Ask anyone to name a small cross-over type vehicle, and I would wager that few would suggest the subject of this test, the Honda HR-V, even if prompted to add to their initial list. And yet, the HR-V name itself is well known, as anyone who can remember the “Joy Machine” strap-line that featured in its adverts back in the day will surely attest. It was deleted in 2006 and there was a gap of eight years before the model name was dusted off, and when it reappeared, making its debut at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show, it was on a slightly different size of car. The current HR-V entered a crowded but sizeable and still-growing sector or the market, and promised much. It is built on the same platform as Honda’s well-rated supermini, the Jazz, which, whilst far from exciting, has found many delighted customers among those who valued its packaging and versatility along with its ease of ownership. Many of the Jazz’ buyers are older customers, and a lot of these have been switching to the slightly taller form-factor of the Crossover, as they find the genre easier to get in and out of, and they appreciate the raised driving position. Combine that with even more space in what is still quite a small car, and add in Honda’s build quality, and you might have expected the HR-V to become one of Honda’s best-selling models. And yet, it just has not done so. And that’s as true in America, where it was first sold as a 2016 model year car, as in Europe where it entered the market a few months earlier. It is not really a car which, I admit, I had thought about very much, and it really was not on my radar of likely test/rental vehicles. Recently, a few Honda models have found their way into the UK Hertz fleet, which was something of a surprise, as Honda is the one Japanese marque which has generally not flooded the rental sector with large numbers of heavily discounted cars, preferring instead to maintain margin and residual value for their loyal customers. From time to time, I have found a Honda in the Hertz US rental fleet, but I’ve not seen any at all for quite a while now, and then on the first day of my Autumn 2018 visit, a careful tour of the entire LAX facility unearthed a bright red one hidden between some much larger SUVs. A quick conversation with the ever helpful staff there, and it was mine for a day.
European customers can choose from two available engines in their HR-V: a 1.5 litre petrol and a 1.6 litre diesel. In the US, there is no choice, as all versions of the car come with the same 1.8 litre four cylinder petrol engine, which generates a healthy sounding 141 bhp. There is a choice of transmission, with either a six speed manual, or a CVT automatic, though, as you might expect the vast majority of cars come, as indeed did the test car, with this latter, an $800 option on all bar the top-spec model. And befitting the crossover nature of the HR-V, you can have an all-wheel drive version, though the vast majority of them are, like this car, simply front wheel drive. If you are thinking that this is a petrol-engined Honda, so that is going to mean a jewel of an engine that likes to be revved, resulting in sparkling performance, then, sorry, but think again. It is a smooth engine, and it is refined, and yes, you will need to rev it quite hard at times, but that is simply because 141 bhp is not all that much in this day and age for a car of this size and weight. So, rapid, the HR-V certainly is not. That said it can keep up with the flow of traffic without undue difficulty, and did not have to strain on the inclines up and over the Hollywood Hills and nor was it troubled by the steeper gradients of the canyon roads which is where I took the car for its test and the accompanying photos. Continuously Variable Transmissions always sound like a good idea in theory, but the reality is often a disappointment, with the gearbox struggling to adjust quickly enough to the throttle and brakes. This is definitely one of the better ones, and it certainly proved smooth, even when braking quite hard, which is the biggest challenge of most CVT ‘boxes, but I could not help but feel that the manual transmission might be better suited to this car. You sort of get that opportunity here, as there are paddles on the steering column which offer pre-defined ratios in the gearbox, but, as is usually the ways with these, I found it quite hard to drive smoothly using these, and it was just easier to leave the gearbox to its own devices. Engine noise is generally quite well muted, and nor was there anything particularly discernible from the wind, so the most dominant source of noise comes from the road, though it seemed quite dependent on the specific road surface, and was never anything about which to make significant complaint. My day with the HR-V was mostly spent in the canyons north of Los Angeles, with plenty of stop/start driving, hopping out for photos and to enjoy the views. It was on a Saturday, so the legendary traffic queues of the freeways were not a feature, and there was no significant long distance driven at a steady speed. In total, I travelled 148 miles and the HR-V needed just 4.38 US gallons to refill it, meaning an average fuel economy of 33. 79 mpg US, which is 40.3 mpg Imperial, a pretty decent result. There is an ECO setting, with the button to turn it on situated on the dash. This does exactly what you would expect to various settings for the throttle and climate control. I did not use it.
The best word I can think of to describe the other driving dynamics is “unmemorable”. That feels a bit like damning the HR-V with faint praise, but it is also the reality. There is nothing that stands out as a weak point, but equally, there is no flair or fun here. The steering wheel in the EX trim of the test car is a plastic moulding, but it was pleasant enough to hold, being of the right thickness. Whilst the steering is light, it is not unduly so, meaning that there is some feel at all times, to give you a clue where the steered wheels are going to take you. It does mean that the Honda is easy to manoeuvre, too. There is plenty of grip, and the handling is just as you would expect. Body roll is kept well in check, though the HR-V does start to understeer when you tackle the tighter of the bends that you find on the canyon roads with any form of enthusiasm. The HR-V rides on 215/55 R17 wheels, and for the most part they do a good job, with the Honda absorbing the rougher patches of tarmac (of which there are plenty!) quite well, but I did find that at freeway speed, the ride could be a bit choppy as the car got a bit unsettled. No such issues with the brakes which worked well. There is an electronic handbrake with the button in the centre console behind the gearlever. Visibility is generally good, with no issues to the front and side, and the near vertical tail made judging the rear end easy, even without looking at the image projected by the camera onto the infotainment screen. There are some very thick C pillars, but these did not cause the over the shoulder difficulty that you get in some cars.
The inside of this Milano Red painted car was very black. Apart from a few chrome highlight rings around air vents and on the steering wheel spokes, everything is black, in a variety of different materials. The door casings are a mixture of cloth and leather, whilst the dash is a large plastic moulding, which is moderately soft to the touch and with a nice enough grain to it so it does not look unduly cheap. Honda has resisted the urge to put inlays of anything in the design, which is probably a Good Thing. And whilst the all-pervading blackness sounds a bit sombre, the fact that the test car had a glass sunroof means that with the cover open, there is additional light from above. Be warned that leaving the car in full sun, though, as I did for a couple of hours in the afternoon, and it will be very hot indeed inside when you return. The dash design is neat and relatively simple. A single cowl covers the instrument dials. There is a large central speedometer, which has an outer ring around the circumference which glows green when you are driving “economically” and orange when doing less well. To the left is a smaller rev counter and to the right a dial with two horizontal bar charts, the upper one illustrating current average fuel economy, and the lower one the fuel gauge, with bars going out as the fuel level reduces. Between them are the odometer and trip computer displays. There are two column stalks, with twisting sleeves on them so that the lights as well as indicators operate from the left hand one, and front and rear wiper from the one on the right, with auto functions for lights and wipers both standard. That means that the left hand side of the dash only contains the Eco button and the one to turn traction control on and off. The steering wheel spokes have the cruise control and audio repeaters. A keyless start button features in the spot where you might expect to find a slot for a key. The centre of the dash has no buttons at all in it. There is a neatly integrated 7″ screen for the infotainment system and below this a smaller screen for the climate control. The only way to use either is through the touch interface, which is easy enough when you are static but not so if you are moving. The first of these has AM and FM radio as well as Pandora, which plays through four very large speakers in the doors, as well as a number of other connectivity options with several connectors in the centre console under the gearlever. I would have preferred at least buttons for things like the audio volume, though there is no denying that it does leave the dash looking uncluttered, and impression partly then dispelled by the row of air vents that stretch from the display screen to the passenger door. The centre console contains the gearlever and buttons for the electronic handbrake and hill-hold. Like everything about the HR-V, it is overall neat, functional and lacking in flair.
Most people who buy an HR-V probably won’t care, as they will be more interested in the practicality of their car. And here the Honda does well. Its dimensions may be compact, but there is plenty of room inside it. The seats are trimmed in a hard-wearing cloth, and I noted that there were zippers on the front ones, so presumably you could take the covers off (not something I was going to try in a rental car!). Adjustment is all manual, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft and two levers on the side of the seat for height and angle, as well as one of the backrest for angle of inclination. There was plenty of travel on the seat and the crossover-ness meant that even with the seat set high, there is ample headroom. The seat itself was comfortable enough. There’s a telescoping steering column which goes in/out as well as up/down, so I could readily get the optimum driving position.
Those in the back should have little to complain about, for a car of this size as the amount of room there belies the compact external dimensions. The floor is almost flat, so there is no intrusion for a middle seat occupant, and even with the front seats set well back, there is ample legroom. Although the roofline slops down a little, headroom is also more than adequate. There is limited adjustment available on the angle of the rear seat backrests. There is a single cupholder moulded in the back of the centre console, and you will also find an AUX connector here. There’s no central armrest, but occupants do get bins on the doors and a single map pocket on the back of the passenger seat for their bits and pieces.
The boot is a good size, regular in shape. There is a little space under the floor for some small bits and pieces and then under the styrene moulding for the jack, there is the space saver tyre, again with a few pockets around it. More space can be created by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests down, which results in a flat load bay. The HR-V features Honda’s “Magic Seats”, although I did not find this out until after I had handed the car back. This means that the front passenger seat can also be folded down, for some really long loads, and the rear seat can be folded up vertically, so that you can get something high in it. Odds and ends in the cabin can go in the decently sized glovebox, the door bins which have a moulding to take a bottle, in the central armrest cubby which is too far back to be an armrest, or in the area under the gearlever, which is big but quite shallow and a bit awkward to access. There are a pair of cupholders in the centre console with a neat insert which provides a half-height shelf or which folds up to allow for deeper items.
Just as the engines differ between European and American market HR-Vs, so do the trim levels, though the essence of what you get in the three versions is similar. The US market has the LX, EX and EX-L Navi. Standard features in the base LX trim ($19,670) include cloth seats, Honda’s Magic Seat in the second row, a 5-inch colour LCD display for the infotainment system, a USB port, four-speakers, Bluetooth, and a multi-angle rearview camera. The mid-level HR-V EX, which was the spec of the test car, comes with automated climate control, an electrically-operated moonroof, heated front seats, a proximity key, push-button start, and Honda LaneWatch (blind spot monitoring combined with a sideview camera). Its upgraded infotainment system adds a 7-inch touch screen, two USB ports, Pandora compatibility, a text message function, and a six-speaker sound system. Pricing starts at $21,720. For the EX-L Navi, leather-trimmings on the seats, steering wheel, and gearlever are added in for your $25,140, and enhancements for the infotainment system include navigation, voice recognition, satellite radio, and HD Radio.
There’s much to praise about the HR-V, though just like the car it is based on, absolutely nothing to get anyone excited. And that is probably just what Honda intended. A stronger engine, and an easier to use interface for the infotainment and climate control would help it, for sure, but otherwise there are no really weak points, and being a Honda, you can be sure that the ownership experience will be excellent. But the HR-V competes in a very crowded market-place and so all this worthiness may not really be enough. It has fewer direct rivals in the US than it does in Europe. That said, Americans can get behind the wheel of a Hyundai Kona or a Mazda CX-3, and whilst I’ve yet to sample either, everything I’ve read said that they are more engaging to drive and also lack any serious weakness, though the Honda does probably pip them both on space and versatility. In Europe, there are far more rivals. I’ve driven a couple of them recently, Vauxhall’s Crossland X and Mokka X, as well as Renault’s Captur, and the Honda would seem preferable to all three, though you will pay quite a lot more money for the privilege. And perhaps that’s why this car remains something of a niche choice. In a sector where most of the target buyers are cost conscious, the Honda is simply expensive for a car that has no premium aspirations and which lacks any clear personality to stand out. I am glad I tested it, and need now to see if I can source a few more of its rivals to form my own conclusions as to where it really sits in the rankings.