Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Honda HR-V

Everything's relative. A decade ago, the dimensions of the new 2016 Honda HR-V would have put it in the compact SUV segment; now it's designated a subcompact CUV. But don't let the “subcompact” label fool you; this vehicle is roomy and substantial. It's just that everything else has grown! 

Don't let the “subcompact” label fool you; this vehicle's roomy and substantial.

Based on Honda's Global Compact Series Platform that underpins the Honda Fit, the HR-V therefore features that car's mid-mounted gas tank, meaning the floor behind the front seats is unusually low and flat. The HR-V is bigger than the Fit, though. Tons of rear seat passenger and cargo room back there: 1,665 litres, in fact, more than a Nissan Rogue and Ford Escape, according to Honda. Those are compact SUVs, and like them, HR-V arrives in front-wheel-drive (FWD) and all-wheel-drive (AWD) versions. Ranging in price from $20,690 for front-wheel drive (FWD) LX model to $29,990 for all-wheel drive (AWD) EX-L Navi, the HR-V slots in between the loaded Fit and the entry CR-V.

Compared to the Fit, however, HR-V is 230 mm longer, has an 80 mm longer wheelbase and is 81 mm taller. It’s also 70 mm wider and has a 54 mm wider front and 67 mm wider rear track. It rides higher, too. According to Honda, it’s an “entirely new generation of subcompact crossover,” for the company, blending “the styling of a coupe, [and] the toughness, space and utility of an SUV…”

So what you have essentially is a practical four-to-five passenger crossover, but it's dressed in some very flashy duds. It's not segment “busting” but it is an entry into a new segment by Honda, which accurately describes it as a cross between a coupe and an SUV. Take a closer look you'll see that the top half of the HR-V is indeed coupe-like. There's the wide front, sleek hood and aerodynamic profile, the hidden rear door handles, and shut lines that are almost invisible. First glance? Looks like a two-door. Thankfully not like the legendary Suzuki X-90 two-door SUV.

But the bottom half of the HR-V definitely has SUV signatures. Chunky standard 17-inch aluminum wheels, big wheel openings and sturdy sill treatment suggest toughness and off-roadability. Not that HR-V is designed for rugged trails, but it gives the impression that it won't wilt at the sight of one.

Under the hood is a 1.8L, Civic-based single overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine (not the engine found in the Fit) making 141 hp at 6,500 rpm and 127 lb-ft torque at 4,300 rpm. A choice of CVT “automatic” and six-speed manual (6MT) transmissions are available, but no manual option with AWD.

Fuel economy is excellent, regardless of the drivetrain, estimated at 8.3/6.7 L/100 km city/highway for the FWD CVT, 9.3/7.0 L/100 km for the FWD 6MT and 8.8/7.2 L/100 km for the AWD CVT. The AWD system, by the way, is the same Real-Time AWD with Intelligent Control found in the Honda CR-V.

Following normal Honda practice, the 2016 Honda HR-V will be offered in LX, EX and EX-L Navi trim levels. HR-Vs are available with FWD or AWD, except for the EX-L, which is only available with AWD. Standard equipment includes heated front seats, seven-inch audio display, rear-view camera, alloy wheels, heated mirrors, LED rear lights, front wiper de-icer and air conditioning.

Higher trim levels include items like LaneWatch (an image is displayed in the centre console via a camera in the passenger-side mirror), moonroof, auto on/off headlights, leather seat trim, navigation, lane departure warning, forward collision warning and satellite radio. No blind spot warning or cross traffic alert is available for the HR-V, but the expanded view exterior mirrors and multi-view rear camera are helpful substitutes.

Inside HR-V is all flowing lines and modern minimalism. Honda calls it a “Smart Touch” interior. One-touch turn signals, electric parking brake, infotainment and navigation managed from the touchscreen “Display Audio” and even the climate controls use a touch panel. No buttons and knobs here, except on the multi-function steering wheel.

Virtually all the interior panels are soft-touch with embossed stitch lines designed to deliver a feeling of craftsmanship, according to Honda. There are piano-black surface treatments and a precise look to the instruments.

Like the Fit, HR-V features “Magic Seats,” which means the rear seat squabs fold up, opening a huge cargo area floor to roof behind the front seats. It's a most practical feature that would enable the easy transportation, for instance, of a large flat-screen TV. You'd just slide it in behind the front seats. Otherwise, the split-folding rear seats open up an equally impressive cargo area that with the front passenger-seat folded forward permits accommodation of a full-size surfboard. Relevant, I guess, if you're in Miami, but admittedly also useful for carrying ladders, bookshelves and the like. The wide rear door and low floor (650 mm) also aid in loading and unloading the HR-V.

You sit higher in the HR-V than you would in a sedan and the higher hip point makes it easy to enter and exit (you pretty much just move sideways to get in and out). The high driving position naturally gives good outward visibility, with the standard multi-angle rear-view camera helping when backing up.

On the road the first impression is that this is one quiet vehicle. There’s lots of sound deadening material and underbody covers to improve aerodynamics and reduce noise. The ride is very smooth (HR-V is fitted with Amplitude-Reactive, dual-piston dampers) and the handling satisfyingly sharp. It feels sporty, nimble and very car-like to drive. 

CVT transmissions do come in for criticism by auto journalists, but this one is fine and it is the transmission of choice for the HR-V in my opinion. Not only does it deliver the best fuel economy, but the 6MT in contrast seemed nervous to me. Shifts were not particularly smooth, the engine seeming to rev unnecessarily from one gear to the next (I recall this behaviour from Hondas in the past; an unwanted little blip of the throttle between gears that adds busyness to the driving experience).

Power is sufficient… willing, even. Yes, it's only 141 hp, but buyers of this class of vehicle aren't looking for neck-snapping acceleration and premium-fuel performance. This engine is quiet and responsive in normal driving, fuel efficient and well matched to the comparatively lightweight HR-V. The HR-V zigs and zags with aplomb and easily keeps up with traffic in normal driving conditions.

Your front-seat passenger, however, won't have much to do besides enjoy the scenery. The infotainment screen is angled toward the driver, making it less convenient for the passenger to make adjustments, use the phone or manage the navigation system if fitted. This wide and airy cockpit's all about the person behind the wheel.

Who's buying this type of vehicle? Singles and pre-family couples at one end of the age spectrum, and Boomers/Empty Nesters at the other. “People who want the drivability and styling of a coupe but the functionality of an SUV,” according to Honda. Not necessarily those with kids and frequent rear-seat passengers, apparently, but marketing types have been wrong before.

And this category – subcompact CUV – is taking off (if the abundance of upcoming, new and similar vehicles is an indication). You can (or you will shortly be able to) choose from the Mazda CX-3, the Nissan Juke, the new Jeep Renegade, Chevrolet Trax, Mitsubishi RVR, maybe the Fiat 500X, and perhaps the Subaru XV Crosstrek qualifies. Kia’s been showing a concept AWD Soul, too.

Ten years ago the HR-V would have been a typically sized compact SUV; now it’s a right-sized (for many) CUV with car and SUV-like characteristics. Like the longstanding blend of mountain bikes and road bikes, it’s a small “h” hybrid. I expect it will be popular for a wider market than Honda plans, and should draw new buyers to the brand. 

The 2016 Honda HR-V is easy to drive, modern, stylish and versatile. Honda Canada has packaged it well for our market, the company expecting to sell about 10,000 in its first model year. Interestingly, its introduction precedes the release of an all new Honda Civic sedan later this year, followed by the return of the Civic Hatch.

A big year for Honda!

Expected: Second quarter, 2015
Source: Hermosillo, Mexico 

Pricing: 2016 Honda HR-V
LX 2WD w/ 6MT: $20,690
LX 2WD w/ CVT: $21,990
LX AWD w/ CVT: $24,290
EX 2WD w/ 6MT: $23,190
EX 2WD w/ CVT: $24,490
EX AWD w/ CVT: $26,790
EX-L Navi AWD w/ CVT: $29,990