VANCOUVER – When it goes on sale Sept. 28, the new, third-generation Honda Motor Co. Ltd. CR-V compact cross/utility vehicle will be prominent mainly for what isn’t there: an optional V-6.

Whether it was good timing or a case of sticking to its broad corporate philosophy that seems to bias toward the most efficient option whenever possible, Honda engineers resisted the temptation to specify a V-6 for the CR-V.

The decision – surely finalized a least a couple of years ago – seems practically clairvoyant, as consumers appear weary of their disposable income being drained by $3-a-gallon gasoline.

Never mind every other competitor in this superheated segment now offers a V-6, including archrival Toyota Motor Corp., which for ’06 finally added an optional 3.5L 6-cyl. for its segment-innovating RAV4.

If saying “no” to the CR-V’s V-6 was good timing, Honda historically has had a penchant for that quality. In the early 1970s, Honda had its game-changing CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) technology ready just in time to solve the problem of simply and economically complying with the nation’s first real vehicle-emissions standards.

“We just didn’t feel we needed a V-6,” a Honda source says. “That’s why we have the (midsize) Pilot.”

Honda does, however, predict the compact CUV segment, which has exploded since the first CR-V launched in 1997, will expand 119% by 2010.

With everyone in the segment offering a V-6, including some priced less than Honda and Toyota 4-cyl. cute-utes, nobody is ruling out a 6-cyl. CR-V in the future. Honda’s fine dual-cam 3L bent-six reputedly fits.

The ’07 CR-V, staying with 4-cyl.-only power, thus is a studious evolution of the formula that has made Honda’s compact CUV a constant segment frontrunner (150,219 units in 2005, second only to segment leader Ford Escape’s 165,122).

The new CR-V is based on the architecture of the Civic, which is not a bad thing, particularly because the latest Civic, introduced last year, has enjoyed wide acclaim.

Even Honda’s engineers admit there practically is no meaningful change in the CR-V’s basic dimensions, the most notable being a decrease in wheelbase of just 0.2 ins. (0.5 cm) and a cut in overall length of 3.1 ins. (7.9 cm).

This is largely attributable to the relocation of the spare tire from the tailgate to under the cargo floor, a wise design change Toyota snubbed for the latest RAV4.

There is one telling dimensional alteration: the ’07 CR-V’s ground clearance is down to 7.3 ins. (18.5 cm) from its previous 8.1 ins. (20.6 cm) of ride height. No one bought CR-Vs for full-bore offroading, but many CUVs now are squatting in the 7-in. (17.8-cm) ground-clearance range, which begins to make them seem even more car-like.

Not surprisingly, Honda brags the step-in height for the new CR-V has been lowered by 1.3 ins. (3.3 cm), and the hip-height seat does not require an average human to climb up to reach the seat cushion.

Are buyers – 32-year-old “cool moms” in this case – also now weary of the “command” driving position?

The lower-sitting driver is piloting 88 lbs. (40 kg) of weight gain, although that must be deemed acceptable given the new CR-V enjoys Honda’s safety-optimizing Advanced Compatability Engineering (ACE) body structure and other occupant-safety accouterments, such as standard side-curtain airbags and Honda’s Vehicle Stability Assist stability control system.

All comprise a suite of safety technologies Honda has promised to install in its entire model range.

Handling on the front strut and rear multilink suspension is reliable, although not really thrilling. Despite the lowered ride height, the CR-V at times still seems top-heavy and leans in sharp corners a bit more than is necessary.

The upside is standard 17-in. wheels and a recalibrated front suspension geometry that adds some genuine feel to the steering while delivering a supple and creamy ride quality. Whether it’s the new Civic-based underpinnings, those 17-inchers, the improved steering – or likely a combination of all – the CR-V now steers and rides like a much more expensive crossover.

Although they’ve drawn a line in the sand regarding V-6 motivation, Honda engineers have fettled with their largish 2.4L powerplant to the point where it practically acts like a small 6-cyl.

The engine is convincingly smooth, thanks to a pair of balance shafts and Honda’s new-for-CR-V torque-rod engine mounts, and plenty eager on the throttle. It’s just plain better than similar-displacement inline fours from Toyota and General Motors Corp.

At 166 hp, the 2.4L has 10 more ponies to help haul that extra 88 lbs., but there’s just one lb.-ft. (1.4 Nm) more torque to help get it all moving. Hooked to a standard 5-speed automatic, the powertrain is absolutely adequate, and we’re surprised more than once at the passing power the 4-cyl. summons, even in higher elevations here near Vancouver.

Honda has had headaches with its 5-speed autoboxes but appears to have rooted out the worst of them. The CR-V’s 5-speed automatic snaps to attention whenever the need arises, the rest of the time delivering the quick but mellow shifts that improve the perception of refinement.

Control freaks and penny pinchers will lament the loss of a manual transmission, though – probably a sop to assembly efficiencies and the general up-scaling of the ’07 CR-V. Toyota followed the same route with the RAV4, but several competitors still permit self-shifting, at least for their 4-cyl. CUVs.

Honda engineers say the manual-transmission take rate had dropped to the point it isn’t worth the trouble. Perhaps there’s hope for that dual-clutch automated-manual transmission to which Honda insiders have alluded.

Slightly revised is the optional all-wheel-drive system, which Honda says has been improved to deliver more engine torque to the rear wheels, but still only when the front wheels begin to slip.

The real change – and it’s entirely for the better – is the new CR-V’s sheet metal. The outgoing model was agreeable but nonetheless did little to mask its utilitarian design brief. The crisp and flowing shape of the ’07 model now makes a bald-faced stab at premium ground.

The C-pillar area is particularly exquisite, where the curve of the downsloping greenhouse converges with the high-set, deep-cut taillamps for a neat and sweet pinch that brilliantly disguises the boxy cargo area – not an easy chore, proven by the prominent boxiness of the outgoing CR-V.

The mini-Pilot front end, although not as Euro-confident as the CR-V’s profile and rear quarters, at least isn’t dissonant. And the symmetrical blisters on the blacked-out front and bottom splash panels cleverly impart just a suggestion of ruggedness.

Overall, this is a fresh and holistic design that cut-price competitors Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and Kia Motors Corp. still can’t quite match, and frankly puts out to pasture Toyota’s conservative-to-a-fault RAV4 and outdated boxes such as the Escape and Mazda Tribute.

Inside is a sweeping upscale-ization of the previous CR-V. Materials and fit-and-finish are atypically rich and uphold that Honda designed-in quality sensation – almost nothing feels “costed.” The most notable new addition is the optional voice-recognizing navigation system, not available for the LX and EX trim levels, only the highest EX-L trim.

The only element missing from the old interior is the nifty handbrake that was incorporated into the architecture of the center stack. But with no manual transmission, a handbrake is redundant. Sigh.

Pricing wasn’t set as of mid-August but is expected to closely resemble that of the outgoing model. Honda says to expect prices starting at about $20,000 and running to $26,000. The EX-L with its navigation system likely will top out the range at about $28,000 – stiff for a vehicle with just four cylinders up front.

The ’07 CR-V likely will conquer even more than its typical 150,000 annual throng of highly loyal buyers.

It’s a neat, complete, quality piece that almost completely shrugs off any lingering sniff of “entry level.” This latest CR-V has placed the last pieces of the puzzle: intrinsic refinement and genuinely upmarket styling.

Well, there might be one last piece – and it has six cylinders.

bvisnic@wardsauto.com