We applaud Honda for restraint in redesigning its small CR-V sport utility vehicle for the 2007 model year. Restraint is in short supply in automotive circles. Sport utilities get more horsepower, more size, more seats, usually more weight and marginally less gas mileage with each new iteration. Staying the course is not business as usual for the industry.

That said we were pleasantly surprised when Honda improved its near-perfect decade-old CR-V without:

(1) increasing it's outside dimensions;
(2) adding a V-6 engine;
(3) cramming an unusable third-row seat into a compact vehicle;
(4) departing from its original mission for the small crossover.

Indeed, the CR-V has become more refined and improvements have been made across the board. And the biggest criticism and perhaps the biggest customer complaint - styling - has been addressed in an aggressive manner. And the new style has resonated with buyers bringing new success to the CR-V.

This means that the CR-V continues to be powered by a fuel-efficient 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine, it continues to be configured for five passengers with decent cargo area behind the rear seats, it continues to have all-wheel drive bad-weather capability, it continues to have car-like driving characteristics and it continues to have outstanding resale value.

Honda seldom makes mistakes and it appears and as noted buyers have responded. Sales are up a whopping 45 percent so far in 2007 over 2006, and 2006 was an outstanding sales year for the little sport utility. Last month alone the CR-V outsold competitive standouts Ford Escape and Toyota's RAV4 and is currently leading both those brands in year-to-date sales as well.

If you need seating for more than five people, if you must have the horsepower provided by a V-6 engine or if you are a weekend off-roader, forget the CR-V. But if you want a handsomely styled small SUV that offers a premium feel and won't bust the budget, welcome to the Honda store.

The most obvious change is in styling where the rather boxy, upright look of last-decade sport utilities was softened and rounded into a modern vehicle with a more raked windshield and a arching roofline that sweeps back into a traditional tailgate. A dramatic character line running under the windows from the rear into the front fender sets off the aggressive look. And the spare tire, mounted on the rear door of the pervious iteration, is gone, moved under the vehicle.

Despite its new sweeping stance, the dimensions both inside and out are about the same as the 2006 model - 178 inches long, 71.6 inches wide and with a wheelbase of 103 inches on the outside and with a luggage capacity of 35.7 cubic feet and a cargo capacity of 73 cubic feet.

In real-life terms, front-seat occupants have generous room and rear-seat riders can stretch out with nearly 39 inches of leg room.

By comparison, the new RAV4 - now three inches longer than the Honda - has nearly identical passenger room both front and back and the same cargo capacity as the CR-V. Both vehicles have more rear legroom and cargo capacity than the freshened 2008 Ford Escape.

The best things about the CR-V over the years are its ease of use, its incredible drivability, its huge greenhouse that offers class-leading visibility, its quality materials and its impeccable fit and finish.

Nothing has changed except the CR-V has gained in refinement. Close your eyes and could this be an Acura? It's as quiet at 60 miles per hour as luxury cars used to be just a few years ago.

From the aspect of performance, the little Honda is unexciting. Some may call it an appliance. But it carries a more practical excitement, the excitement of reliability on a cold morning and the excitement that comes with pride in ownership for the length of the loan.

Of course we still wish for just a bit more horsepower. Just a few more ponies for fun sake, but maybe we're off base because the car-buying public has voted with record sales that the available horses are plenty.

The Honda is still propelled by the same 2.4-liter engine, but now with 166 horses, 10 more than 2006. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic in all models.

The engine-transmission combination does a surprisingly good job motivating the 3,400-pound vehicle, although in some merging and passing situations a lot of throttle is necessary to complete the task.

What we would wish for is a bigger 4-cylinder that perhaps would better meet peak power demand.

As it is, the CR-V is rated at a decent 30 mpg highway and 23 city with two-wheel drive and 28/22 with all-wheel drive.

Honda products generally are not cheap, but the CR-V can be purchased for an affordable price with a fair amount of equipment, or it can be loaded up with many of the goodies found on luxury SUVs including DVD navigation and backup camera.

The CR-V comes in three trim levels - LX, EX and EX-L - starting at $21,195 including destination charge. All-wheel drive can be added for about $1,200 in all trim levels. A good selection of standard equipment comes in the base vehicle including power windows and locks, cruise control, audio system with CD player and MP3 jack, 17-inch steel wheels and air conditioning.

Standard safety is among the best in the business and includes antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, tire-pressure monitor, side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags.

Move to the top trim level and the wonderful Honda/Acura navigation system with backup camera is available.

Other goodies on our EX-L front-wheel drive test car included leather seating, leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel audio controls and 17-inch alloy wheels. Our test car stickered for $27,395.

Unfortunately for families with kids, a rear entertainment system is not available from the factory.

A trade-off for the navigation system is an old magazine-style CD cartridge stationed between the seats. In most vehicles today navigation doesn't eliminate a multiple CD changer in the center stack.

But after a week behind the wheel, we have very few nitpicks with this vehicle. Honda has moved the CR-V in the right direction. With new, modern clothes, it remains one of the best small sport utilities.

Essentials

Base price, $21,195; as driven, $27,395
Engine: 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 166 @ 5,800 rpms
Torque: 161 pound-feet @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Turning circle: 37.8 feet
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches
Length: 177.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,433 pounds
Towing capacity: 1,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 35.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.3 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 30 highway, 23 city
0-60: 9.9 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson

The Good

High-quality interior materials
Quiet, refined ride
New styling hits the right notes

The Bad

You pay more for Honda quality, resale value

The Ugly
The 4-cylinder is OK, but please manufacture a bit more horsepower and torque into the engine