The Honda HR-V isn't the sexiest compact crossover going around, but it has plenty to offer practical buyers.
Remember the original Honda HR-V? I was four when it was revealed so my memories are a bit hazy, but it was quite a radical car in its time. You could even get a two-door version, with a cool spoiler sprouting from the roof rails.
The two-door was killed as part of a mid-life upgrade, while the wider range died in 2006, before the badge was dusted off to tackle the booming compact crossover segment in 2015.
Things are far more conventional this time around. The HR-V was treated to a mid-life refresh last year, with tweaked styling, a new mid-range RS model, and range-wide autonomous emergency braking.
With that in mind, there isn't much to separate the entry-level VTi pictured here from the car it replaces. The nose wears a bit more chrome, and the lights have been tweaked... but that's about it.
Then again, there wasn't a heap wrong with the car in the first place.
Power comes from a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine making 105kW and 172Nm, hooked up to the front wheels through a continuously-variable transmission. It's the only powertrain available in the HR-V, although global markets are treated to a version of the 1.5-litre turbo from the Civic. Please bring it here, Honda.
This might sound like a lazy description, but the engine is fine. It gets off the line without any stress – you never struggle to keep up with traffic – and the CVT manages to avoid feeling like a droney, sluggish mess. With that said, it can be a bit of a laggard at highway speeds, forcing the driver to stomp on the throttle instead of leaning on it.
There isn't a heap to excite keen drivers there, but excitement isn't really part of the HR-V's mandate, even in 'semi-sporty' RS guise.
Honda claims 6.7L/10km on the combined cycle, we saw around 8.5L/100km during a week skewed heavily to urban driving.
Although some people would undoubtedly prefer three pedals, a stick and an old-fashioned handbrake (me!), the ease of a CVT and e-parking brake, which allows for auto-hold in Drive, will make the masses happy.
The car settles down nicely at a cruise, registering barely a murmur as it simmers away in the background. Road noise and wind rustle from the mirrors are both suppressed nicely, although the coarse chip bitumen prevalent in rural Australia does somewhat sully the serenity.
In keeping with the theme laid out by the engine, the steering isn't going to offend anyone, but it also won't set your trousers alight. It's light enough for effortless low-speed manoeuvring, allowing anyone to dispatch reverse parks and tight roundabouts without fuss, and stays light all the way up to highway speeds.
We're going back to that word again, it's fine. God some journalists are lazy, aren't they?
If the drive is perfectly ordinary, the HR-V sets itself apart with its flexible interior. Magic Seats are the headline act, but they're ably backed by a cast of small supporting touches.
The boot is massive with the rear seats upright, measuring up at 437 litres, but it expands to 1462L with the back row folded. That's nudging mid-sized SUV territory, in a car smaller than a Civic. The seats fold 60/40, slide forwards and backwards, and have flip-up bases, turning the HR-V into the most versatile car in its class.
Someone at Honda knows how to make something small seem much, much bigger, and they've applied all their nous here.
There's myriad storage options in the centre console and doors, too, for all the knick-knacks that come with day-to-day life. Unfortunately, the materials used for most of the interior leave a bit to be desired. Maybe that's a bit too harsh, because there's nothing wrong with any of them, but there's a real dearth of nice, soft-touch surfaces.
In fact, it's a cabin generally lacking in visual excitement. The dashboard is trimmed in matte black, the touch-capacitative climate controls are gloss black, and the seats are trimmed in another shade of, you guessed it, black. Dour isn't the right word, but it's a bit dull.
The infotainment system is where the HR-V lags well behind the best, which drags the cabin down another notch. Where the new Civic and CR-V get a bespoke touchscreen setup, the little HR-V has a system that feels very aftermarket. The navigation software is obviously third-party, and the unit almost looks as if it was nicked from Repco and slotted into the dashboard by the dealer.
Oh, and there's no volume knob, just a cheap-feeling pair of buttons. When will manufacturers get it through their heads? We want knobs.
Being the base model, the VTi misses out on some of the equipment standard in the VTi-L and RS. The steering wheel is plastic, not leather, and the engine starts when you turn a weird metal device called a key. Oh, and the headlights don't switch off automatically when the car is turned off.
Surely the computing power dedicated to the 'lights on' warning message could be re-routed to just switching them off?
City-speed autonomous emergency braking (below 32km/h) is standard across the range, but Honda's clever camera-based lane watch system – which flashes a live image of your blind spot on the central screen – is reserved for higher-grade models. Our tester came with a rear-view camera, which won't be winning any awards for its resolution, but it is perfectly serviceable.
It's no tech showcase, then, but you don't want for much.
That's a pretty good allegory for the HR-V VTi, actually. It isn't the flashiest offering in the compact SUV market, certainly compared to the style-driven Mazda CX-3, but it's well thought out and unpretentious, from its clever Magic Seats to the slightly dour, inoffensive drive.
Priced from $24,990 before on-road costs, with a five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty and $298 servicing every 12 months, it's also reasonably priced. For reference, you'll pay $1000 more for the cheapest automatic CX-3 and $1200 less for the entry-level Ford EcoSport.
The base Nissan Qashqai demands another $1500, and is manual-only.
If you have the cash, it's worth paying the extra $3000 to jump into an HR-V VTi-S. It gets roof rails, LED headlights, rear parking sensors, in-cabin/boot 12V outlets and niceties like push-button start, a leather steering wheel, 17-inch wheels and the LaneWatch blind-spot camera.
The fundamentals that make the top-spec HR-V a good package are present in the base model, though. If you can do without the flashy bits and pieces, the VTi is a very good take on the entry-level SUV formula. Even if it is a bit dull...