The Honda HR-V returns with a smaller, athletic approach and a new game plan as the medium SUV contest heats up
WHAT IS IT?
It's Honda's rival to the Mazda CX-3 and Ford EcoSport, based on a modified version of its Jazz/City light car range. It's been raised, widened and wrapped in a swoopy coupe-like body and fitted with a more potent engine from the larger Honda Civic. It's joining an armada of small SUVs in the fastest growing segment in Australia and should be one of Honda's more popular models.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
This car is crucial to Honda's plans to regain its lost sales momentum from last decade, and builds on the success of the new Civic, Odyssey, Jazz and City that all arrived in 2014. It should be a battle royal for honours, headed by the excellent Mazda CX-3.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The HR-V is a competent, well designed and built crossover that lacks for nothing in terms of available safety gear and is great to drive. Its brilliant packaging and liveability mean it's potentially going to be a tough call between it and the upcoming Mazda CX-3.
PLUS: Brilliant packaging, competent dynamics
MINUS: CVT still hunts, road noise, extensive safety kit only on top model
THE WHEELS REVIEW
HONDA decided to launch its HR-V at Tasmania's MONA, described by director David Walsh as "a subversive Disneyland for adults". It must think that the new crossover is some kind of wild ride set for a leadership spill on the upcoming Mazda CX-3 and Jeep Renegade, all fresh baby SUVs that will join the Ford EcoSport in battle for the 30-something 'pre-children' kidults’ attention.
In chasing these customers – of which 60 percent are expected to be new to the brand – Honda presents a modified Jazz platform that's widened, strengthened and has a more rigid body styled to look like a coupe. Squint, and that hidden rear door handle and the swooping roofline may have your eyes seeing a little BMW X6.
Starting from $25K –the same price as the somewhat larger Nissan Qashqai that it benchmarked, the HR-V comes with a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine donated by the Civic and mated to a new-generation continuously variable transmission. That's the sole powertrain across three equipment levels (four if you count the 'ADAS' safety pack option on the top-spec HR-V) and it's front-wheel drive only – we miss out on the all-wheel drive and hybrid models sold in Japan under the 'Vezel' name.
Honda chose the HR-V name for Oz as the Vezel tag – a combo of “vehicle” and “bezel” – wasn't deemed acceptable here. Seems Honda Oz just plain didn't like it. Yet it's far more than a Jazz wearing platform shoes, says program boss Naohisa Morishita.
"I want to ward off any misinterpretation that we simply carried over the platform from the Jazz, because this was not the case," Morishita-san told Wheels.
"The wheelbase and tracks are completely different [they're greater]. At the platform level we had to address a whole bunch of stuff – suspension, rigidity – all developed specifically for this car."
Despite this, HR-V does share some of the Jazz's strengths: the Magic Seats that fold completely flat, and the same packaging as the Jazz with its centre-mounted fuel tank. That gives it a huge 453-litre boot compared with the CX-3's 264 litres, as well as clever stowage areas under the seats.
At the wheel, it's spacious and comfortable even in the low-spec model, with supportive seats and en excellent driving position. The dished three-spoke steering wheel looks smart, and next to you is a high centre console designed to continue the coupe-feeling theme kicked off by that roofline.
It doesn't make you feel like you’re in a sports car, but it's a smart uncluttered design with the centre display and smooth HVAC. The fit and finish is solid for the price, and the overall ambiance simple yet not basic.
With the same strut front-end and H-beam rear suspension as the Jazz, the HR-V has been stiffened using its own shocks and spring rates, as well as via a more rigid body. The gym session has the new crossover riding well on the entry-level model's 16-inch alloys, with little lost for the high-spec models fitted with 18s.
The steering is predictable and responsive, the body control competent – it will tuck into a corner if you come in too quickly – and the overall balance is good. It's a breeze (remember that, Honda?) to park, too. It doesn't feel like a Jazz walking a high-wire, as Morishita-san aimed for.
The weak point is the lack of torque from the 1.8-litre: it has the CVT hunting for extra Nm and revving, the precise scenario that Honda promised would not occur with this new-generation version. It has a wider spread of 'gears', helping achieve the 5.6L/100km fuel economy, but its 4300rpm peak torque means that the HR-V needs to be worked hard up relatively small hills.
Combine that with the high road noise, and the Honda could improve its refinement.
That's not a deal-breaker for the HR-V, yet Honda has pitched it against the popular Nissan Qashqai in terms of the $25K starting price even though the Nissan is a class above in terms of size. Instead, the HR-V offers a raft of safety gear which, in its own tests, should have it achieve a top five-star ANCAP rating.
That gear includes the autonomous emergency braking that Nissan was heavily criticised for omitting from the Oz-spec Qashqai. AEB is standard on the mid-spec VTi-S, yet the downside is you can’t buy a base model and stack it full of safety gear – for that, you have to buy the $32,990 top model and select bits from the options list – pushing the price to $34K. That's a thick wad of cash over the base car.
The Honda HR-V is a welcome return to the maker's line-up and is a well-made, good value proposition. It's easy and fun to drive, even if its CVT isn't perfect or refinement class-leading. It's brilliant packaging, efficiency and up-to-date tech should make it one of the brand's best sellers. We can't wait to get it in the ring with the Mazda CX-3.
Model: Honda HR-V VTi
Engine: 1799cc 4-cyl, sohc, 16v
Max power:105kW @ 6500rpm
Max torque: 172Nm @ 4300rpm
Fuel economy: 5.6L/100km
On sale: Now
Click here to read the full range review of the Honda HR-V.
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