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2021 Honda CR-V compact crossover: again the overall best in class?

By Chuck Giametta

What changes will make the 2021 Honda CR-V different?

2020 Honda CR-V Touring

Maybe some new colors, hopefully a Sport edition. Realistically, little newsworthy following a significant model-year-2020 refresh that updated styling, extended safety features, and introduced the first CR-V Hybrid.

The 2021 CR-V will carry over those changes in a bid to remain America’s best all-around compact crossover, unmatched for its blend of packaging, performance, and brand reputation. This five-seater will also return as Honda’s top-selling U.S. model and No. 2 in its segment, behind the Toyota RAV4 and ahead of rivals like the Nissan Rogue, Chevrolet Equinox, and Ford Escape. 

A ’21 CR-V Sport edition may be in the cards, with specific styling touches inside and out and possibly some mechanical tweaks. Certain to return are LX, EX, EX-L, and Touring trim levels, gas and gas-electric hybrid powertrains, and a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

Should I wait for the 2021 Honda CR-V or buy a 2020?

2020 CR-V Touring

Choosing either a 2020 or ‘21 CR-V should get you styling, technology, and features with a relatively long shelf life. If you’re disinclined to wait for a possible 2021 Sport edition, buying any ’20 CR-V would help you avoid paying more for what’s apt to be the virtually indistinguishable ’21.

Today’s fifth-generation CR-V debuted for model-year 2017 and the 2020 midcycle refresh will sustain it until its next full redesign. Under Honda’s traditional product cadence, that redesign would come for model-year 2022. Some sources suggest it’ll arrive for 2023. With the ‘20 refresh a little more extensive than usual, we’d lean toward a model-year-‘23 redesign.

By essentially duplicating the 2020 model, the ’21 CR-V would return with a choice of a turbocharged gasoline four-cylinder engine or a conventional Hybrid that combines a gas four-cylinder with electric-motor assist. The latter would again be the most powerful CR-V and one of the few hybrids in the compact-crossover class, along with similarly configured versions of the RAV4 and Escape. It would also compete with more expensive plug-in-hybrid iterations of the RAV4, Jeep Compass, and Mitsubishi Outlander.

Will the styling be different?

2020 CR-V Touring

Only if there’s a Sport edition intended to broadcast enhanced on-road handling or off-pavement prowess, despite being little changed mechanically from other CR-Vs. Think black-out trim, maybe special wheels, some color-contrasting garnishes inside. It would likely slot between the LX and the volume-selling EX grades and could even be offered in Hybrid form.

All ’21 CR-Vs will carry over model-year-’20’s subtle styling updates. Those included a darker grille insert and a reshaped front fascia with larger openings for the round LED foglamps standard on all but the LX. That slightly more sophisticated look continued in back, with taillight lenses, liftgate trim, and rear window all tinted darker.

Visual differences between trim levels will again fall mostly to wheel size and design: 17-inchers on the LX, 18s on EX and EX-L, and 19s on Touring. Outside mirrors with turn signals and body-color instead of black door handles should again be standard starting with EX trim levels. 

2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid

Other than a top-line Touring grade, available trim levels for the 2020 CR-V Hybrid were not announced in time for this review. The ’21 Hybrid lineup is likely to mirror the four tiers of the gas-only model. Hybrid front-fender badges and a blue-tinted Honda logo will identify them. A row of LEDs instead of round foglamps, as seen on the 2020 Hybrid Touring, may be shared by other Hybrid grades.

2020 CR-V Touring

A revamped center console with improved storage space and more accessible USB ports was a ’20 change that’ll carry over to all ’21 CR-Vs. Gas-only models will retain a conventional console-mounted transmission shift lever. Hybrids will substitute a row of buttons for Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive. All ’21 CR-Vs will again have a button-activated parking brake.   

2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid

Expect the ’21 LX to retain its 5-inch dashboard touchscreen, the other models a higher-definition 7-incher that integrates Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. A wireless charging pad may remain a Touring exclusive. Alas, the LX probably will continue with just one USB power point versus four in the other models.

Scuttled in the 2020 refresh was the EX-L with Navi model. That means the Touring will likely remain the only 2021 CR-V with imbedded navigation that provides real-time GPS service in the absence of a cell signal.

2020 CR-V Touring

All ’21 CR-Vs will again stand out for solid cabin materials; bright, crisp instrumentation; and clearly marked controls that move with satisfying precision. Leather upholstery (along with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and on gas-only models a leather-wrapped shifter) will again be exclusive to the EX-L and Touring trims.

2020 CR-V Touring

With generous room and an airy interior, passenger accommodations should again set the pace in the segment. Exceptionally comfortable seating is a selling point, and the rear bench is one of the few in the class to comfortably fit three adults. The revamped console expanded already-abundant small-items storage space. And with 39.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 75.8 with them folded, cargo volume will again surpass that of some larger, midsize crossovers.

Any mechanical changes?

2020 CR-V Hybrid

Improbable. Expect the ’21 CR-V to reprise two powertrains. Gas-only LX, EX, EX-L, and Touring models would continue with a turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine of 190 horsepower and 179 pound-feet of torque. (The 2020 refresh killed the naturally aspirated 184-horsepower four previously standard on the LX.) If it launches a CR-V Sport, Honda could tune the turbo 1.5 for slightly more power, say around 200 horses and 190 pound-feet of torque. It might also fit the Sport with a firmer suspension and lower profile tires with unique wheels.

Gas-only CR-Vs should again feel a tad sluggish from a stop but once underway, furnish more than adequate around-town acceleration and deliver drama-free highway merging and passing response. They’ll again use a continuously variable automatic transmission. It should remain among the very best CVTs at delivering power with minimal delay and without unduly stoking the unpleasant engine droning common to this type of transmission.    

The 2021 CR-V Hybrid will return with a powertrain borrowed from Honda’s Accord Hybrid midsize sedan. It’ll team a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with two electric motors and generate a net 212 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque. Its transmission mimics the performance of a CVT.

Honda had not made a CR-V Hybrid available for testing in time for this review. But our evaluations of the Accord Hybrid point to a generally agreeable driving experience. The hybrid hardware should add about 200 pounds, offsetting some of the acceleration gains suggested by the additional horsepower. In the Accord Hybrid, this powertrain furnished very good pick up, tempered by a slightly less-linear delivery of power and a bit more engine drone than with the turbo 1.5.

2020 CR-V Touring

This is not a plug-in hybrid and won’t be capable of traveling any appreciable distance on battery power alone. The electric motors’ primary function is to assume some of the burden of acceleration and facilitate quick engine shut-off and restart automatically when the vehicle is stopped. The onboard batteries are charged by capturing energy otherwise lost during coasting and braking. A steering-wheel paddle lets the driver enhance regenerative braking and actually slow the vehicle while maximizing battery recharge.

Road manners should remain among the best of any small crossover — with the caveat that the fuel-economy-boosting, low-rolling-resistance tires on the Hybrid may not furnish quite as much grip in fast turns as gas-only models get with their conventional rubber. Still, natural-feeling steering and alert responses should again bless any ’21 CR-V with exceptional maneuverability and confident handling on the open road.

Typical of a Honda, ride quality should again be sufficiently firm for unflappable control on wavy or pockmarked pavement yet compliant enough to absorb tar strips and potholes without punishment. If there’s a Sport version with a tauter suspension, expect it to trade a bit more impact harshness for sharper cornering.

AWD will remain optional for gas-only ’21 CR-Vs and standard on the Hybrid. Despite a relatively liberal 8.2 inches of ground clearance, AWD CR-Vs are not intended for serious off-roading. Honda’s Real Time AWD with Intelligent Control System lacks low-range gearing or terrain-management settings. It does furnish reassuring all-weather security on-road, automatically transferring power to the rear wheels when sensors detect tire slip, then defaulting to front-drive when traction is restored.

Will fuel economy improve?

2020 CR-V Touring

EPA ratings should repeat those of the 2020 CR-V, again positioning this among the most fuel-efficient compact crossovers. Expect gas-only ’21 CR-Vs to repeat at 28/34/30 mpg with front-wheel drive and at 27/33/29 with AWD. A Sport model might lose 1-2 mpg in each category if Honda tweaks the engine or transmission or fits different wheels and tires.

EPA ratings for the 2020 CR-V Hybrid were not released in time for this review, but our projection puts them around 41/40/41 mpg city/highway/combined. By comparison, the 219-horsepower RAV4 Hybrid AWD rates 40/41/38 mpg.

Expect gas-only and hybrid ’21 CR-Vs to again use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline. If Honda offers a higher output engine for the Sport, it might recommend 91-octane premium.

Will there be new features?

2020 CR-V Touring

Not likely after some laudable upgrades in the 2020 refresh. Foremost was that the Honda Sensing safety technology was extended to the LX model, making it standard on every CR-V. This suite of driver assists includes autonomous emergency braking that can automatically stop the crossover to prevent a frontal collision, adaptive radar cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, and lane-departure warning with lane-maintaining automatic steering correction.

Honda Sensing will return as standard on all ’21 CR-Vs, although rear cross-traffic detection is likely to again start at the EX trim level. Likewise, all but the LX should again come with Honda LaneWatch, a video camera in the right mirror that can project on the dashboard screen a live view of the right-side blind spot.

The ’21 CR-V Hybrids will again have specific instrument readouts describing gas-electric energy flow and battery charge but should otherwise mirror features on their gas-only counterparts. Standard equipment on any ’21 CR-V LX will again include automatic climate control, automatic highbeam headlamps, a heated rear window-wiper de-icer, and a capless fuel filler.

If there’s a ’21 Sport model, look for it to build on LX equipment with the aforementioned appearance tweaks, potential mechanical revisions, and the 7-inch infotainment screen with CarPlay and Android Auto.

The ’21 CR-V EX models would have features noted earlier, plus dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, a power driver’s seat, a power sunroof, remote engine start, keyless entry with pushbutton ignition, heated mirrors, variable intermittent windshield wipers, automatic up/down power windows, and a rear cargo cover.

The ’21 EX-L grades would continue to expand upon the EX with leather upholstery, a power front-passenger seat, a power liftgate, driver-seat memory, an automatic-dimming rearview mirror, and a HomeLink garage-door transmitter.

Expect the 2021 CR-V Touring grade to again include the 19-inch wheels, imbedded navigation, and wireless charging, plus a heated steering wheel, a hands-free power liftgate, rain-sensing windshield wipers, roof rails, and an upgraded audio system.

Will 2021 prices be different?

Expect them to increase even if Honda stands pat on equipment. Note that Honda does not offer factory options, instead equipping each trim level with a set group of features. Price estimates here include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $1,095 for model-year 2020.

For gas-only models with front-wheel drive, expect the 2021 CR-V LX to be priced around $26,550, the potential Sport around $27,500, and the EX around $29,100. Estimated prices are $31,650 for the ’21 EX-L and $34,750 for the Touring. Adding AWD to any gas-only CR-V should again cost an additional $1,500 or so.

Honda had not released pricing for the 2020 CR-V Hybrid in time for this review. For the ’21 Hybrids, figure a premium of roughly $1,600-$2,500, depending on trim level, over a gas-only AWD counterpart.

When does it come out?

2020 CR-V Touring

Look for a 2021 Honda CR-V release date in Spring 2020.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass and Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross and Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]