First Drive: 2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid Review

A fashionably late, frugal soft-roader.

It’s about time. Just over 20 years since the first Honda Insight arrived on US shores—beating the Toyota Prius to US market by a year—the company has launched a hybrid version of its popular CR-V crossover. And it couldn’t have come a moment sooner.

The Prius, not the Insight, made hybrids mainstream in the eyes of the public, however. But in 2019 it was the RAV4 Hybrid that buyers flocked to, because crossovers. Ford has seen the light too, offering two different hybrid versions of its new-for-2020 Escape. Finally, Honda is answering the call with a CR-V Hybrid, some 23 years after the compact crossover first debuted.

It’s a tough recipe for the car-buying public to ignore: the crossover love-in shows no signs of stopping, so how about an increase in fuel efficiency by up to 50 percent? That’s what Honda is offering here with the CR-V Hybrid. So we went to Tucson, Arizona to get acquainted.

The numbers game

2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid profile Don’t deny it: you see “hybrid” in the title, and you immediately think about fuel economy. So let’s get that out of the way now.

Officially, the EPA rates the CR-V at 38 mpg combined across all trim levels (40 mpg city, 35 mpg highway). That’s down from both the Escape and RAV4’s combined mpg of 40 (43/37 and 41/38, city and highway, respectively).

SEE ALSO: 2020 Honda CR-V vs 2020 Toyota RAV4

Like the RAV4, the CR-V Hybrid doesn’t stop at better fuel mileage, but also touts more power than its traditionally-engined version. Two electric motors work with a 1.4 kWh battery pack located under the rear floor. Add in a 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated engine for combined outputs of 212 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque. The 1.5-liter turbo model makes do with 190 hp and 179 lb-ft of torque.

Mechanical all-wheel drive is standard, letting either lithium or dino juice power either axle. Left to its own devices, the CR-V will shift between all-EV, all-combustion, or a mixture of both depending on conditions. And when power isn’t needed at the rear wheels, a clutch stops it from heading there, boosting fuel economy.

Honda doesn’t quote a 0–60 mph time—”we leave that to the media” was the answer we got—but given the extra 194 pounds the hybrid carries over a regular AWD CR-V, we’d wager the improvement, if any, is small. But half that goal to 30 mph, key for finding gaps in the city, and it feels noticeably more muscular than the 1.5-liter turbo model we drove later in the day.

The Hybrid also consistently blew past its EPA figures. On our own drive to the lunch spot we saw just shy of 50 mpg, and a short peak of 58. A prescribed test route saw the Hybrid average 51.6 mpg. On the same route we pulled off 55 mpg with a RAV4 Hybrid. We weren’t the only journalists to find the Toyota ahead, either. It probably wasn’t the result Honda would’ve liked, but hey, good on the team for even bringing the competition.

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An accomplished, if not exciting, drive

2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid front

It’s easy to look at the headline figures, but they tell only part of the story.

As we mentioned above, the Hybrid feels more eager at city speeds than the regular CR-V. Honda has put in work to minimize the elastic-band feel of its drivetrain and it pays off, with smoother take-offs. The EV gubbins help too, filling in torque and masking the characteristic cough-cough of automatic start-stop.

It’s also quieter. Not just compared to other CR-Vs, but against its fellow countryman. The CR-V Hybrid muffles highway expansion joints and the scarred surface of local roads. When the batteries are in top-up mode, the 2.0-liter can get noisy, but at least there’s a method to minimize that, and even get the driver involved in the act of, you know, driving: the wheel-mounted paddles.

No, they’re not paddle shifters for faux gear ratios the CVT has conjured. Instead they handle the level of regenerative braking when you’re off-throttle. Pulling the left-hand paddle increases the braking effort; on the highest of the four settings it’s nearly enough to bring the CR-V to a stop all on its own, so long as you’re scoping out the road far ahead.

SEE ALSO: Honda CR-V vs Honda HR-V: Which Crossover is Right for You?

The rest of the driving experience is standard CR-V. In Touring trim the suspension feels more tied down than the equivalent RAV4 or Escape, but softer than a Mazda CX-5. The steering has the right amount of heft for the segment. The brake pedal is pleasantly consistent and natural-feeling too. The Hybrid’s three drive modes do as you’d expect: Sport keeps revs up and pipes in “enhanced” engine noise; Eco neuters throttle response for the sake of fuel efficiency; EV sticks to battery power, though only for a mile or two.

When the going gets sandy

That the CR-V is a pleasant, inoffensive ride on the road shouldn’t be a surprise. But what about off the tarmac? We didn’t go rock climbing, but Honda did set a pack of journalists loose in a sandy figure-eight track to test the CR-V and RAV4 hybrids back to back.

Sure enough, the CR-V’s mechanical AWD system pulled it through ruts and mini-dunes with more conviction and, in turn, increased driver confidence. The RAV4 would lurch its way through, its electronic all-wheel drive noticeably overwhelmed with the task at hand.

A familiar look inside, freshened outside

Stick someone inside a 2019 CR-V and a 2020 non-hybrid and they’ll struggle to tell them apart. Honda is sticking to an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach: the dash design is the same, as is the steering wheel. And the questionable fake wood trim.

There are a few detail changes, however. Honda has redesigned the center console storage for improved flexibility, and the Touring now includes wireless charging as standard. Hybrid models feature two major departures from regular CR-Vs: a reworked digital instrument cluster and push-button transmission selection in place of the traditional automatic selector. The former has sharp graphics, noticeably more than the dated (but perfectly functional) 7.0-inch infotainment screen. It makes Honda’s fiendishly complicated hybrid system easy to understand at a glance.

The Honda Sensing suite of driver assist systems is now standard across the CR-V lineup. This includes adaptive cruise control (with low-speed follow), lane keep assist, road departure mitigation, and emergency braking with pedestrian sensing.

We’d class the exterior updates as mild too. A reworked grille and smoked taillights pretty much sum it up. Hybrids get the requisite blue badging, unique five-LED fog lights and, on Touring models, a unique rear bumper with “hidden” exhaust. Touring models also feature 19-inch alloy wheels.

SEE ALSO: 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review

The CR-V splits the difference between the RAV4’s butch looks and the Escape’s car-on-stilts softness. For some that alone could be a win; for others, it’s too safe.

In the Honda’s favor, it boasts plenty of space. Second-row passengers enjoy 40.4 inches of legroom, more than either hybrid from Ford or Toyota. It has more front shoulder room too at 57.9 inches, though its 55.6-inch rear-seat measure is just shy of the RAV4 (56.4) and Escape (56.0). Thanks to that underfloor battery, trunk space is less than the gas-only CR-V, but still ample at 33.2 cubic feet. Drop the seats for a total of 68.7 cubic feet. For comparison, that’s between the Escape Hybrid (30.7 / 60.8) and RAV4 Hybrid (37.5 / 69.8).

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Verdict: 2020 Honda CR-V First Drive

It’s a lesson we all learned at some point in our lives: it can be good to arrive fashionably late.

The CR-V Hybrid doesn’t shake up its category. But it’s a better overall package than the gas-only CR-V, keeping the smooth on-road ride and bolstering it with more power and better fuel efficiency. It doesn’t match the EPA figures of its primary competition, but the difference is only a few mpg. Plus, it undercuts them: a 2020 CR-V Hybrid LX starts at $28,870 including $1,120 in destination, versus $29,470 and $29,450 for RAV4 and Escape, respectively. We’d skip the base model and move to at least the EX ($31,380), to gain the 7.0-inch infotainment and Apple CarPlay plus Android Auto integration.

Honda plans for half of its fleet to be hybrids by 2030. Based on the performance of the CR-V Hybrid, we don’t doubt it will achieve that.