returning was the conventional 5-speed automatic transmission, updated with lower-friction mechanicals and low-viscosity fluid to boost efficiency. A wider gear ratio goosed the CR-V’s fuel-economy ratings a little, too. 

Newly added was an “Econ” button that dulled throttle response for even better fuel efficiency. Think of it as the killjoy button, given its ability to squelch anything approaching spirited acceleration. All-wheel-drive models received a new electronically controlled rear differential that was lighter, more efficient and responded quicker than the old hydraulic setup.

Refreshed 2015 models

The 2012 CR-V was so well received that Honda didn’t feel the need to update it until 2015, when new headlights, LED daytime lamps, grille and bumpers lent a more expensive look. Inside, soft-touch plastic on the instrument panel, rear-seat air vents and more sound insulation spiffed up the cabin.

More significantly, the 2015 models received an updated drivetrain pinched from the Accord sedan. The direct-injected “Earth Dreams” 2.4-litre i-VTEC 4-cylinder made the same 185 horsepower as its predecessor, but peak torque was up 11% to 181 lb-ft at a more accessible 3900 rpm.

The engine was tied to the Accord’s continuously variable automatic (CVT) of Honda’s own design and manufacture, which relied on a torque converter between the engine and the transmission to give the CR-V normal-feeling takeoff. Revised suspension tuning rounded out the changes for 2015.

Driving the CR-V

The CR-V blends the nimbleness of a Civic and the sturdiness of a full-bodied Pilot sport-ute, making it surprisingly rewarding to drive. The ride quality is firm but rarely jarring; it remains planted on pockmarked roads and nicely damped. If there’s a weakness, it’s the electric steering system, which felt a little remote and disconnected.

Some drivers were disappointed with the mandatory 4-banger, which, while smooth and refined, felt underpowered at times. Zero to 100 km/h came up in less than nine seconds in the 2012 AWD model, while the direct-injected engine in the 2015 made it slightly fleeter at about 8.5 seconds (the lighter front-drive model could do it about a half second quicker).

At least the popular crossover was no longer a noisy blender on the highway. Engineers had stuffed enough insulation inside to make the fourth-gen models significantly quieter than the CR-Vs that came before them.

Perhaps the biggest draw is the CR-V’s penchant for sipping gas and making fuel economy numbers that can top the government ratings (with a light right foot). Expect to average around 9.0 litres/100 km in mixed driving, especially with the CVT-equipped 2015-16 models.

Owner chatter

Canada’s favourite “import” crossover has a bunch of things going for it: polished road manners, a roomy interior, fuel-efficient drivetrain, quiet comportment and that lightness of being for which Honda is coveted. Reliability is another strength, although a deep dive into owners’ feedback can reveal some warnings used-vehicle shoppers should heed.

Owners of 2012-14 models have reported changing batteries too often. Apparently, the CR-V’s charging system output is insufficient for frequent short trips, so the battery may expire early. Dim headlights may be a symptom of this weak charging system – lots of owners have complained about inadequate lighting.

Another concern is the VTC actuator, a component of Honda’s i-VTEC valve-timing system. Plenty of drivers have reported a loud grinding or rattling noise from the engine for a few seconds during a cold start. Honda issued service bulletin TBA 09-010 and will replace the actuator if pressed.

Others talk about a clogged heater core, which typically won’t allow the driver’s side of the windshield to defog but emits heat on the passenger side. Dealers can descale the core using a solution, but if it fails, a new heater core is an expensive proposition since it means dismantling the dashboard.

Some of these issues were resolved with the 2015 refresh, but the updated models introduced another wrinkle: the new direct-injected Earth Dreams engine can be a nightmare for people who are sensitive to vibration.

“It’s been vibrating since I got the car,” reads one account. “I am embarrassed to have people in my car, for when I stop at a light it vibrates like hell.” The affliction impacts 2015 CR-Vs mostly, though some 2016 owners have also reported the shakes.

Honda came up with a 3-pronged approach (TSB 15-046) that addresses many of the complaints, though not all of them. The fix includes installing lower radiator cushions, a new transmission mount and front head restraints, as well as a tailgate damper. A software update to the engine management computer reportedly changed the idle speed.

Other mechanical flaws include electric power steering that can intermittently fail while driving (reported in small numbers), faulty air conditioners and tire-pressure monitors, some hesitating transmissions and a few CVTs that have given up the ghost entirely.

The CR-V is a well-regarded family vehicle with a bunch of positive traits and a few not-insignificant faults. There are enough happy buyers to make it a resounding success – just know some model years are better than others, so select yours with care.

2012-16 Honda CR-V

Typical price range: $15,500-$23,500

Pros: Big room inside; competent handler; genuine gas sipper

Cons: No V-6 option; class-average acceleration; shaky Earth Dreams engine

Things to Watch Out For: Short-lived battery; Earth Dreams engine prone to vibration; clogged heater core; disharmonious grinding at start-up; air conditioner may expire early.