We came away mighty impressed with the new sixth-generation 2023 Honda CR-V after sampling an EX-L some weeks back. But that review used the word “incremental,” because while the vehicle’s interior space and driving environment had unquestionably improved, no new ground was obviously broken.
The output and fuel efficiency of the powertrain—a turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four engine and continuously variable automatic transmission—hadn’t budged. That characterization absolutely does not apply to the new hybridized CR-V, which features a comprehensively reworked hybrid powertrain and a whole new attitude that starts with the fact that it’s not positioned as a stand-alone hybrid model. If you want your 2023 Honda CR-V to be a hybrid—and you do—look for the Sport or Sport Touring badge. Besides superior fuel economy, these two models deliver the sportiest and smoothest driving of the lot, with the Sport Touring being the most well-appointed in the entire lineup. The Sport duo can also be identified on dealer lots by their black touches, including grille and grille bar, roof rails, alloy wheels, and mirror housings.
The qualitative difference is apparent even after shutting the door and driving a few hundred feet. The hybrid gives off a sense of structural rigidity and outright calm you don’t expect, as if it’s a much more expensive machine. Like all 2023 Honda CR-Vs, the hybrid models benefit from a stiffer body shell, made so via the addition of structural adhesive alongside the usual spot welds. The front and rear subframes are beefier, and there’s more sound insulation in the cowl, in the firewall, and behind the instrument panel. But the hybrid takes things further, with a stronger B-pillar-to-floor joint, thicker front side windows (noise insulated on the Sport Touring), and an insulated windshield.
On top of that, the Sport Touring’s suspension sucked up rough roads almost as if they had been freshly repaved, with little shake or boom transmitted into the cabin. The steering managed the trick of delivering good on-center feel and deft response while feeling neither too light nor too tight, and the hybrid’s sportier suspension tune and thicker stabilizer bars delivered confidence-inspiring response and a C/D-measured 0.85 g’s worth of stick on fairly pedestrian all-season rubber. But the overriding impression is one of substance, a feeling that the CR-V hybrid is punching above its weight, even on some twisty back roads with damaged pavement.
The effect of all of that is magnified by the absence of a continuously variable automatic transmission. The hybrid is instead powered (most of the time) by a 181-hp AC synchronous electric motor. This is no pure EV, though, because its battery, a tiny 1.1-kWh lithium-ion unit, is made for temporary storage, not distance. (Ironically, the battery eats into storage, raising the cargo floor flush with the sill and trimming load capacity from 39 to 36 cubic feet.) When we stomped on the loud pedal during our acceleration runs or climbed a grade, the 145-hp 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle engine’s main duty was that of stationary real-time generator in partnership with a second 161-hp electric machine that’s thoroughly ignored in the spec panel below because, well, it’s just a generator—and also the starter motor.
When you accelerate hard from a dead stop, you’ll hear several engine rpm sweeps that sound like shifts, but the process lacks hiccups in acceleration or any sense of shift shock. That’s because in that scenario, the engine is just a series-hybrid generator, and the rpm sweeps are there for show, a deliberate programmatic dance that provides the necessary power while avoiding the CVT-like drone we all loathe. Meanwhile, the electric motor is pulling steadily all the way through, hence the utter lack of head bobbing at each simu-upshift.
Despite that our test car was a 3914-pound all-wheel-drive model, its 7.9-second 60-mph run was quicker than that of a 302-pound-lighter front-drive EX-L we timed at 8.3 seconds. The hybrid pipped the EX-L at the quarter as well, 16.3 seconds to 16.4, but the fact that its trap speed of 85 mph was bested by the turbo’s 88-mph showing indicates that the hybrid setup is not made with prolonged high-velocity acceleration in mind. After all, the 145-hp, 138-lb-ft engine can shovel only so much coal in the direction of the 181-hp, 247-lb-ft electric motor.
But the engine isn’t just a generator, and substantial changes made this year have given it more time to shine. For the first time, they also allow the hybrid a tow rating—just 1000 pounds, but it’s something. This is thanks to the internal-combustion engine, electric motor, and generator no longer sharing a common axis. They’ve been moved off-axis from one another, allowing the engine to be clutched into the mix to directly drive the wheels in two ratios, not just one, as was the case last year. Add a third ratio for electric-motor drive, and you have what amounts to a three-speed automatic like you’ve never seen.
The main scenario in which the engine comes online is steady-state cruising, when the Atkinson-cycle engine’s efficiency as a direct-propulsion unit is better than if it were relegated to generator duties. Low-gear lockups can occur between 12 and 50 mph, while high-gear may engage between 50 and 68 mph. During freeway cruising, the engine is probably doing the work on its own, with rpm only gently rising or falling in relation to speed. But if the grade tips up or you need extra oomph, the electric motor can and will join in. This year’s maximum combined output is 204 horsepower, an improvement over the last model’s 201 horsepower. (It was reported as 212 horsepower at launch, but changing to an ISO horsepower rating from an SAE methodology drops it to 201.)
2023 Honda CR-V gains extra performance at the pump. The newfound ability to tow, and a bit of year-over-year weight gain have taken the slightest bit of shine off the fuel-economy ratings. Our all-wheel-drive test sample is rated at 37 mpg combined (40 city and 34 highway), and it earned 31 mpg on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test. Last year’s model was good for 38 mpg combined (40 city and 35 highway), and our 2021 long-term sample earned 29 and 31 mpg in two tries at the same test.
There was never a front-drive CR-V hybrid before, but now there is in the CR-V Sport. It’s rated at a compelling 40 mpg combined (43 city and 36 highway). This is possible because the rear-drive system, unlike some Toyota hybrids we can name, employs a rear driveshaft off the transmission in lieu of a rear-mounted electric motor. Making a front-drive version is as easy as leaving the rear-drive mechanicals on the shelf. Likewise, changing the torque distribution from 60/40 to 50/50, as in this new model, is a straightforward mechanical-engineering problem for Team Honda.
In pure dollar terms, the new hybrids make a ton of sense. The Sport is akin to a hybrid version of the EX, and we figure that the $1340 price difference will pay itself back in less than three years, depending on annual mileage and local fuel cost. But that misses a few points: You also get crisper handling, more power, improved drivability, and better noise, vibration, and harshness, not to mention a couple more rear USB-C ports and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. In the case of the Sport Touring versus the EX-L, the price difference is $3340, but here we also must consider the Touring’s 19-inch wheels, 12-speaker Bose stereo, heated steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, hands-free power tailgate, and other goodies. At the priciest extreme, you won’t crack the $40K barrier unless you spring for a premium color. Our test sample’s base and as-tested prices are equal at $39,845.
All of the above makes the Sport and Sport Touring CR-V hybrids pretty compelling, and that’s on top of the improved interior, pleasing cockpit, approachable infotainment, and other “incremental” improvements lavished on the 2023 Honda CR-V in general. From the hybrid point of view, it all feels more substantial. Increstantial, anyone? How about subcremental? You pick. Both work for us.
2023 Honda CR-V Hybrid Sport Touring
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-motor, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door wagon
Base/As Tested: $39,845/$39,845
DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-4, 145 hp, 138 lb-ft + AC motor, 181 hp, 247 lb-ft (combined output: 204 hp, 247 lb-ft; 1.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack)
Suspension, F/R: struts/multilink
Brakes, F/R: 12.3-in vented disc/12.2-in disc
Tires: Continental CrossContact LX Sport
235/55R-19 101H M+S
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Length: 184.8 in
Width: 73.5 in
Height: 66.5 in
Passenger Volume: 104 ft3
Cargo Volume: 36 ft3
Curb Weight: 3914 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.9 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.3 sec @ 85 mph
100 mph: 24.7 sec
Results above omit 1-ft rollout of 0.4 sec.
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 8.0 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 3.6 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 5.2 sec
Top Speed (gov): 111 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 171 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 30 mpg
75-mph Highway Driving: 31 mpg
75-mph Highway Range: 430 mi
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/City/Highway: 37/40/34 mpg