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The Honda HR-V is back, and boy is its maker happy about that. It’s no secret that small SUVs are booming and show few signs of anything halting their growth, so when a struggling company such as Honda gets to add one to its range, incremental growth is assured.
And isn’t Honda just being mighty ambitious about its newest member… As we reported this week, the company is seeking an average monthly sales figure of 800 units, which would put this pint-sized hatch on stilts up there with rivals such as the Nissan Qashqai and Subaru XV.
Right off the bat, then, you can see this car’s importance to the brand, which has seen its total sales here almost halve since 2007. And early signs are good, given the company has received about 21,000 expressions of interest already — a figure that exceeds any Honda model launched here, ever.
That figure most certainly includes the original HR-V sold here between 1998 and 2001, which managed a measly 5000 sales. Funnily enough though, given the boom in small SUVs since then, you have to credit Honda for being ahead of the curve. Now you might say the shoe is on the other foot.
So what is this new HR-V? It’s a partially Jazz-based high-riding crossover with about the same footprint as a Civic hatch but about 200mm more height. Belying its looks, it’s front-drive only, and comes with a single 1.8-litre i-VTEC petrol engine option matched solely with a CVT — for now.
The company cites the Nissan Qashqai as the main inspiration during the design process, though if Honda Australia hopes to make any headway it will have to deal with the forthcoming Mazda CX-3 perhaps more than any current rival.
Giving the HR-V the ammunition are a number of impressive and welcome design features, including a classier than we expected cabin, combined with the company’s renowned practicality and its patented Magic Seats.
We hadn’t seen much of the interior before the launch this week, and we were pleasantly surprised by how upmarket it felt, a marked contrast to some of Honda’s recent Thai-made offerings (the HR-V is made in Thailand alongside a swathe of other Hondas).
It’s typically ergonomic and spacious, but touches such as the faux leather arm rests and dash padding, chrome or gloss black highlights on even the base VTi, the electric parking brake and auto hold, the digital climate screens and horizontal vents ahead of the passenger are all classy. The only downer is the odd bit of scratchy plastic on the upper part of the dash, but it looks fine and who touches there anyway?
We won’t go into all the specifications — you can read the full detailed breakdown of that here — but even the $24,990 plus on-road costs base car gets a reversing camera with guidelines, daytime running lights, auto on/off headlights, cruise control, a touchscreen Display Audio system with Bluetooth/USB and a smartphone-based navigation app and 16-inch alloys.
The mid-range $27,990 VTi-S that will take about 40 per cent of total sales according to Honda adds bits including roof rails, rain-sensing wipers, push-button start, 17-inch alloys, low-speed autonomous brakes and blind-spot monitoring. The $32,990 VTi-L adds extras including but not limited to front/rear parking sensors, a panoramic glass roof, dual-zone climate control and leather seats.
An extra $1000 on top of the VTi-L gets you Honda’s ADAS system with forward collision warning, lane departure warning and active high-beam. Honda’s system that activates the reversing camera when you indicate left — which we saw first on the Accord — is a clever touch.
The pricing is about on par with the likes the Renault Captur, Peugeot 2008 and Holden Trax in auto forms, though that $33,990 VTi-L is getting up there. The VTi-S is the definite sweet spot.
All models get six airbags (including dual front, front-side and full-length curtains) and what Honda assures translates to an equivalent of a five-star ANCAP score. It also gets 12-month/10,000km service intervals (rather than the company’s usual and too-short six-month increments).
The 7.0-inch capacitive, swipe-able touchscreen Display Audio multimedia unit looks fantastic, and despite the rather dour blue, black and grey colour palette managed to look more upmarket and less aftermarket than, say, the Holden Trax’s MyLink system.
The Bluetooth pairs swiftly and the connection was uninterrupted, though the absence of integrated sat-nav even on the VTi-L is irritating, with a data-thirsty app the only option. You can mirror your iPhone and use Siri Eyes Free voice control, but bad luck if you’re an Android user on that front.
Cabin storage is excellent, with nifty holding areas that run along the prominent transmission tunnel and bleed into a hidden open-air area (with USB, HDMI and 12V plugs embedded) behind the floating fascia — a tip of the cap to Volvo there. The pop-out cupholders are also clever.
The front seats (coated in leather in the VTi-L) are short in the base but have decent side support, while the scalloping in the back of them liberates extra knee-room in the back.
Rear seat space in terms of legroom, shoulder room and foot room resembles a car a class above, though headroom is a touch restricted by the roofline (especially with the VTi-L’s full-length sunroof) and the small side windows and fat C-pillar make outward visibility a challenge.
There are no rear air vents though back seat passengers get a tilting rear 60:40 split bench with two rake options, three cupholders and leather arm rests in each door.
Honda’s Magic seats in the HR-V are just as clever as they are in the Jazz, and in this case they turn 437 litres of cargo space (already a good figure) when fixed in place into 1032L. The flimsy removable cargo cover must be removed rather than retracted, and feels cheap however.
There are 18 different configurations including a fully flat mode and a 'Tall Mode', which locks the bases upright to act as a barrier for taller loads such as pot plants. It’s proper genius, and only the Skoda Yeti competes (you can yank the Skoda’s back seats out completely).
Under the bonnet of the HR-V is a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre i-VTEC petrol engine with 105kW at 6500rpm and 172Nm at 4300rpm — similar outputs to those in the Civic hatch.
It’s an ageing engine that lacks torque and craves revs, though luckily the (standard, there’s no manual) CVT with seven artificial stepped ratios does a good job of keeping it in the sweet spot, though you’ll hear a fair racket if a fast overtake is attempted.
Around town it’s acceptably nippy, though the small-capacity turbos of numerous rivals give it a clip around the ears for responsiveness and character.
The HR-V is for now a front-wheel-drive proposition only in our market, despite the proper SUV looks, though an AWD option is being explored, as is the European-market 1.6 diesel. The latter especially would make the HR-V a half-a-point better car alone, we suspect.
Honda claims fuel use of 6.6L/100km. We never put huge stock into fuel figures at launches, given the short drives we do aren’t always representative of real-world driving. That said, we returned 9.1L/100km.
Underneath the body is a front MacPherson strut independent setup, while at the rear there is a cheaper torsion beam.
The ride around town is quite acceptable, because the soft springs offer good compliance at lower speeds over variable surfaces, and even the lowest-profile tyres on 17-inch rims in the VTi-L offer good enough insulation over juts and corrugations. There's a degree of road roar over coarser chip surfaces however.
Hit a faster piece of road — say, a country lane on the way to a family camping weekend, or an out of the way couple’s getaway B&B, markets this car is designed for and pitched at — and things get a little bent out of shape. The HR-V rarely felt settled when we turned up the wick.
The springs are a little too soft and it feels a bit underdamped. The rebound isn’t well-controlled, meaning the car is prone to wallow about and gets perturbed by mid-corner bumps. The rear is inclined to skip about a bit, which may also owe something to that rear torsion beam.
Honda’s electric-assisted power steering is fitted, and the turning circle is a decent 10.6 metres, about par. It’s super-light and breezy around town, though it doesn’t really load up at highway speeds and the lack of feedback makes cornering something of a guessing game.
A comparison test with the new CX-3 when that car in April beckons, we reckon, alongside another rival or two perhaps. Read our last small SUV comparison test here.
First impressions tell us the HR-V has a knockout cabin but offers a below-par driving experience beyond the urban confines. If you’re a city slicker it ticks the boxes.
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