Controversy rears its head yet again as Honda applies RS badges to another mainstream model, but is image enough to warrant the Honda HR-V’s claim to sporty fame?
Okay, controversy might be overstating things a little, so let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. This is the 2019 Honda HR-V – a midlife update for a model first rolled out in early 2015.
The particular variant seen here is the HR-V RS – a new addition to the range. While RS often signifies a sporty or performance variant, in this case it’s simply an appearance package, in much the same way Honda positions the Civic RS.
Slotted in between the mid-grade VTi-S and range-topping VTi-LX (where the VTi-L used to sit), the $31,990 plus on-road costs HR-V RS takes a slightly different aesthetic tone thanks to darkened chrome on the grille and door handles, gloss-black lower body cladding, and a set of 18-inch alloy wheels.
A few other small details, like black mirror caps, mesh-filled front intakes with ‘sports’ pedals and steering wheel, round out the RS upgrades alongside equipment additions like rear privacy glass, leather trim and heated front seats on top of the features found on the HR-V VTi-S.
From the outside, changes to the HR-V range have been kept to a minimum, but look closely and you see new bumpers with more prominent air intake surrounds up front, and darker tail-light lenses.
Honda hasn’t made any changes under the bonnet with this update, nor does the RS deviate from the powertrain specification of regular HR-V models, meaning 105kW of power at 6500rpm and 172Nm of torque at 4300rpm from a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre petrol four-cylinder.
The sole powertrain configuration for Australia sees that engine paired to a CVT automatic with front-wheel drive. Fuel consumption is officially rated at 6.7L/100km, but on test (a slightly more urban adventure) we recorded 8.9L/100km.
To help live up to its sporty premise, the RS features a quicker variable-ratio steering system in place of the regular fixed-ratio rack, and has a unique state of tune for the springs and dampers designed to deliver flatter cornering.
Those changes don’t radically transform the way the HR-V carries itself, but do make incremental improvements. Steering is a little crisper than the standard set-up, and there’s a more stable cornering attitude.
The ride’s still incredibly pleasant, even on slightly bigger wheels. That’s one HR-V strong suit the RS doesn’t turn its back on. On a back-to-back drive, you might pick the softer feel of non-RS versions, but in isolation the RS still blots out most fidgety little lumps and bumps in the road surface.
The petrol engine is still no powerhouse: certainly not out of its depth by any measure, but competent rather than inspiring. There’s enough urge away from the lights to bound along with traffic, but after an initial enthusiastic burst, the CVT auto quickly prioritises fuel efficiency by running to a taller ratio as quickly as possible.
Doing so makes the HR-V feel lethargic, particularly in rolling traffic like the kind you’ll find on your workday commute. As speeds ebb and flow with surging traffic, the HR-V can’t supply the peppy launch feeling across the board, which is a shame.
Excellent highway manners, quiet running and comfortable ride make weekends away a joy. Only the murmur of tyres on tarmac takes away from the cross-country experience. On most surfaces they’re fine, but coarse bitumen makes itself known.
Another unchanged element of the HR-V is Honda’s clever Magic Seats system, which can be configured numerous ways to allow tall items to be carried upright with the rear seat base folded up against the backrest, or long items to pass through with flat-folded front and rear seats.
Only the Skoda Karoq comes close in the class with innovative packaging and seat configurations that are almost a match for those of the HR-V.
There’s even a ‘refresh mode’, where the front seats can be slid forward and the backrests fully reclined to create a continuous open lounge-like space to chill out in when the car is parked.
It’s only a small detail, but the HR-V’s thoughtful packaging (shared with the Honda Jazz) does wonders for versatility. If you fancy a weekend antique shop or trip to the farmers' market from time to time, have no fear about being able to bring your purchases home with you, no matter how tall, wide or awkward they might be.
If you plan on keeping all five seats in place, there’s a very handy 437 litres of boot space – bigger than most other small SUVs. Fold the rear row and there’s 1462L on offer.
Versatility isn’t just limited to the boot, though. The HR-V centre console includes trick cupholders designed to be multi-use and hold anything from narrow cans to big-gulp cups and mugs.
There’s an under-console area too (hidden from prying eyes) that is handy, although USB and HDMI connectors are hidden down there too, making them tricky to plug into out of the line of sight.
While it may not offer the slightest hint of go-anywhere ability with no off-road modes, no all-wheel drive, and only 170mm of ground clearance, the HR-V is an ideal urban escape vehicle. For a life of commuting and getaways out of town, the package makes great sense.
Honda hits and misses on the infotainment front. The HR-V’s 7.0-inch touchscreen with built-in sat-nav is a hit, but the old-fashioned interface and lack of smartphone linking (like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) is surprising given Honda has it on other models in the range.
Honda’s clever Lane Watch camera, which displays a live feed from down the left-hand side of the car with the indicator on, is surprisingly handy for keeping an eye out for cyclists at intersections or judging your distance from the kerb while parking too.
Otherwise, you’ll get AM/FM radio, Bluetooth, and six-speaker audio into the package. Below that, single-zone climate control with a full touch-sensitive control panel giving a neat and tidy look to the centre stack.
One of the more significant changes to arrive with this update sees city-speed autonomous emergency braking added across the HR-V range, which operates at speeds up to 30km/h. Plus, there are six airbags, rear park sensors, reverse camera, front seatbelt pretensioners, tyre pressure monitoring, and stability control.
Honda’s clever interior versatility is almost unmatched for the price and earns it a big tick if utility matters. Driving dynamics and engine performance may not inspire in quite the same way, but the HR-V does live up to its intended role as a hatchback alternative.
Even without sweeping changes, the HR-V maintains its appeal with a confident new sporting aesthetic in RS guise. Demanding drivers won’t be swept away by the tiny detail changes, but nor will mainstream buyers be turned off by them.