Honda CR V ver­sus Pikes Peak

CAR (UK) - - News - Words James Tay­lor | Pho­tog­ra­phy Richard Par­don

Lifestyling our way up the Rocky moun­tains in

Amer­ica’s favourite SUV, the CR‹V

Pikes Peak, in Colorado’s Rocky Moun­tains, is big. But Honda’s CR‚V is big­ger – un­til last year it was Amer­ica’s favourite SUV. Can the new one put the CR‚V back on top?

HAVE YOU EVER been some­where so cold your teeth hurt? The sum­mit of Pikes Peak in Colorado is that cold. At 14,000ft ev­ery breath of Col­gate-fresh air is like an elec­tric cur­rent sear­ing through your mo­lars. But so as­ton­ish­ing is the drive up there, so end­lessly chal­leng­ing the ser­pen­tine tar­mac climb, that by the time you reach the top the buzz is such that you won’t feel the cold. And be­cause you chose to tackle Amer­ica’s most fa­mous hill­climb in a CR-V and not, for in­stance, an NSX, you’ll then be able to top up that adren­a­line hit by grab­bing your roof-mounted moun­tain bike and free-wheel­ing all the way back down. What bet­ter test for a life­style SUV, par­tic­u­larly one as im­por­tant as the new CR-V?

The CR-V is a big deal for Honda, es­pe­cially in the US. In 2017 it was the third best-sell­ing SUV; for the five years pre­vi­ously it was Amer­ica’s favourite SUV. In­deed last year it was Amer­ica’s favourite Honda of any sort, shift­ing 377,286 units – that’s more CR-Vs than all the VW-badged ve­hi­cles com­bined.

Since its 1995 in­tro­duc­tion, the CR-V has al­ways been an en­tirely com­pe­tent SUV but not a par­tic­u­larly life­style one. In the UK at least, it’s a gen­tly beige coun­ter­point to the stereo­typ­i­cal SUV mar­ke­teers’ ideal of hip trans­port for ac­tive peo­ple liv­ing ath­let­i­cally ad­ven­tur­ous lives. Just why is the CR-V so damn pop­u­lar? With the new one ar­riv­ing in the UK this Septem­ber but al­ready on sale in the US, time for a moun­tain-high, tem­per­a­ture-low ad­ven­ture.

It’s late af­ter­noon when pho­tog­ra­pher Richard Par­don and I touch down in Den­ver and meet our CR-V – and im­me­di­ately dou­ble-take to make sure it isn’t the old one. There’s a samea­gain nose and tail book­end­ing a slightly wider body on a longer wheel­base. The pack­ag­ing change, to­gether with a nar­rower fuel tank, un­locks more cabin and lug­gage space. The boot’s wider and longer, and eas­ily takes our bags and Par­don’s pho­tog­ra­phy gear with­out any need for us to fid­dle with the two-po­si­tion floor – which also con­ceals the spare wheel – or drop the rear seats. (New CR-V fact: it can now be specced as a seven-seater, though ours is a five-seater.)

It has none of the vis­ual drama of, say, a Ve­lar. But our car stands out in Molten Lava Pearl red paint, which we’ve neatly ac­ces­sorised with roo ars, a moun­tain bike car­rier and a snow­board rack. We value our limbs too much to risk any board­ing4

on this trip, but we make a bee­line for the Cy­cle­ton hire shop in down­town Den­ver, sur­rounded by rows of se­ri­ous-look­ing moun­tain bikes. They en­trust a Spe­cial­ized Stumpjumper into our du­bi­ous care with­out many search­ing ques­tions about where we’re go­ing or what we’re plan­ning.

A bal­loon-tyred ‘fat bike’, the Stumpjumper ini­tially looks like it will be too obese for our bike rack – it might have to come in the car with us, where there’s more than enough space. (New CR-V fact: the pre­vi­ous-gen car had par­tic­u­larly clever rear seats that folded and tum­bled for­wards like cush­ioned Trans­form­ers. The seven-seater still does, but the five-berth in­stead fea­tures a ‘dive-down’ hinge sys­tem so that the seat bases si­mul­ta­ne­ously sink into the footwell as you fold the back­rests, for a fully flat load bay.) As it turns out, the bike’s big boots squeeze into the rack’s trough-like base with only min­i­mal fid­dling, and it’s sim­plic­ity it­self to clamp the frame in place with the cen­tral lock­ing spar. And the CR-V in­stantly looks about 200 per cent cooler.

Den­ver feels like it’s just been fin­ished and no one’s yet moved in. Ev­ery­thing’s im­plau­si­bly clean and tidy, and al­though pock­ets of the city are vi­brant and cos­mopoli­tan, oth­ers are al­most de­serted. Drive any­where and you soon re­alise you’re sur­rounded by CR-Vs of all gen­er­a­tions. Or­di­nar­ily you wouldn’t clock them but once you start look­ing you can’t stop see­ing them. Rich and I count 46 over a six-mile stretch of cen­tral Den­ver high­way. It’s proof, were it needed, that in the USA to­day CR-V is Honda.

We’re on the road at day­break, head­ing from the Mile-High City to the Rocky Moun­tains Na­tional Park. If you think Nor­folk does big skies, try Den­ver. It’s flat here, the roads out of the city stretch­ing across a bar­ren and dusty ex­panse be­fore tak­ing an abrupt right turn at the hori­zon and climb­ing ver­ti­cally, like a toy car run­ning into a skirt­ing board.

The CR-V is to­wards the large end of the spec­trum in a UK con­text but it’s only av­er­age-sized here, lost in the free­way’s lanes amid jacked-up six-wheel pick-up trucks the size of ac­tual trucks. It packs a tid­dler of an en­gine, too, a 1.5-litre petrol, and there’ll be no diesels this time. (New CR-V fact: a hy­brid joins the range next year, team­ing a 2.0-litre petrol en­gine with two elec­tric mo­tors and, in­trigu­ingly, a sin­gle gear ra­tio.)

The 1.5 is a lit­tle en­gine for a big car on a big jour­ney but it cruises well, and the CR-V is im­pres­sively re­fined. Less so the bike, whistling in the wind like a pan-pipe moods al­bum. As a gantry over­head flashes up a weather warn­ing for high-sided ve­hi­cles, and cross­winds set about bat­ter­ing the CR-V’s body, Rich and I look up through the full-length glass roof to check the Spe­cial­ized is still there. Like the CR-V, it’s rock solid.

To drown out the in­creas­ingly wor­ry­ing wind howl, we tune the stereo to one of satel­lite op­er­a­tion Sir­ius XM’s vast choice of ra­dio sta­tions and keep it there, al­though ev­ery now and then my palm catches one of the var­i­ous but­tons on the wheel and plunges us into coun­try and west­ern, po­lit­i­cal de­bate or left­field jazz.

The steer­ing wheel con­trols are part of a switchgear set that shares plenty of DNA with the cur­rent Civic (as do the un­der­pin­nings), while the dash gains new digi-di­als and some like-’emor-loathe-’em wooden trim in­serts. The seven-inch touch­screen in­ter­face is sim­i­lar to the Civic’s too, with equally un­fath­omable menus on first ac­quain­tance, al­though it does be­come more in­tu­itive with use.

As the free­way ramps up to­wards the sky and its lane count re­duces, so too does the tem­per­a­ture. Stillwater lives up to its name to­day: a frozen slab of ice with snow­mo­biles at play. A nearby Help Pre­vent For­est Fires sign puts to­day’s fire risk at ‘low’ – no kid­ding. In a rocky plateau over­look­ing the equally well named Shadow Moun­tain Lake, we take the bike off its rack. By now we’re prac­tised hands at re­mov­ing the bike and big fans of the rack’s de­sign, which now feels as quick and easy as tak­ing a big book off a shelf (al­though it’s a lot eas­ier with two peo­ple, ad­mit­tedly).

Cheer­fully wob­bling about on the Spe­cial­ized’s go-any­where tyres, a cu­ri­ous thing hap­pens. I can feel my­self fall­ing un­der the life­style spell, and start men­tally pric­ing up a moun­tain bike and roof car­rier. I’m be­gin­ning to un­der­stand why peo­ple choose cars like the CR-V; there’s def­i­nite ap­peal in its easy, ac­tiv­ity-en­abling prac­ti­cal­ity. (New CR-V fact: its ground clear­ance has been in­creased by 40mm for bet­ter off-road scram­bling, and the doors’ lower edges now wrap around the sills, to keep mud from your trousers when you clam­ber out. Both front-and all-wheeldrive cars are avail­able; this one’s all-wheel drive, the sys­tem op­ti­mis­ing the torque split when trac­tion is com­pro­mised and pri­ori­tis­ing front-wheel-drive run­ning for bet­ter fuel ef­fi­ciency.)

Ac­tive shut­ters be­hind the grille re­duce drag at speed and aid en­gine warm-up, but they can’t do much about a bike strapped on the roof. Still, the fuel gauge has been mov­ing en­cour­ag­ingly slowly and the trip com­puter reck­ons we’re av­er­ag­ing around 29.5mpg (of­fi­cial, un­en­cum­bered com­bined fig­ure is 39.8mpg) when we stop at the slightly sketchy-look­ing town of Kremmling for fuel.

In­con­ve­niently, the Rock­ies are closed to­day. Heavy snow­fall has closed the road in­side the Na­tional Park just be­fore it gets in­ter­est­ing. Im­me­di­ately be­yond the road­block, there’s a stun­ning vista tan­ta­lis­ingly out of reach, like a Na­tional Geo­graphic screen­saver blocked by desk­top icons. We con­sult the map, change tack and set out for Pikes Peak.

A stretch of High­way 40 East between the Rock­ies and the I-70 is one of those roads, all fiendish hair­pins and well-sighted fast curves. Twist the overly light power steer­ing in the4

di­rec­tion of a bend and the CR-V grips gamely, al­beit with a hefty side or­der of body­roll. The sus­pen­sion is tuned more for com­fort than agility, but the CR-V’s such a tidy han­dler that you quickly tune your­self into its be­hav­iour, our car’s all-wheel drive adding to the sense of con­fi­dent com­po­sure.

That the Honda can en­joy de­cent body con­trol and a de­li­ciously sup­ple ride is partly thanks to ‘re­ac­tive’ (but not elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled) dampers spe­cially en­gi­neered for Euro­pean-spec CR-Vs (US-spec cars nei­ther ride as well nor han­dle as sharply). They con­trol oil flow via two dif­fer­ent-sized aper­tures: one to mit­i­gate small, sharp bumps (for a smooth ride) and the other to parry more sus­tained in­puts (trim­ming body­roll). And while the CVT might not match the best twin-clutch­ers for in­tel­li­gence or swift­ness of re­sponse, it’s pretty good.

Our route to Pikes Peak gives us sev­eral hours to try out the new lane-keep­ing as­sist sys­tem. It works well enough, fol­low­ing its lane with all the tongue-out con­cen­tra­tion of a kid colour­ing in­side the lines, and never pin­balling from white line to white line as some less con­vinc­ingly cal­i­brated ri­vals can do.

Hat-tip to the hugely com­fort­able front seats, too, with high-qual­ity leather on higher-spec ver­sions, but also some less con­vinc­ing stitch­ing moulded into the dash­board’s soft-touch plas­tics. There are some tougher plas­tics low down, but they’re in­of­fen­sive and un­der­line that this is, above all else, a fam­ily car de­signed to be used and abused. In the same spirit, the door pock­ets have now grown (achieved by mov­ing the speak­ers up­wards within the door cards) and there’s a vast stor­age bin un­der the broad cen­tre arm­rest, with a sec­ondary tray for smart­phones and the like.

Driv­ing through Granby in Grand County (el­e­va­tion 8000ft), we pass the kitsch-tas­tic Trail Rid­ers Mo­tel, bathed in pink neon lights, and on to Colorado Springs. It sits at the foot of Pikes Peak, a ghost town at the bot­tom of a hill. A gold rush city, Springs sprang up after gold was dis­cov­ered nearby in the 1850s but these days it’s sus­tained by tourism, much of it drawn by Pikes Peak it­self – and its an­nual hill­climb, orig­i­nally cre­ated to en­tice tourists in 1916. VW and Bent­ley dom­i­nated the 2018 event, the Ger­mans with their as­ton­ish­ing ID R elec­tric pro­to­type, driven by Ro­main Du­mas, and Crewe with its very un-elec­tric Ben­tayga, which an­ni­hi­lated the pro­duc­tion SUV record.

Pikes Peak is known as ‘Amer­ica’s Moun­tain’ (even though it’s ranked 31st in el­e­va­tion out of Colorado’s 54 ‘four­teen­ers’), and it’s as fa­mous for the 19-mile high­way that runs to its 14,115ft sum­mit as it is for its in­cred­i­ble views – and oc­ca­sional re­ported sight­ings of Big Foot.

The trip to the top and back is 38 miles but uses what would more typ­i­cally be 80 miles of fuel. Warn­ings about al­ti­tude sick­ness are ev­ery­where. At the toll­booth we’re told the tem­per­a­ture at the sum­mit is -25°C with wind chill, and re­minded to keep the win­dows cracked open to help bal­ance pres­sures. We slide the CR-V’s CVT into Sport, check the bike mounts and set off.

We’re lucky – it’s cold, but also clear and beau­ti­ful. The view over Colorado is breath­tak­ing, with most of the climb not clut­tered up by bar­ri­ers. It re­ally does feel like you’re driv­ing along the edge of the world. Leg­end has it that Mario An­dretti was told not to worry about get­ting hurt if he went over the edge, ‘be­cause you’d starve to death be­fore you hit the bot­tom.’

For decades the Pikes Peak Hill­climb was a gravel event but since 2011 the sur­face has been paved all the way to the sum­mit, al­low­ing thinly veiled race cars as well as rally cars to storm up the hill. Even me­an­der­ing up at the road’s gen­tle speed limit leaves you with re­dou­bled re­spect for Du­mas, Loeb,4

Ride it? UK de­mo­graphic wouldn’t even get it o the roof

Keep it smooth, don’t brake and get back onto the 1.5 turbo asap – all-wheel drive is your friend here

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