Northville Township, Michigan -- Honda has quite a 1-2-3 punch in its Accord, Civic, and CR-V models. These three cars make up 75 percent of the brand’s sales in the U.S. so far this year, and consistently post sales numbers at or near the top of three important mainstream segments: family sedans, small cars, and compact crossovers.

This last segment is growing faster than ever, and the Honda CR-V has been beating all comers. With 241,015 sales so far in 2014, the CR-V is ahead of the second-best Ford Escape by more than 10,000 units. Given the CR-V’s roaring sales success, you’d expect it to be a class leader in fuel economy, technology, and refinement. But newer crossovers have actually surpassed the CR-V in these key areas lately, leaving Honda with plenty to do for the CR-V’s 2015 mid-cycle refresh.

The company responded with a surprisingly significant update this year, giving the 2015 Honda CR-V a new engine and transmission along with several smaller changes. Can this checklist of improvements bring the CR-V back in line with the best in its class? We drove the updated model around rural Michigan to find out.

Have your cake and eat it too: Better mpg, more responsive feel

Fuel economy is a big win for the revised 2015 Honda CR-V. Its ratings climb by a significant 3 mpg combined, up to 27/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined for front-wheel-drive models and 26/33/28 mpg for four-wheel-drive models. Thank Honda’s EarthDreams 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, borrowed from the Accord sedan, along with its continuously variable transmission, for the improvement in fuel economy.

The new powertrain doesn’t gain any power compared with the old 2.4-liter, but does bump up torque by 18 lb-ft to 181 lb-ft. The real gains can be felt in terms of refinement and responsiveness. The direct-injection engine is smooth, and the CVT does a good job turning the extra torque into peppy acceleration around town and quieter, lower-rpm cruising at highway speeds. Yes, the four-cylinder gets a bit buzzy at high revs under hard acceleration, but driving the 2015 CR-V back-to-back with a 2014 model and its five-speed automatic revealed a big seat-of-the-pants improvement in terms of NVH and power delivery. More important, the 2015 CR-V’s new engine leapfrogs newer competitors such as the Nissan Rogue’s thrashy four-cylinder and the Jeep Cherokee’s unsorted nine-speed automatic transmission.

Other mechanical improvements for the 2015 Honda CR-V include retuned steering, increased sound deadening, and revised suspension tuning. While the CR-V still can’t quite be considered fun-to-drive like the Mazda CX-5, these improvements make a notable difference and help bring the CR-V’s driving experience into more upscale territory. The CR-V goes down the road with much more poise than before, thanks to its significantly quieter interior, tighter and more responsive steering, and composed body motions that provide a confidence-inspiring feel from behind the wheel.

A new range-topping Touring model is the headliner for the 2015 CR-V in terms of tech, as it brings new active safety features not only to the CR-V, but to the Honda lineup overall. This new suite of technologies, called Honda Sensing, comes standard on the CR-V Touring and includes lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and collision-avoidance brake assist. The latter two systems were previously only available on Acura models, and we expect to see them migrate to additional Honda products going forward. For the Touring’s all-included price of $33,570, the 2015 Honda CR-V provides an impressive value proposition, especially considering the other luxury features included a power tailgate and a power driver’s seat with memory.

Don’t count out lesser 2015 Honda CR-V models from the tech game, though, because all versions except the base LX gain the company’s new HondaLink infotainment system with a 7-inch touchscreen. We still have a few quibbles with this system, such as its lack of volume and tuning knobs, but the clear, modern-looking on-screen HondaLink graphics make the old CR-V’s dated infotainment screen look like a 1980s video game.

Other interior updates include nicer materials and a slightly revised center stack, and these changes go a long way toward improving the CR-V’s previously drab interior. Touches such as convincing faux wood trim and nicer grained plastics bring its interior design flair up to par with the car’s already-impressive packaging and space efficiency, as the 2015 CR-V maintains its spacious feel and versatile cargo area.

Honda’s numerous upgrades to the popular CR-V have resulted in a compact crossover that’s better positioned than ever to do battle in this competitive segment. The refreshed 2015 Honda CR-V checks all the boxes for compact-crossover shoppers, and no other competitor offers such a well-rounded package as this more efficient, more refined, and better-equipped CR-V does.

This much improvement might not have been necessary to keep this crossover’s sales at the top of the charts, but Honda’s willingness to go the extra mile brings the already popular CR-V back to benchmark status.

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