Sibling Rivalry

By on March 6, 2008

The Honda CR-V has just been crowned America’s best selling Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). To celebrate this feat, we have decided not to test it, but to review two of its closest siblings this month. Why? Well, the CR-V has grown too big for its roots—utterly unrecognizable from the original Civic-based runabout that appeared a decade ago. The newest model has clearly been designed from the wheels up for Honda’s largest market, which unfortunately has rendered it less than ideal for life on Tokyo’s streets.

Conversely, the American-built Honda Element, which rides on CR-V underpinnings, is a good 30cm shorter than its big brother, and a bit narrower to boot, but thanks to a higher and boxier roofline it offers more interior space. It’s pretty funky looking too, having been conceived by a bunch of surfin’, snowboardin’, mountain bike luggin’ Californians, but a lot of features designed for West Coast outdoor sports enthusiasts are also well suited to families with young children.

Rugged interior
Kids can do every bit as much damage to a car’s interior trim as a mountain bike, so the Element’s rugged plastics are a welcome feature. The same goes for the rubberized floor which was designed to repel mud and snow, but which, of course, shrugs off cookie crumbs, chocolate and (heaven forbid) kiddy vomit just as easily.
Despite the high roofline, the Element’s floor is actually lower than the CR-V’s, which not only makes boarding easier for three year olds, but means that the rear seats are lower too, putting child seats just above waist height—perfect! At first glance, the huge aperture created by front doors that open traditionally and rear doors that open backwards also appears to be a bonus for parents with wriggling toddlers. However, just imagine, if you will, returning to an Element in a supermarket’s car park: You leave your shopping trolley loaded with carrier bags and child at the rear of the SUV and squeeze down the 60cm-wide gap the neighboring car has left you, open the front door, which allows you to open the rear hinged back door and… ah… you have been trapped on three sides by your own car! There is no elegant way around this I’m afraid, which puts a rather large blot on the Element’s otherwise superb report card.
Fortunately, Honda has an alternative. Launched barely a rear ago, the Crossroad is even narrower than the Element but has a neat party piece—a third row of seats that pop out of the trunk floor for occasional use. It’s pretty pokey back there in third class, but the two rearmost seats are just substantial enough to attach child seats to on those rare occasions when five seats just aren’t enough—when your parents come to visit or for birthday treats to Fuji Safari Park, for instance.

However you can either carry seven people, or carry some luggage, but not both. Not unless you invest ¥30,000 in a roof-top box that is. Nonetheless, in regular five-seater configuration the Crossroad does provide ample storage, though it does feel more cramped inside than the Element due to a lower roofline – which at 169cm is just low enough to get in to many department stores’ parking towers.

Externally the Crossroad has clearly stolen a few design cues from the current king off the road, the Hummer. The squat stance, high shoulders and bulging wheel arches all suggest that this car would be as at home in a quarry as in National Azabu’s car park, but don’t let appearances fool you. Four wheel drive is but an option, and even when fitted, the rear wheels only provide traction when the car’s engine management detects slippage at the front. Indeed, with a scant few inches of ground clearance, any forays off the beaten track must be taken with extreme care.

On the up side this means that the Crossroad is able to return a very un-4×4 like mileage of over 10kms per liter of regular gasoline. Not bad. And this SUV is no slouch either, able to cruise at well over Japan’s highway speed limit, it has accomplished off the line too thanks to an undersquare engine that churns out plenty of torque at low revs, quite different to the rest of Honda’s high revving motors.

Clean energy

It’s clean too, churning out just 25% of the nasty emissions currently allowed by Japan’s government, which now translates to lower road tax for you. After just a few days of abuse from my kids, the inside of our test car was not looking so clean, however. Honda has elected to fit the Crossroad with standard carpets rather than the handy rubber from the Element, and the seats’ fabric didn’t wash as easily either. I would have preferred the front seats to provide a little more lateral support too. While the Crossroad’s suspension dealt with multiple hair pin bends in the Japan Alps with ease, I was forever swaying out of my seat.

Thankfully Honda have avoided the overly spongy ride that is the scourge of many SUVs. Despite spending almost a week driving through the mountains, neither of my kids showed any signs of recycling their meals, in either the Element or the Crossroad, which speaks volumes for the quality of their suspension set ups.
So which would I choose? Those funky, but awkward doors put me off the Element, as much as the convenience of that part time row of seats endeared me to the Crossroad. This is just as well, because Honda have just stopped importing the Element, though nearly new examples can be found at dealers for around ¥2 million yen.

The lowest grade 1.8 liter front wheel drive Crossroad costs a mere ¥1.9 million, but the plusher 2.0 liter 4×4 we tested would set you back a still reasonable million yen more. A bargain!

About Justin Gardiner