Honda CR-V joins the hybrid compact SUV fray

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Detroit – Honda introduced its first hybrid SUV here Wednesday as government regulations transform the vehicle landscape with mainstream battery-powered options.

The Honda CR-V Hybrid joins the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and the new Ford Escape Hybrid in the best-selling compact SUV segment.

A new CR-V Hybrid to be built at Honda's Greensburg, Indiana plant

Long marketed as niche vehicles with sales hovering around 3% of U.S. sales, hybrids are experiencing a resurgence as Washington ratchets up mpg rules on big automakers. The Trump administration is trying to roll back regulations requiring fleets to average 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Honda has pledged that two-thirds of its global lineup will be electrified by 2030, and the CR-V Hybrid – part of an update to its 2020 offerings – is the brand’s biggest volume commitment yet after introducing low-volume, electrified variants in the past like the wee Insight and hydrogen-powered Clarity.

“The CR-V Hybrid signifies our direction to bring Honda hybrid-electric technology to all core models and to invest in the production of electrified vehicles in America,” said Honda U.S. sales executive Henio Arcangeli Jr.

The CR-V will be manufactured in Greensburg, Indiana.

Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid, assembled in Canada, this year leapfrogged the Toyota Prius Hybrid as the best-selling hybrid in America. Offered in base LE trim with a starting price at a class-competitive $28,945, Toyota has positioned the RAV4 Hybrid model to sell with a starting sticker price just $2,200 above the base LE gas model.

The 2020 Honda CR-V, sporting freshened styling, new features and upgraded powertrains, and the new CR-V Hybrid.

The Escape Hybrid, too, debuts this fall as a volume offering in Ford’s best-selling vehicle outside the F-150 pickup truck. Ford abandoned its first Escape Hybrid after the 2012 model year. Priced $10,000 above the base ute, the ’12 Hybrid offered little bang for the buck and sales tanked despite positive media reviews.

The Escape Hybrid has been reborn this year as a Sport and Titanium offering priced just $2,210 over the base S model at $28,290. Ford expects Hybrid trims to make up over 30% of Escape sales.

“It’s the regulatory environment that pushes you to do things that they customers don’t want – or don’t want initially,” Ford SUV marketing manager Craig Patterson said at the Escape Hybrid’s media test this month. “We anticipate that eventually customers will gravitate toward these cars.”

Honda estimates a 50% increase in CR-V Hybrid fuel economy over the gas-engine model. The hybrid option will be the most powerful offering in the CR-V lineup with 212 horsepower, besting the 1.5-liter gas engine offering by 22 horsepower. While seven ponies shy of the RAV4 Hybrid, it trumps the Escape Hybrid by 14 horsepower. The CR-V also offers a unique two-motor system that operates without a multi-ratio automatic transmission for a smoother, more EV-like drive experience.

Interior of the 2020 CR-V Hybrid.

The CR-V will be offered in every trim level beyond the base LX. While Honda won’t disclose final pricing until closer to launch early next year, the Hybrid model will likely be priced under $30,000 like its competitors.

Though the Honda, Toyota and Ford strategies mark a notable mainstreaming of hybrid offerings, they aren’t a guarantee of success. Nissan marketed its own Rogue Hybrid since 2017 — a battery-assist variant of the second-best-selling SUV after the RAV4 —for a competitive $28,745, just $2,500 more than base trim. However, tepid sales led to the car’s demise for the 2020 model year.

Honda, too, has tried a hybrid offering of its popular midsize Accord sedan, but sales crawled along at under 4%. Other volume automakers like Chevy and Hyundai have tested the waters with smaller minnows. Chevy sells the niche all-electric Bolt EV, while Hyundai has produced a variety of hybrid plug-in and electric small cars.

Inside the 2020 CR-V hybrid

Toyota’s success with the popular RAV4 Hybrid — sales are at 15% of RAV4 volume and climbing — gives automakers hope, though industry insiders express concerns the complicated drivetrains are expensive and may dull profit margins.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.