Honda CR-V (Mk1, 1997-2001) icon drive: trailblazing soft-roader has still got it

Honda's original soft-roader was remarkably practical

Look beneath the boot floor of a first-generation Honda CR-V, and you might get a little surprise. Under there, quite brilliantly, is a folding picnic table. The Honda is a great car for outdoorsy types, as further evidenced by elements such as the 12-volt socket in the boot and an official accessories range that even included a shower at the rear of the vehicle. 

It seems to be better at the whole ‘lifestyle’ thing than many modern compact SUVs, but back when it was launched in the late nineties, it stood out mainly for different reasons. 

Honda’s top brass had noticed that SUVs tended to be large, expensive and heavy, partly because many were loaded to the hilt with off-road features few buyers would ever use. Body-on-frame construction was the norm, too; this made sense for traversing rough terrain, but was to the detriment of on-road manners. 

Toyota had challenged this idea with its RAV4, which used a monocoque structure related to a couple of its regular passenger cars paired with short-ish travel suspension. Although Honda went for a similar tactic with the CR-V (which stands for ‘comfortable runabout vehicle’, not ‘compact recreational vehicle’ as some seem to think), it took the concept further still by using the platform of the sixth-generation Honda Civic

The RAV4 was clearly a road-biased thing, but it still kept a vague interest in the off-piste, because four-wheel-drive versions featured a permanent system with a locking differential. The CR-V didn’t bother with either; although there was a four-wheel-drive edition, it featured a part-time arrangement that heavily favoured the front wheels, while the diffs were very much of the open variety. 

At its launch in 1997, the CR-V was perhaps the first true ‘soft-roader’. Now, such cars are ubiquitous, making an originator such as this an intriguing car to revisit more than two and a half decades on. The vehicle we’re doing this with is a 1999 example in the mid-spec ES trim, which belongs to Honda UK’s heritage fleet. It’s surely one of the best Mk1 CR-Vs in the country, having covered fewer than 40,000 miles and remaining in excellent condition. 

The design is straightforward and utilitarian. The family link to cars of the era like the related Civic is clear, with that styling ethos reimagined in a utilitarian setting, and big, unpainted bumpers dominating visual proceedings. 

As is common in cars from the nineties, particularly those of Japanese origin, the interior is a dreary sea of grey, with little in the way of design flair to lift the gloom. Function is very much put first here, and most of the controls feel nicely solid. In any case, the simplicity makes a welcome change from modern cars, because there’s only a handful of knobs and buttons on the central stack, while the instrument cluster is plain but uncluttered and easy to read. 

One neat interior touch is the cup-holder and storage tray arrangement between the front seats. It can fold out of the way, making it possible to easily move from the front to the back of the cabin, or vice versa. 

Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre, naturally aspirated inline-four petrol engine – the only powertrain available. Honda eventually upgraded these cars with the 147bhp ‘B20Z’ engine, but this CR-V makes do with the 126bhp ‘B20A’. 

That power figure may not sound like a lot, but the CR-V is reasonably light considering its size. Partly due to the car’s road-biased nature, it tips the scales at around 1,500kg, a figure we tend to associate with C-segment hatchbacks today. As such, it never feels sluggish, offering acceptable straight-line performance; when it was new, it managed 0-62mph in 10.5 seconds. 

With peak torque of 182Nm coming in at 4,200rpm, you need to work the engine fairly hard, but in return, you get a satisfying noise. These days, it’s something of a novelty driving anything naturally aspirated and with a manual gearbox, regardless of power output or vehicle type. 

The damping strikes a good balance between comfort and composure. The CR-V soaks up lumps and bumps nicely, and stays fairly level in the corners, if not anything like as flat as the current crop of compact SUVs. The highlight of the experience is the steering and the surprising level of feedback it delivers from the road surface. The weighting is spot on, too. 

For the most part, it’s an unremarkable thing to drive, but that’s half the point. It doesn’t thrill, but neither does it annoy. As a car for dealing with the rigours of day-to-day life, it’s probably just as useful now as it was then. 

On the practicality front, it certainly does well. There’s a split tailgate, which – curiously – involves a top-hinged window and a side-hinged door. The must-have nineties 4x4 feature – an externally mounted spare wheel – is affixed to the latter. Remember, this car was all about looking the part. There’s a handy fold-out hook on the inside of the boot door that can take a load of up to 3kg. 

That odd tailgate arrangement reveals a boot that looks larger than the official 444-litre capacity figure suggests, and anyway, since the CR-V is rather tall and boxy, it’ll take all manner of bulky cargo with the rear seats folded. Those, by the way, also recline as well as folding in a 40:60 split. 

Honda rattled through its first few generations of CR-V rather quickly. The Mk1, for instance, only stuck around until 2001, while the following two iterations had similarly short lifecycles. With each iteration the CR-V became more rounded, but lost some of its charm in the process. 

The current, fifth-generation version competes in a far more crowded marketplace than the original, thanks to the part the latter played in making this segment so popular. Without cars like the CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, you have to wonder whether or not the unstoppable, industry-shaping Nissan Qashqai would have ever happened.

Interested in buying one?

The first-generation Honda CR-V is something you can buy very cheaply, but it’s not that easy to find one; these are relatively old cars now and aren’t exactly the sort of model deemed worth preserving. 

As such, a search for CR-Vs in the classifieds sorted with price ascending will reveal many Mk2s, but only the occasional Mk1. Buy one, however, and you’ll have a sound second-hand buy. 

These are well built, relatively simple cars that are unlikely to produce significant issues. For the best chance of less going wrong, you might want to go for a front-wheel-drive manual car, but any Mk1 CR-V should be a safe bet. 

As with any car of this age, keep a keen eye out for rust, and while the 2.0-litre, naturally aspirated engine is strong and uncomplicated, evidence of regular servicing is good. Check the MoT test history, too.

Model:Honda CR-V Mk1
Production dates:1997-2001
Price then:From £17,500
Price now:From £1,000
Engine:2.0-litre 4cyl petrol, 128bhp
0-62mph:10.5 seconds
Top speed:108mph

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