The ‘small SUV’ segment is the fastest-growing part of Australia’s new car market, up by 11 per cent this year. About 12 per cent of all the new vehicles sold in 2018 so far fit under this umbrella.
In short, a growing army of people are ditching lower-riding hatchbacks and jumping into crossovers like the Honda HR-V, drawn to the driving position, chunkier look, and ability to hop over kerbs and speed bumps without scraping a bumper lip.
The HR-V has clearly been a success story for Honda here over the past few years since its rebirth, and signalled a turnaround for a company seeking to bounce back from a dire period following the global financial crisis.
It’s found 10,313 buyers this year, placing it behind only the Mitsubishi ASX, Mazda CX-3, Nissan Qashqai and Hyundai Kona in its class. It also accounts for about a quarter of Honda Australia’s sales, and is often top-three when you remove business/rental sales.
There’s not much new to the design, aside from some tweaks to the nose, though the ‘sporty’ RS variant with orange paint and big wheels is new. The Honda eschews boxy design in favour of a car-like silhouette, with a distinctive side character line and disguised rear door handles.
We’re driving the HR-V VTi-S here, priced at $27,990 plus on-road costs, plus an extra $575 for metallic paint. It sits one rung above the base VTi ($24,990) and below the new RS ($31,990) and VTi-LX ($34,590). More here.
Even the VTi is competitively equipped. You get AEB that brakes the car automatically if you’re heading for a low-speed frontal collision, though it’s only operational below 32km/h. There are also six airbags, a reversing camera with guidelines, cruise control, auto-off headlights, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation, Bluetooth, climate control and alloy wheels.
The $3000 jump to the VTi-S gets you roof rails, swish LED headlights with dusk sensors, rear parking beepers, 12V outlets in the cabin and boot, button start and proximity key, leather steering wheel and shifter, a LaneWatch left-rear blind-spot camera, and 17-inch alloy wheels. More importantly, you’re not in the base model.
Our tester was a bit of a showcase for Honda's accessory range, fitted as it was with a $991 side step (why bother?) and $159 bonnet protector. There's a massive list of genuine add-ons, even a camping tent that pops out the back.
The interior is very well thought out, with big door apertures and an ideal seating position with plenty of adjustment. There are storage spaces everywhere, from the vast console, two-level cupholders, big door pockets, and even a nook running underneath the gear shifter.
The wheel is pleasant to hold, the analogue instruments basic but clear (a digital speedo would be good), and plenty of lovely injection-moulded plastics and faux leather scattered along the dash, doors and transmission tunnel to add some premium ambience. As does the slick backlit climate-control interface.
On the downside, the touchscreen is a little bit aftermarket, with cheap buttons and average resolution. It looks like someone swung by Alpine after getting the keys. The Civic and CR-V have a great new infotainment system with greater clarity and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, which we wish carried over here. Then again, it’s no worse than a Toyota C-HR or base Qashqai…
The back seats are simply brilliant. The packaging is ingenious, with sufficient leg room and head room for two 200cm-plus adults. There are also top-tether and ISOFIX child-seat points as you’d expect.
The HR-V also has another trick up its sleeve, called Magic Seats; a system pioneered in the smaller and cheaper Jazz hatch. The seat backs fold flat into the bases, which then push down closer to the floor, turning the HR-V into a bona-fide miniature van.
You can also flatten the front passenger seat to squeeze in a folded rug or long IKEA cabinet box, and flip up each rear seat base flush with the backrest, giving you a ‘tall mode’ suitable for a pot plant to stand upright, or something similar.
Even with five seats in use the boot is bloody big – at 437L it’s roomier than some SUVs a class up, despite actually being shorter than a VW Golf (at 4348mm). The tailgate opening is 1180mm and the boot lip height is only 650mm, meaning even those of shorter stature, or with less movability, will be able to load things in. A space-saver spare wheel lies under the loading floor.
There aren’t any surprises to the way the HR-V drives, though. It’s powered by a 1.8-litre naturally aspirated engine making modest outputs: 105kW of power at 6500rpm and 172Nm of torque at 4300rpm. It uses a claimed 6.9 litres of 91RON petrol per 100km on the combined cycle. We managed 7.5L/100km.
It’s a proven engine that’ll run forever, but lacks pep and punch. If this is something you want, the turbocharged Hyundai Kona option may be calling your name. It's a damn shame we don't get this Honda.
It’s matched to an infinitely variable CVT automatic gearbox designed to maximise efficiency and packaging. This type of transmission doesn’t have conventional gear ratios, but instead constantly adjusts to keep the engine speeds as optimal as possible. On the RS it has paddle shifters and a manual mode for some extra flair, but not on the VTi-S.
The Honda is perfectly happy pottering around town or cruising at highway speeds, offering sufficient rolling response to keep cautious drivers happy. Step on the throttle and the lack of bottom-end torque is obvious, and the unit gets a little ‘thrashy’ – not helped by the drone elicited by the CVT. This is exacerbated if you’re carrying a few passengers.
Now, we’d point out that it’s fit-for-purpose. It just doesn’t go above and beyond. The same can be said for the XV, C-HR, Qashqai and pretty much everything else in the class, so it’s clear that many buyers out there aren’t worried.
Despite being billed as an SUV, the HR-V only comes with front-wheel drive. There’s no all-wheel drive available. If that’s what you want, we suggest your best bet may be the Subaru. This Honda is very much a city car.
The suspension set-up comprises struts at the front and a cheap/small torsion beam at the rear, while the brakes are ventilated discs up front and solid discs at the rear. What the HR-V does well is soak up broken roads, potholes, speed bumps and the like, and does so without hitting its bump stops when laden.
There’s some body lean through corners, but we’d prefer Honda focus on comfort, which it has. The steering is light and vague, but the turning circle is a tight 10.6m. Ground clearance is only 170mm, though the driving position is a little higher than a Corolla or something similar.
We’d say that, dynamically speaking, it's about average. If you want something in this class that handles and rides particularly well, look at the Toyota C-HR.
While the RS and VTi-LX get extra sound-deadening insulation, the VTi-S is unchanged. You’ll get some intrusive tyre roar over coarse-chip surfaces (not many of those near Honda’s Japanese engineering and test centre), but you can have a civil chat at 110km/h.
The LaneWatch system is quite cool. When you indicate left, it’ll show your blind spot on the centre screen’s camera display. This is good since the C-pillars are large. However, it doesn’t have a blind-spot light in the driver’s side mirror. The AEB system only works at low speeds, though the collision warning (audible and visual) gives you an alert of danger from 15km/h upwards.
In terms of ownership, Honda Australia has a five-year warranty with no distance limit, which is reassuring. Servicing intervals are short, at every 10,000km (or 12 months, whichever comes first), with the visits averaging $298 a pop.
Honda hasn’t changed much on the HR-V since it launched, but there’s a good reason why it keeps selling in such strong numbers. Its infotainment is unfortunately dated, and it's never particularly inspiring to drive, but it’s unpretentious, good value and incredibly practical.
The company has focused on the things that it thinks buyers of small crossover SUVs want most of all, and on that count it delivers.