19 December 1997

LEISURE MACHINES,

BUT ARE THEY CUT

OUT FOR THE MUD?

Dont want a

substantial

off-roader but need

more than a

straightforward

estate? Then have a

look at these

offerings from Honda

and Subaru.

Andrew Pearce and

Geoff Ashcroft

sort out the

differences

PSST… have you heard? Theres a new subclass of four-wheel drives about – the SUV, or sports utility vehicle. Not as big and knockabout as a full-scale 4×4, yet more capable than a conventional estate, they come with a major "lifestyle" element built in. SUVs are as much about windsurfing and fishing as they are about picking up the kids from school or raiding the supermarket, say the makers. Well, theres not much wrong with that. But can they handle life on the farm as comfortably as cruise the suburbs?

Toyota started the ball rolling a couple of years ago with its RAV4. Thats still selling, but the competition is threatening to roar all over it. Two such are Hondas CR-V and Subarus Forester, both introduced this year. Here we take an ES-level Honda (£17,320) and put it against a GLS Subaru (£16,400). Adding an "all-weather pack" to the Subaru takes the price to £18,500 and gives it the sunroof and air-conditioning sported by the top-spec test Honda.

Looks are poles apart. While the Honda has the stance and proportions of a conventional off-roader, the Subaru is closer to a chunkified estate. Neither is exactly petite, shadowing only 16% less ground area than a Discovery; both are almost as long but much narrower, and they both undercut it by 500kg. For our money the CR-Vs curves take the beauty prize. Alongside it the Subaru is too frumpy, too bland. But to win here a car will need more than a cute suit.

&#42 Engines, transmissions, economy

Both 16V fours love to rev. Neither have much to offer under 2500rpm so are definitely not diesels. Although Hondas 128hp DOHC version is

zingy, a harsher edge

and tingly vibes mark it down against the Subarus 122hp flat-four turbine. Mind you, in isolation the CR-Vs engine is OK. Power delivery is more linear than the Subarus, without the latters mini-hesitations at light throttle and output increases as the rev counter sweeps past 3500. Maximum torque is marginally higher at 134lbf ft (against 130lbf ft), too.

But it cant beat the Subaru motor. Butter-smooth and subdued all the way, the only nasty thing about this one is the asthmatic cough of its starter – which, along with a puttering idle, are the only obvious connection to the old MV pickup. And the Honda is decidedly more raucous, particularly when worked hard.

You might think that permanent 4wd would pull the Forester down against the normally-2wd Honda. It aint so – the Subaru is actually lighter by 136kg and gives nothing away on performance, despite the Hondas lower gearing and audibly frenetic engine efforts. Both cars need a fistful of revs and flurry of gearshifts to fly, then zip along most satisfactorily. The CR-V is always marginally noisier and feels over-busy at motorway speeds; the Forester is much more calm and collected, only building some low-frequency hum as 80mph clocks up.

On driveline quality the Honda wins, despite a clutch pedal that sticks irritatingly and taps the underside of your foot as you lift away. CR-V shifts are cleaner – the Subaru balks gently into gears – and theres less shunt as throttle comes on and off. Smooth progress in the Forester just takes more concentration.

Fuel use presumably reflects the cars different frontal areas, weights and gearing. Over 700-plus miles the Subaru turned in 31.4 miles/gal, the higher-revving Honda a disappointing 24.2 miles/gal.

&#42 Inside

Black-and-grey plastic dominate the cabins, relieved more by cloth inserts in the Subaru. This ones quality is a little higher, too – the doors shut with a much firmer "thunk" and detail finish is better in places. Neither car is dingy but the Hondas more expansive glass brings in the most light, boosted by a sunroof – an option on the lower-spec test Subaru.

Driving positions are completely different. The taller Honda puts its pilot higher – though not up at lofty Range Rover levels – where he or she perches in isolation from a passenger and surveys the world through a deeper screen. The Subaru is more intimate, more cocooned; you sit down closer to car eye level in seats that are harder but support better. Neither car is challenged for space up front, through the Foresters foot wells are relatively cramped.

Dash and instrument pack styling is a Honda walkover, thanks to a more sculpted layout and snazzier dials. But stalk positioning is better in the Subaru, and its steering wheel is a much more pleasant thing to hold than the pimply Honda item.

Honours start even at the back seat, with nothing to split the pair on leg room and little difference overhead. Then the Forester blows it, losing ground on restricted seat width (three abreast is a squeeze) and a lower, less natural door entry height.

Its also not quite as practical around the load bay, despite offering 50mm (2in) more length with the rear seat up, a whopping 250mm (10in) extra with them folded flat and more width between the wheel arches. So although significantly more cargo volume is on tap, arch height makes the Foresters load bay less of an open box. But self-levelling rear suspension is a big plus.

&#42 Lifestyle add-ons

Now for the "lifestyle" add-ons. How about a standard folding picnic table in the CR-V and a plastic washing-up bowl in the Subaru? Or lots of little open and lidded cubbies in both, dotted around the cab and load bay? Or the Foresters fishing rod box, though it would have to be a very modest rod to squeeze therein? Sniff at them as you will, but there is the added-security angle and family life gets marginally less painful – the Subarus bowl makes a great child-emission catcher if you can get to it in time. Speaking of security, the CR-V has no load area blind, the Subaru has.

Ride, handling and brakes? Big differences here. The Forester sits low on a floor pan shared with the 4wd Impreza saloon, and its heritage shows. The whole car feels very secure, no matter whats under the wheels. The ride is tight without ever turning nasty, the chassis is crisp into and through bends.

On the motorway it sits arrow-straight, while diving down the lanes it corners flat and simply grips until safe under-steer finally sets in. Wet junctions are dismissed without wheel spinning drama and ABS braking is strong from a firm pedal. Unlikely as it might look, the Forester is a very satisfying drive.

The CR-V has much more in common with normal off-roaders. So the steering is heavier and more stodgy, the ride is softer with more sway and heave and the brakes – strong though they are – operate through a mushier pedal. Alongside the Subaru, the CR-V feels vague and roly-poly, briefly scrabbling its front wheels in hard getaways and generally preferring a more relaxed approach. Theres no problem with any of this; the Honda just doesnt deliver equivalent driving pleasure or the same surefooted confidence.

&#42 Off road

Drivelines take different approaches to end up equivalent. The Subaru is always in 4wd, with a centre viscous coupling shunting torque seamlessly to the axle with most grip. It offers a shift-on-the-move low range box, whose ratio drop isnt great but helps with towing and off-road control.

The Honda normally drives only its front wheels and has no low range option. Drive management is clever – as one wheel starts to spin, so drive is clutched progressively to the back axle according to the difference in output from pumps on the front and rear shafts. Only sometimes is take-up noticeable.

Both cars sit on 15in wheels and came on identical Bridgestone road-biased rubber. SUVs arent really designed for tough off-road use; in fact, Honda suggests the CR-Vs 4wd is more to get out of trouble than for constant rough work. So we looked with interest to see where they would go. Would the taller-looking, softer-sprung Honda get through where the Forester stopped?

Nope. Unexpectedly the Subaru serves up better ground clearance (the CR-Vs exhaust and rear lower wishbones let it down), makes less of a meal of hard track travel and generally feels more reassuring away from tarmac. On axle-twisting gullies the Honda runs out of rear suspension movement first, too.

Neither engine has much low-speed pull. The Foresters low range set makes the most of what there is, helping on climbs and more importantly, on drops. Here the Hondas higher first gear leaves it very low on engine braking, with reverse ditto.

Just to set this all in context, its important to report that both cars happily scratch their way to places where normal farm duty would take them. Its only at the margins that the Subarus advantages really show.

&#42 And the verdict?

As daily family transport the Honda wins – theres more usable space, more "lifestyle" gizmos and its marginally easier to drive. On local runs, the CR-Vs relative shortcomings (a little more noise, buzzy high speed cruising and poorer fuel consumption) wont be noticeable. But if you put driving pleasure above utility, go for the Subarus handling poise and smooooth engine every time.

Lift the Hondas rear carpet and theres a folding picnic table.

Now thats lifestyle.

Lift the Hondas rear carpet and theres a folding picnic table.

Now thats lifestyle.

Above: Raised

centre panel makes focal point for more upbeat CR-V dash. Against Subaru the column adjustment

is limited, the

footwells are wider,

the steering wheel thinner and

cheaper-feeling. Like

Subaru, door-bottom

speaker is destined

to fill with mud. Left: SUVs in the rough – too smooth for farming?

Subaru dash is tidy but unadventurous. Various minor switches are not best-placed and radio is low, though wipe/wash layout is spot on. Lid in dash top flips up to reveal tray. Seats are hardish, but support well.

Er, yes. Subarus free washing-up bowl inhabits spare wheel centre

Forward-folding rear seat squabs rob the CR-V of load bay length, though compact wheel arches maximise space. Two-piece back door is a very mixed blessing – particularly as glass upper section can only be released from the drivers door or a key fob button.

Hondas overhangs are reasonably short, though low rear suspension arms and dangley exhaust centre section do it no favours. Despite occasional groundings, auto-engaging 4wd keeps it pulling through.

Rear wheel arch intrusion hurts Subarus load bay practicality, and flat-fold seats dont form a complete floor. But one-piece tailgate is a simpler, more convenient arrangement than Hondas.