• The new styling looks more premium

  • Though it is not going to win any prettiest rear awards

  • WINNING WAYS: The interior is spacious, comfortable and well equipped even in basic trim but is missing the picnic table

MARK Smyth took to the Western Cape mountains in the new Honda CR-V

The year 2012 has been a special year for Honda SA. It is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the country, but at the same time it has seen its sales rise 17% as it continues to recover from the devastating effects of the tsunami in Japan last year.

According to local MD, Yoshiaki Nakamura, the company is planning to increase sales next year by a further 50%.

Much of this increase in sales will come from the imminent introduction of the new Brio, the brand’s foray into the entry-level market.

Another model that is also expected to be a major contributor is the CR-V, which has always been one of the strong contenders in the small SUV market, and the company has now launched the latest generation.

I first saw the new model last year at the Los Angeles Auto Show and at first sight was impressed with the new design.

Styling is a subjective matter, but in my opinion the good looking front end has a slightly American feel about it, but then I walked around to the back and can only guess that some junior designer had been drinking far too much saki and passed out at his desk, accidentally leaning on the send button.

I might not approve of the rear styling, but what the design does translate into is more rear headroom and an increase in boot space from 524l to 589l with all the seats up. The load length has also increased.

Engine options include two petrol models in the form of a 2.0l i-Vtec and a 2.4l i-Vtec, while diesel fans will get a 2.2 i-Dtec.

The latter was not available at the launch, but we did get to drive the two petrol models.

My first drive was actually in the higher 2.4 model, which had a rather bland auto gearbox. This would not normally be a problem as most of these type of vehicles spend their lives driving around town, making it all about relaxed driving anyway. Unfortunately, the 2.0l model that I drove in manual guise actually seemed to be nicer to drive, have as much power on tap and generally was a much better all-round package.

It was also in entry-level trim, which means that while you forego goodies such as all-wheel drive, leather upholstery and driver aids, you get a good vehicle for R299,900.

The cloth seats might not be great when you are packing in the kids, but with the money you save you could take the car into the spa occasionally to get the stains out.

There are a few familiar Honda items including many of the controls and the i-Mid infotainment system that debuted in the latest generation Civic.

While I am mentioning the Civic, those who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the facelift to get rid of those awful plastics in the interior will unfortunately have to wait until this next time next year.

But back to the CR-V, and once again Honda has done a great job on the interior. Yes, we may all miss the integrated picnic table of the first generation, but there is plenty of storage, a large number of cupholders and ample space in the cubby hole. The driving position is excellent and the seats are very comfortable. You can also opt for an attempt at faux carbon fibre inlays or brushed aluminium, both of which look quite good.

The CR-V is the first Honda to get the new MA-EPS, or Motion Adaptive-Electronic Power Steering, which while tailored for the urban environment was actually not too bad. Attempting to hustle the 2.4 auto through Franschoek Pass showed that the combination of engine, paddles on the steering wheel and the new steering setup was not really geared for an enthusiastic blast through the mountains, but if you live in town it may just be your cup of tea.

Like the previous generation, the all-wheel drive versions of the new model have a real-time all-wheel drive system.

This will see a computer decide when you need traction on all four wheels and when you don’t. Unlike the last model though, the new one will always pull away in 4WD mode to enhance traction before relaxing into 2WD when you are cruising on a nice smooth highway.

You also get the Econ mode for the first time on the CR-V, which changes the response of various items in a bid for better fuel economy.

A computer also manages the new hill start assist and on Exclusive models you get the Advanced Driver Assistance System. This includes such things as Lane Keeping Assist and a range of advanced traction aids over and above the regular ones available on all models.

Undoubtedly, the CR-V has moved up a gear and as Graham Eagle of Honda SA said, it is "moving more into the premium sector".

This is a tricky move as where previously it had taken on the likes of the Nissan X-Trail, Kia Sportage and Toyota Rav4, going premium means asking to be put on the shopping list with the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and others of the ilk.

That is a tougher team to play against, but from my time with the new CR-V at the launch, I am still a fan. Now if only they could bring back the picnic table.

Pricing: 2.0 petrol Comfort FWD manual R299,900

2.0 petrol Comfort AWD automatic R339,900

2.4 petrol Elegance AWD automatic R399,900 2.4 petrol Executive AWD automatic R444,900

2.2 diesel Elegance AWD manual R405,900 2.2 diesel Elegance AWD automatic R418,900

2.2 diesel Exclusive AWD manual R486,900 2.2 diesel Exclusive AWD automatic R499,900