The Honda CR-V: an aught in the land of 10s

I recently had the worst new-car buying experience since I purchased a Ford Pinto in 1980. Let me tell you about it and tell you why you should not consider a Honda CR-V.

I needed a people mover… a vehicle that could transport 2 or 3 8-year-olds plus a 100 lb dog. I had a 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid which was an excellent car, but couldn't do the hauling.

Initially, I looked at getting another hybrid. The Ford C-Max and Toyota Prius V were both good choices. The problem with the C-Max is it didn't fit the dog. The Prius V was a perfect fit, but it had problems making it up hills in San Francisco during the test drive. I had to remove both cars from my list.

A Compact Utility Vehicle

So, I started looking at the Compact Utility Vehicle category. There are tons of choices in the category, but I quickly narrowed the search down to two vehicles: the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape. The new Toyota RAV-4 had not been released, so that got knocked off my list. There were some other vehicles I looked at online, but none got as good reviews as the Honda or Ford.

I was a Honda lover

I owned a 2004 Acura TL. It was the best car I ever owned. It was fast, reasonably efficient, comfortable, handled well, had a very well designed interior, was made with excellent materials. The TL hit the perfect place for me of sporty, well made, reasonable electronics (it was one of the first cars with Bluetooth), comfortable, etc.

I also owed a 2008 Honda Odyssey which was a perfect large people-mover. It had lots of space. It was made with excellent materials. It was a rock solid performer. You could drive the Odyssey for 12 hours, sleep at a hotel and drive for another 12 hours. Everything in the Odyssey was in just the right place for your hand to find it.

Both cars had Honda's terrific V6 that was smooth as silk and revved beautifully.

When I drove the CR-V on a test drive, it felt like a mini-Odyssey, which is exactly what I wanted because a large car in San Francisco is a liability.

The final decision

I was leaning towards the Escape in my final decision because the Escape had a ton more features: HID head lights, an excellent back-up camera and sonar for parking, keyless door opening, starting, and rear hatch opening, blind-side warning (the camera and the blindside warning were both in my Fusion and they were totally amazing), memory seats (useful when one is 6' 2" and has a nanny who is 5' 4"), and much more, all for about $2K more than the Honda. A similarly equipped Escape to the CR-V EX-L would be about $3K less once you factor in the various incentives Ford is offering.

But I really liked the Honda dealer and the seating position in the CR-V was more comfortable. I thought to myself, "Honda is like Apple… they make minimally excellent products and at the end of the day, bells and whistles are nice, but a rock solid product is what will make me happy day in and day out." So even though a Honda was radically more expensive than a similarly equipped Ford, I figured Honda was doing the Apple thing… a higher price for a much better product.

So, I went to the Honda dealer and bought the CR-V. Biggest car-buying mistake I've made since 1980.

It's the iPhone era

Apple released the iPhone in 2007. By mid-2008, it was clear that Apple had changed the rules for how consumers view devices. Apple destroyed Nokia and Motorola with a phone that was easier to use and simply a fluid mobile experience. Every consumer device manufacturer since 2008 should have factored Apple's design success into every consumer product they built.

Cars take a long time to design. Most car models go through an 8 year major design cycle and a 4 year minor design cycle.

The major design cycles are ones in which everything about the prior model is discarded (except perhaps the engine and transmission) in favor of a complete redesign.

The minor design cycles are ones in which there is typically a body and interior make-over. Much of the user-facing stuff in the car is changed,

The 2012 CR-V was a major re-design. It was a major redesign that was done through the iPhone era and I would expect that Honda would have focused some design on getting the polish of the car and its interaction with the driver, both via traditional inputs (steering, brakes, acceleration) and in-car electronics.

Sadly, the 2013 CR-V is worse than my 2004 Acura TL in the following terms:

  • Noise/vibration/harshness
  • Fuel economy (and we're comparing a 280+ hp V6 and a 180 hp inline 4)
  • Fit, finish, and materials
  • In-car electronics

Feels like a Diesel

The CR-V felt like a Diesel at idle… well in fact most of the time (Diesels run smooth above idle).

The car would shake and shutter at idle. The amount of shaking and shuttering would vary from drive to drive. I could generally get the car to run smoother when it was in one of its particularly bad modes by turning it off, waiting 5 seconds and restarting it. But, rebooting your car is not something you should have to do. And no, it wasn't the AC compressor as I tried turning off the climate control during particularly bad incidents.

Honda has a reputation for making excellent four cylinder engines and my experience with their V6s was exemplary. Having a rough running engine is not acceptable.

"Take it in for a warranty repair" you might say. But this was one of many Heisenbugs with the car. It was not always so bad.

Also, I've owned a number of other 4 cylinder cars over the years (1980 Pinto, 1994 SAAB 9000, 2005 Mini Cooper, 2011 Fusion). Except for the Pinto, the CR-V had the roughest, harshest engine of any of the cars.

Bad throttle response

One of the interesting things about the CR-V was it had "econ mode." Pushing a button changed the throttle response such that it required more throttle application to get the same power. The climate control and other stuff was also adjusted to improve fuel economy.

I preferred econ mode because I was able to accelerate smoothly and I got to nominally save gas (although I was unable to get more than 18MPG in the city.)

The problem with econ mode was that when you needed acceleration (passing someone on the highway), it seemed that even flooring the accelerator yielded very little in the way of acceleration. So, if I anticipated that I'd need acceleration, I'd pop the car out of econ mode and then drive it.

The problem with regular mode was that the throttle was very touchy and it was nearly impossible to get a smooth launch from a stop.

The throttle response was a terrible choice: not smooth or not enough power when you need it.

Moaning Brakes

Another Heisenbug with the CR-V was the brakes. Sometimes during low-speed stops, they would moan and send a nasty vibration through the car. I'm a fan of smooth, modulated stops, but with the CR-V, they became a liability because occasionally they would result in nasty noises and vibrations.

Washed out backup camera

I had a backup camera in my 2008 Odyssey and 2011 Fusion. As cars have less and less rear visibility, having a backup camera is more and more important for safety.

The CR-V has a backup camera. The backup camera is displayed on the navigation screen in the center console.

The navigation screen changes brightness automatically when the headlights go on and off.

The headlights are automatic so they are on in my garage, but they turn off after 10 seconds in the sun outside my garage.

So, I back out of my garage and once I'm in the sunlight, the navigation screen gets washed out because the screen is too dark to be seen in the daylight.

I disable the automatic headlights because it's more important to see the backup camera than to have the headlights turn on and off. Note that the above was not a problem on my Fusion which also had automatic headlights.

But even with the headlights off, it was frequent that the sun would shine through the sunroof and wash out the navigation screen.

Every time I got in the CR-V in my garage, I'd have to remember to turn off the automatic headlights and close the sunroof shade and then I would be able to use the backup camera.

There are two huge design problems with the navigation screen. It's angled toward the roof so it's more susceptible to glare and it is not bright enough. This is not cool when it comes to a safety issue.

Useless Nav system

The navigation system in the 2013 CR-V was virtually identical to the navigation system in my 2004 Acura TL. The user interface did not evolve over 9 years!!!

Let me let that sink in. During the iPhone era, a consumer electronics item did not evolve its user interface for 9 years.

Oh, and the UI is weak.

Also, the navigation system was useless during the day with the sunroof shade open because the screen got washed out.

Oh, and there are 2 LCD screens. One is the navigation system and one is a multifunction display. The choice of what is displayed on each seemed to be a random thing that was not well thought out.

On the plus side, the multifunction display never got washed out by the sun, so it was always visible.

Also, the graphics on both screens was childish and ugly. One review referred to it as ColecoVision graphics. I found it a lot more like Windows 3.1.

This is an era where Ford has MyFord Touch (which I will review in another blog post) and Toyota has Entune. Even Mazda is being smart and outsourcing their navigation system to TomTom. Honda cannot expect 9 year old technology to be useful in a competitive product in a competitive segment.

Phantom Nav screen

I generally didn't use the navigation system, which was one because I carry an iPhone which has Google Maps and turn-by-turn directions.

But the Navigation screen wasn't happy being turned off (even when I explicitly turned the screen off.) Every time the song on the radio would change or I'd change the radio volume, the navigation screen would come to life with the radio information, even though this was also on the multifunction screen.

The coming to life was okay during the day, but at night, having something light up was just a distraction and bring distracted at night on a dark highway is not optimal.

Annoying lawyer screens

The Navigation system also contained the phone interface, climate controls, and the trip computer/fuel economy stuff.

On my 2004 TL and my Ford Fusion, you had to agree to the "lawyer screen" in order to access the navigation system, but the other features of the navigation screen were available without the lawyer screen.

On the CR-V, you always needed to go through the lawyer screen for any function. Not only did you need to go through the lawyer screen, but you had to wait 2-3 seconds for the system to draw the initial map and then another 2-3 seconds for the screen to inform you that "David's Phone is Connected" in a modal dialog box.

So, it was 4-6 seconds between wanting something on the navigation screen and being able to get to it.

Would someone please tell the lawyers that a 4-6 second distraction while trying to access the climate controls is worse than not agreeing to language nobody reads anyway?

Poorly placed radio and climate controls

The temperature controls for the climate system are nice big grippable knobs. Nice. Need to change the temperature, just grab a knob, turn it and voila.

The volume control for the radio is a tiny knob a few inches above the climate control knobs. It's in the same plane as the temperature knobs.

The problem with the size and the placement is that I almost always adjusted the temperature when I was trying to adjust the radio volume.

On its own, this is a small complaint, but it really does underscore how badly Honda did with the car's ergonomics. It's just one of many, many small things that make me wonder how Honda got lost after the absolutely wonderful ergonomics on the 2004 TL and the 2008 Odyssey.

Pointless voice interface

I spent 20 minutes driving around one night trying the get the voice system to work. I kept trying to give it commands and it kept saying, "no command, say help for a list of commands." Then I'd say "help" and it would tell me "no command, say help for a list of commands." Turns out you have to approve the lawyer screen on the navigation screen to get the voice stuff to work.

TPMS Failure

The TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) error light came on over and over again. The first few times, I stopped at gas stations to make sure the tires all had correct inflation. After that, I just ignored the error.

Bad Remotes

The remote control door unlocker key things were a pain.

In order to unlock the driver's door, you push the unlock button once. In order to unlock all the doors, you push the button twice. The problem is that you have to wait 3 seconds before the first and second press. Waiting 3 seconds with your hands full of groceries or with the kids pulling at the door handles is a pain.

Every other car I've ever had allowed a quick double-tap on the unlock button and all the doors would unlock. I can't for the life of me figure out the reasoning behind an increased delay.

Horrible Materials

The materials on the CR-V are horrible.

There is a black bumper around the CR-V. The black bumper is made of plastic. The vehicle is a utility vehicle. It should be tougher than a car, like my Fusion.

The second week I had the car, I tapped the car behind me when parallel parking. This left a huge gash on the bumper. The gash was worse than any rear bumper damage on my 2004 Acura (I had it for over 7 years), my Odyssey (I had it for 4 years), or my Fusion.

I initially thought that I tapped the bumper badly. Then other scratches started showing up on the bumper.

Archer left scratches on the bumper every time he jumped in and out of the CR-V. I've had Archer for 9 1/2 years and he caused no damage jumping in and out of my Acura TL, Ford Fusion, Honda Odyssey, or Mitsubishi iEV.

The materials and paint in the CR-V were very easily damaged and very fragile… not what I would expect from a utility vehicle.

Honda Got worse over 9 years

The CR-V might have been a good car in 2004. It might have been a competitive car in 2004. It is a car designed for the 00s (the aughts). It had similar features to my 2004 Acura TL. I'll cope with the poor materials vs. the TL because it's a Honda, not the higher priced Acura.

But the 2013 CR-V is worse in terms quality, design, and materials than my 2008 Odyssey. That's not acceptable.

There are a slew of new competitive vehicles that have come out of the last 2 years and the CR-V simply can't compete with them. The Ford Escape and the Toyota RAV4 come to mind, but there are others in the segment that the CR-V is not competitive with.

My initial thought that Honda was doing the Apple thing: more expensive, fewer features, but radically better materials and execution was just wrong.

Honda got the 2012 refresh of the CR-V so very wrong. They have an aught of a car in a land of 10s like the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.

It's the dealer, too

I bought the CR-V from San Francisco Honda. Whatever you do, don't buy a car from these guys.

I bought the CR-V from the dealer because the sales guy I was dealing with was responsive via email and a reasonable guy.

I chose to offer the dealer a very aggressive deal and if they didn't take it, I'd head down to Sunnyvale Ford to buy an Escape. The dealer took the deal.

An interesting side note, the paperwork for the CR-V listed the mileage at 7. I even made a joke with the finance person about "high mileage" on the car. When I got into the car, it had 77 miles on it. I was slightly annoyed, but I chalked the issue up to a scrivener's error. When I got home and looked at the window sticker, the CR-V was originally sold to another Honda dealer. Dealer trades are not a big issue, but it seemed very strange to me that a car that had to be driven from a dealer far away could accidentally be listed with just 7 miles.

Paint Pain

I bought the car on a Saturday afternoon and took a road trip to Half Moon Bay to christen the car.

I came home and parked the car in my garage. On Sunday morning, I noticed some significant paint damage on the bumpers on either side of the rear hatch that could have only occurred with the hatch open… and the damage looked like something very wide and very heavy had whacked into the car. Given that I was with the car when its hatch was open from the time I bought the car until the time I noticed the problem, I can say 100% that the problem could not have happened while I owned the car. I sent a note off to the dealer mentioning "paint irregularities" and asked what to do. They invited me in and on Monday I went to the dealer's service center.

The service guy said to me, "we're not responsible for paint damage, talk to the sales people." My sales person came out and then got the sales manager who came out, looked at the car and started yelling at me about damaging the car and expecting the dealer to fix it. I pointed out that (1) I had the car for about 14 hours between the time I took delivery and the time I notified the dealer of the problem, (2) that the damage could only have happened with the hatch open and something heavy hitting the car which did not happen and (3) I'm a 49 year old honest man and I take responsibility for the problems I cause.

Then we got to the heart of the matter, he was grumpy about the fact that I had gotten a good deal and they were having problems selling my trade and he wasn't in the mood to take any more of a loss on the car, even if the dealer was responsible for the damage. I asked him if he really wanted to go to war over a couple of hundred dollars.

The dealer's general manager came out and tried to make nice.

He pointed out that he sells 3,000 cars a year and none of them have paint problems because they have a process for making sure things like this don't happen. This went on for a while. I kept telling the truth: I did not cause the problem. The problem could not have happened except with the hatch open. That I expected the dealer to fix the problem.

The next day, I took the car to a local body shop. To properly fix the bumper would have cost $560, but they could touch up the paint for free. The general manager called me a few hours later and said, "bring the car in, and we'll make things right." I asked him to send me email describing what he was going to do, but I never received the email and never returned to the dealer.

I recommend against the dealer

There are plenty of Honda dealers in the bay area. If you want to buy a Honda, please cross San Francisco Honda off your list of dealers to work with. It's not worth having to have to check every little thing (mileage on the odometer, paint scratches, any other wear) when you deal with them. It's not worth the savings of time or money to wind up with a car that's not right and a dealer that's going to accuse you of causing problems as well as whining and lamenting about the fact that they are unhappy with the financial outcome of the deal. Go someplace else.

Honda was no help

I contacted Honda about the paint problems and other problems with the car. Honda seemed entirely uninterested in helping with the paint issue. Regarding the other issues I identified with the car, the Honda rep kept asking me if I was driving in the cold and I kept pointing out that I live in San Francisco and the temperature never gets cold here. It's not Michigan.

The rep told me there was nothing they could do about the design issues and to take the car in for a warranty repair for the TPMS, brake and engine issues.

I asked Honda to buy the car back from me. While I would have loved to get what I paid for the car, I was willing to take a hit on the car just to be rid of it and I figured Honda would pay me more than a Ford dealer for the car, not lose money, and make me a less unhappy customer. They were uninterested in buying the car.

So now, it'll be many years and many positive reviews of Honda products before I'll consider buying another Honda or Acura. Honda lost a loyal customer.

I bought a Ford Escape

I owned the CR-V for 5 weeks and traded it for a Ford Escape.

My out of pocket costs for the CR-V (including California sales tax) was about $2,000. This was mostly because Ford has lots more financial incentives in February than they did in January… perhaps because the new Toyota RAV4 came out in February.

The Escape was the right choice in cars for me. It's an absolutely wonderful vehicle (a blog post will follow.)

If you use an iPhone or an iPad or a Mac, don't buy a Honda. Buy a car designed for people who appreciate design. You'll save money versus buying a Honda and you'll have a better experience.