THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: Trick back seat defines utility, tidy size for city, genuine gas saver
- What’s Bad: Sleepy acceleration, drivetrain noise and vibration, where’s the radio knob?
“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like,” Will Rogers famously remarked. That’s pretty perceptive for an actor and former mayor of Beverly Hills.
Sport utility vehicles are often held up as examples of conspicuous consumption that rub some people the wrong way. They’re portrayed as anti-social and anti-environmental products that wreck everything in their path.
In a stroke of genius, automakers have responded with new eco-friendly models in an attempt to deliver the benefits of an SUV – taller ride height, perceived better safety and all-weather invincibility – in a smaller and lighter package.
Subcompact crossover sport utilities have become the fastest-growing segment in the automotive universe, both in North America and around the world. Models like the Jeep Renegade, Mini Countryman, Buick Encore and Mazda CX-3 gave buyers the SUV look, but in a tiny, fuel-efficient package that’s tailored for city living.
One of the best expressions of the “living small” philosophy is Honda’s HR-V, introduced for the 2016 model year. Old Will likely would have approved.
The five-door HR-V is based on the subcompact Fit hatchback, but with a wider cabin and better interior materials and layout. It’s also significantly bigger: the body is 23 cm longer, the wheelbase is stretched by 8 centimetres and it stands 8 cm taller, too.
The aptly named Fit is a packaging marvel itself. By locating the fuel tank under the front seats and specifying a compact, H-shaped torsion-beam rear suspension, engineers carved out enough space for a deep cargo hold and a back seat that imitated a Swiss Army knife.
One or both sections of the 60/40-split rear bench could fold down to the floor, creating a long, flat cargo area. Alternatively, the seat bottoms could fold up against the seat back, opening a tall floor-to-ceiling space for a pair of bicycles or other bulky items. The front passenger seat also folds down to accommodate lengthy cargo. The HR-V inherited these same features – and some liabilities we’ll get to.
The HR-V’s cabin is roomy, given its footprint, and its generous greenhouse provides an expansive feel that’s often missing in compact crossovers. Entering and exiting this crossover is easy given its ride height, a boon to the many older buyers who are gravitating to vehicles like the HR-V.
The instruments are large and visible, and most controls fall readily at hand. The 7-inch touchscreen display on higher trims handles the entertainment, communications and navigation functions, as well as the HondaLink smartphone integration system. However, the menus are a little confusing and the lack of a physical volume knob annoy some owners. The biggest complaints are reserved for the front seats.
“The headrest forces your head into a ‘head-forward’ position. For short people like me, this headrest basically makes you tilt your head down with your chin toward your chest,” noted one owner online. It’s a common lament aimed at other Hondas, too, rooted in the automaker’s wish to exceed collision safety standards. Drivers who adjust their seats bolt upright will likely find the headrest intrusive. Try it before you buy it.
The HR-V is small, but safe. Standard safety features in all model years include antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front-seat side airbags and side curtain airbags, and a rearview camera. It earned an overall crash safety rating of five stars from the U.S. government’s NHTSA organization.
POWERING THE HR-V
Honda’s littlest SUV is available with front- or optional all-wheel drive. Engineers wisely nixed the Fit’s 130-hp 1.5-L four cylinder in favour of the Civic’s 1.8-L engine for North American buyers, the only available powerplant. Unfortunately, 141 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque are just not enough to motivate the heavier HR-V with much alacrity. The continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission sends revs soaring while the speed builds. Slowly.
“The poor acceleration and loud engine are real cons for this car. Why Honda would not put a bigger engine in this car is beyond me,” reads one online assessment.
As consolation Honda offered a six-speed manual gearbox in front-drive LX and EX models, which makes the most of the 1.8’s meagre output. The stick is easy to shift, but the clutch travel seems long and the throws are a bit ropey – unusual for a Honda. Sadly, the manual gearbox was dropped for 2019.
All of the significant updates to the HR-V happened in 2019, most noticeably the freshened front and rear styling, including LED running lights. Engineers updated and retuned the CVT, the electrically assisted steering, and the optional all-wheel-drive system.
There’s also a longer list of features, including a physical volume knob for the radio, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality for the touchscreen. The Honda Sensing suite of advanced driver safety features is a new addition for EX trims and higher.
DRIVING THE HR-V
As noted, the HR-V exhibits sleepy-time acceleration, which is a little out of character for a Japanese nameplate renowned for its sport bikes and racing history. The few examples that were sold with the manual transmission can muster a 0-97 km/h time of 8.4 seconds, while automatic versions range from 9.5 to 10.2 seconds, depending on the presence of all-wheel drive. The buzzy and unrefined engine sounds laboured when loaded down.
The car’s electric steering is reasonably precise in feel, if a little too light, lending the HR-V a somewhat sporty character. It feels planted when driving around corners, though the suspension is tuned more on the soft side and can become unsettled over big bumps and potholes. Surprisingly, the larger and more popular CR-V can literally run circles around its smaller brother.
The HR-V is reasonably comfortable and composed on the highway, although the CVT drones incessantly, a sound that becomes tiresome after a while. The excellent outward visibility, combined with its small size, make it an easy car to drive and park in the city.
Fuel economy is reasonably good, although some drivers expressed frustration that they couldn’t beat the government sticker’s fuel-use ratings, which most Hondas will do right out of the box. Expect around 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres in mixed-use travel.
Owners rave about their little ute’s ability to fit just about anything – someone had to carry an industrial dehumidifier, four carpet blowers and a large wet-dry vac on an emergency run – as well as generous back-seat room for adults, great outward visibility, maneuverability and fuel economy.
Noted negatives include the aforementioned lacklustre acceleration, droning transmission and a driver infotainment system that is less than intuitive. Some people just have to have radio knobs (it was addressed for 2019).
Quality-wise, the made-in-Mexico HR-V has been very reliable thanks to the proven components pinched from other Hondas. Early builds exhibited a few assembly glitches, including some bad seals that allow rainwater into the cabin (check the spare-tire well and carpets for moisture), in addition to loose windows that shake in their frames when partially open. Paint blemishes and interior rattles appear to be common in 2016 models.
Toronto resident Gail Derrington aired her short list of complaints: “The body of the car seems to scratch easily (and) the hatchback does require a bit of upper body strength for opening and closing.” The front seats earned a big raspberry from those who like to sit up straight, finding the headrests obtrusive. They disliked the chairs’ limited range of adjustability, too.
A few had problems with the air conditioner either underperforming – mostly in hot climates such as Nevada – or failing altogether. A scant few have had to replace the automatic transmission at high mileage – a fault not unknown in CVTs in general, regardless of the make.
Overall, the HR-V is a valued addition to Honda’s crossover SUV lineup. One owner went as far as to suggest HR-V stands for “High-rated vehicle.” It largely is, although Honda has priced its littlest SUV ambitiously and shoppers should be aware of the many competent rival models sporting lower price tags.