I've gotten in the habit of inspecting new cars for the Killer Gadget-any clever little feature that might not add much to the actual driving experience but appeals to my sense of irrelevant ingenuity. Cupholders hit the sweet spot 15 years ago. I like the de-icer on the new Hyundai Santa Fe and the minicooler above the glove box in the Dodge Caliber. The Chrysler Sebring features an optional heated/cooled cupholder-kind of a combo.
I couldn't find any Killer Gadgets on the new CR-V, Honda's entry-level SUV. And that made me like it even more. Honda saves its engineering talent for features that are genuinely useful, like the disappearing third-row MagicSeat on the last two versions of the Odyssey minivan, a feature that has become a minivan standard. But if there's no major breakthrough on the horizon, Honda just focuses on building great cars. Which it has done with the CR-V.
There's nothing particularly fancy about this vehicle-except that it's a marvelous ride, and for the money it's loaded with functionality. The four-cylinder engine won't win any manhood contests, but it's just right for the size of the vehicle-and for the owner's sensitivity to gas prices. On the road, the CR-V comes close to pleasing everybody. It feels light when you maneuver in traffic and perky when you accelerate to highway speed. Then, when you need to fill it with people and stuff, it suddenly seems to get a lot bigger.
That sense of spaciousness inside comes not from a huge cabin, by any means, but from an artful combination of comfort and engineering: Firm captain's chairs up front, a center console that leaves plenty of room on the floor, like in a minivan, and storage nooks that occupy every little bit of unused space, helping keep junk out of sight. I counted 10 different storage boxes in the front seat alone, not including four cupholders. Many of the CR-V's best features, of course, are ones you can't see, like standard side-curtain air bags and tons of other safety gear. And other attributes are likely to be taken for granted-until you discover that other vehicles lack them. The rear liftgate is so light, for instance, that my 8-year-old son was able to pull it shut. That's not a Killer Gadget, but with a car that's so easy on my family, I'm willing to live without one.
Nits: There's only one automatic up-down window switch, instead of four, even on the top-of-the-line, near-$30,000 model.
G forces: There's nothing showoffy about the 166-horsepower four-cylinder engine-except its quiet proficiency. Overall, however, the CR-V is well-mannered, controlled, and nimble on the road.
Gizmology: There's nothing you don't need, and everything you do. You'll have to do without fancy electronics or a trip computer, for instance, but the manual climate and audio systems are easy to use. And there are storage nooks everywhere.
Kidmarks: This is a great family car. The rear seats slide forward and back to bring small kids closer to the front or provide more legroom for adults. They also recline-ideal for naps. There are heat and A/C ducts in the rear, along with an armrest with centered cupholders, reading lights, and storage pockets. The rear seats also tumble frontward with one maneuver, so you can push them forward when you need more cargo space in the rear.
Hot or not: Not. It's cute, but not a style maker.
Pain at the pump: Modest. Mileage ranges from 22 mpg/city to 30 mpg/highway.
Crash course: Earns 10 stars out of 10 on both the government's frontal- and side-impact crash tests.
Rollover rating: 4 stars out of 5. Details: safercar.gov. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a private testing group, rates the CR-V "Good," its highest rating, in frontal and side crashes, and calls the CR-V a top safety pick. Details:www.iihs.org
Standard safety gear: Advanced frontal air bags, side-impact air bags, side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes, stability control, traction control.
Price points: Base prices range from $21,195 to $26,595.
More info: automobiles.honda.com