NEMACOLIN, PA — There's a new Honda CR-V in this woodsy eastern Pennsylvania town.

Normally, that would mean it's “High Noon” for the competition. It's just that town's a lot bigger place than it used to be.

When Honda Motor Co. Ltd. launched the CR-V compact sport/utility vehicle (SUV) in '97, it immediately emerged as the dominant player in a fledgling segment, handily beating even Toyota's RAV4 and a ragtag collection of quasi-players, including Subaru's Forester, the Kia Sportage and GM/Suzuki's Tracker/Grand Vitara. In '98, its first full year of production, CR-V sold just more than 100,000 units; Toyota moved about 65,000 RAVs and the few others picked at the scraps.

CR-V's instant success showed Honda's acute understanding of what the compact SUV customer wanted: an efficiently packaged, easy-to-maneuver grocery getter with a fair-to-middlin' foul-weather ability from its viscous-coupled, fully automatic all-wheel drive, and decent fuel economy. That CR-V provided this along with Honda's iron-clad quality and a better-than-the-rest refinement didn't hurt, either.

So when it came time to completely redesign the CR-V for 2002, Honda didn't have to fix any glaring problems. But “town” — the compact SUV segment — is a lot larger and more complicated than it was in '97.

The best-seller mantle now belongs to Ford Motor Co.'s Escape. Suddenly, even an excellently revamped segment leader isn't likely to grab a lot of extra sales, even in one of the market's few genuine growth segments.

So that's what Honda's up against. The all-new 2002 CR-V has a fine new engine, an even larger, more user-friendly package and markedly more overall refinement, but Honda execs frankly admit they don't expect many more CR-Vs than the typical year's 100,000-plus.

Chief engineer Takahiro Hachigo says his objective for the '02 CR-V was to “enhance the positive points in the current model and eliminate the negatives.”

The old CR-Vs styling probably was neither: You couldn't hate it, you couldn't love it. The '02 version appears to be not much more than refinement of what is a conservative but nonetheless mature approach. We liked some of the edgy sketches Honda showed a lot more than the actual sheetmetal, so let's just say it could be hard for the casual bystander to note the differences between old and new — Honda didn't take any chances with the lines.

As before, the new CR-V is based on the Civic passenger-car platform. This time around, that means ditching the former CR-V's front double-wishbone suspension for the Civic's struts. We didn't like it for the new Civic and we don't like it for the Civic's derivatives (including the Acura RSX), although Mr. Hachigo assures skeptical journalists that the design — which many believe compromised the Civic's renowned crisp handling — has been beefed-up to handle CR-V's light off-road brief.

Honda makes up for this by specifying disc brakes at each corner, a chassis upgrade over the previous rear-drum CR-V.

Meanwhile, there are the now-expected increased-rigidity improvements for the body. In the CR-V's case, that amounts to a 50% increase in torsional strength and a 30% shot-in-the-arm for bending rigidity. Honda engineers brag of the “smart-linked bodyshell” that employs multi-directional crossmembers. It feels pretty darn solid, and Honda says the new CR-V achieves a 5-star rating for driver and passenger in both National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. frontal and side-impact tests.

External dimensions are similar to the outgoing car, so designers simply carved out more of the interior, where there's 3.5 ins. (9 cm) more front width and 1 in. (2.5 cm) more in the rear. Distance between front and rear passengers is increased by 1.5 ins. (4 cm) and the cargo area is almost 4 ins. (9.5 cm) longer.

As a result, the '02 CR-V beats the segment leader Ford Escape — and direct customer rival Toyota RAV4 — in almost every measure of passenger volume. For example, the tidily proportioned CR-V presents nearly 6 cu. ft. (170L) more Environmental Protection Agency passenger volume overall than Escape, and a telling 14 cu. ft. (396L) more than RAV.

A nice touch: the 60/40 rear seat now slides fore-and-aft 6.7 ins. (17 cm) and the seat backs can be reclined. And the particularly swell new IP/console features a can't-miss item: The parking-brake is incorporated into the stylized center-console “brace.” This sort of functional funky think is balanced by some particularly grannyish and ill-advised upholstery choices.

The best part is the new 2.4L DOHC I-4, which, at 160 hp offers a welcome 14-hp huff over the old CR-V's overworked 2L mill. And its 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) of torque is particularly noteworthy because it's the first time that any Honda engine proffers a torque figure that exceeds its horsepower figure.

This new engine, fitted with a balance shaft (as all largish fours should be) also incorporates Honda's new “intelligent” upgrade of its legendary VTEC variable valve-timing system. The extra torque and i-VTEC (for intake valves) team up to deliver a noticeably brawnier acceleration and mid-range urge.

Good as it is, though, the i-VTEC engine isn't a V-6, an addition pundits have urged for the CR-V virtually since its launch. Honda resists the call, some say because the company plans to sell a Honda-badged version of the outrageously successfully, V-6 totin' Acura MDX.

Seems to us like a self-limiting strategy. Stick a V-6 in the CR-V and maybe you've again got a shot at being the big gun in town. Honda execs and engineers, though, have a different position: The V-6 is the line of demarcation between “cute ute” and more serious (i.e. more expensive) SUVs that reside up the ladder from compact SUVs.

Not coincidentally, the V-6 issue essentially is what separates import buyers from domestic buyers, say Honda marketers somewhat indirectly. We are astounded to learn from Dan Bonawitz, American Honda's no-nonsense vice president of corporate planning and logistics, that CR-V buyers seldom cross-shop domestic brands.

Moreover, he swears that Honda does not consider even the top-selling Escape a direct competitor — or Jeep's all-new Liberty. Both, Mr. Bonawitz says, are apples to CR-V's orange. The Escape, he says, generally is bought by domestic-leaning buyers, often only as an alternative to another, often larger, domestic SUV.

And DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Liberty, he adds, isn't usually on the CR-V buyers' list because of its strong off-road connotations.

Looks like Honda's happy with the chunk it's got. We'd still bet an optional V-6 might win buyers from those domestics the CR-V doesn't compete with.

2001 Honda CR-V EX
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger 5-door SUV
Engine: 2.4L (2,354 cc) DOHC I-4; aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net): 160 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.6:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 87 × 99
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/5-speed manual
Wheelbase: 103.2 ins. (262 cm)
Overall length: 178.6 ins. (454 cm)
Overall width: 70.2 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height: 66.2 ins. (168 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 3,347 lbs. (1,518 kg)
Market competition: Ford Escape; Hyundai Santa Fe; Subaru Forester; Toyota RAV4