Former crossover hatchback pioneer makes a comeback bid - but is success within the HR-V's grasp, and does it do enough dynamically to stand out?

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Given the history of the Honda HR-V nameplate, it’s a wonder that the brand hasn’t fashioned a bigger presence for itself in the lucrative compact crossover market.

The original HR-V, based on the platform of the Honda Logo supermini, was launched in 1999 – well before European manufacturers cottoned on to the idea – and was immediately marketed as a ‘Joy Machine’ for a young, activity-minded demographic, even if those people weren’t, ultimately, its core buyers.

The original Honda HR-V helped to invent the compact crossover niche

It sat below the larger, Honda Civic-based Honda CR-V, came with a downsized engine, could seat four, was available with two-wheel drive or with four driven wheels and had the high-riding style of an SUV.

All the makings of a hit, you might think, given the march it stole on the rest of the market. Instead, the HR-V proved to be a side note – marginally ahead of its time, yes, but also cramped in the back, hindered by the absence of a diesel engine and ultimately canned without follow-up. 

In Japan, Honda nominally replaced it with the Crossroad, a three-row, seven-seat oddity it wisely decided to keep to the domestic market. Only now, almost 10 years later, has the manufacturer opted to return the HR-V badge to the UK.

Unsurprisingly, the intervening decade makes it look late to the party, and the compact crossover has since become more popular with European small families than a loaf of stone-baked organic bread. The car itself prudently sticks to the now well-established formula that its forebear pre-empted, being based on the Honda Jazz supermini, powered by small engines (a diesel, too) and remaining strictly front-wheel drive no matter which one of the four trim levels you opt for. 

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Now that there is a discernible message, the new HR-V appears to be on it – which is useful, because Honda could use the line-up heft of having a sales volume-generating crossover in the range, given that it now only sells the Honda Jazz, Honda Civic and Honda CR-V in the UK. We tried the 1.6 i-DTEC diesel in SE Navi trim.



The purposeful Hond-esque grille on the HR-V

Predictably, the new HR-V has far more in common with the current Honda line-up than with its now-distant predecessor. That model was an unapologetic matchbox of right angles.

The latest version, in keeping with the segment’s soft-edge vogue, doesn’t try too hard to be noticed. Its styling influences aren’t hard to pick out. From the regrettably labelled ‘solid wing face’ front end (actually an apt description) to the C-pillar-assigned door handles, the HR-V is unmistakably Honda: neat, subdued, compact in appearance and unassuming to a fault. 

Both engine options are mounted transversely and drive the front wheels

Possibly that contributes to its aerodynamic performance, which Honda claims is class-leading (while declining to quantify it), thanks to panels fitted under the floor to optimise the airflow.

The floor itself is clearly raised in comparison with the Honda Jazz’s (the driver’s eye line is higher by about 100mm), although the modifications don’t drastically alter the car’s architecture. 

The front MacPherson struts and rear torsion beam remain, as does the unconventional positioning of the fuel tank under the front seats, enabling the HR-V, like the Jazz, to benefit from Honda’s popular Magic Seat system, a feature we’ll come to in a moment. 

Engine choice could hardly be simpler. There’s a 128bhp 1.5-litre i-VTEC petrol unit and the 118bhp 1.6-litre i-DTEC diesel driven here. Both are four-cylinder units and form part of Honda’s Earth Dreams series – an umbrella term for the manufacturer’s continuing efforts to wring more efficiency from its established VTEC technology. 

The petrol motor represents a power upgrade from the maximum output of smaller derivatives currently used in the Jazz, although its modest 114lb ft of torque – delivered at 4600rpm – remains behind the equivalent turbocharged engines found in many of its rivals.

Nevertheless, only the petrol HR-V can be had with a continuously variable transmission, and it’s a measure of the CVT’s popularity among Honda’s European buyers that the firm has invested in a rewrite of the control software to replace the bandy, single-ratio monotony with seven simulated gears. 

The diesel makes do with the six-speed manual gearbox, although this has also been improved, the engineers claiming a smoother shift motion as a result of optimising the layout and shaft.

The 1.6-litre engine is another European exclusive, albeit one familiar from elsewhere in the range. Its common-rail injection, compact turbocharger, all-aluminium block and lightweight crankshaft have proved efficient in other applications – although the HR-V’s kerb weight of 1404kg (measured with a full tank of fuel) does make it somewhat heavy when measured against rivals such as the Mazda CX-3 and Renault Captur.


An inside look at the Honda HR-V

As it does with the Jazz, Honda seeks to avoid pigeonholing the HR-V (or subjecting it to disagreeable comparisons) by suggesting that it occupies a slightly unorthodox market position. Consequently, although it is heavier than some rivals and notably more expensive than others, the manufacturer would prefer to draw your attention inside, where, much like the Jazz, it claims to have brought MPV-style spaciousness to the crossover segment. 

This is true partly by virtue of the fact that the HR-V is a little bigger than many of the other supermini-based cars, such as the Mazda CX-3, Renault Captur and Peugeot 2008. In fact, it’s only slightly smaller than a Nissan Qashqai and nearly as roomy inside. Rear leg and head room are generous, and thanks to the aforementioned Magic Seat system, the car offers a variety of internal configurations.

Visibility is good and the pedals are well spaced and not overly offset

Having the option to fold away the front passenger seatback to accommodate items of almost 2.5 metres in length or lock the rear seat base vertically to stow anything up to 1.2m tall is just the kind of practicality that small crossovers usually intimate – and then fail to deliver. On its own, the boot is capacious, at 453 litres (although not exemplary in its dimensions), and offers a pleasingly flat total load space of 1026 litres. 

Elsewhere, it’s sturdily Honda. Which is to say conservative, carefully assembled, legible and largely forgettable. Hard plastics aren’t unusual in the class, but the HR-V still has too many of them, and kooky details like embossing one join with fake stitching do it no favours. The needlessly big passenger-facing air vents appear to have time-warped in from 20 years ago. The counterbalance comes in the shape of a touch-sensitive climate control panel, which looks at odds with its surroundings and isn’t particularly satisfying to use. 

As we mentioned before there are four trim levels to choose from - S, SE, SE Navi and EX. The entry-level trim comes fitted with Honda's flip up magic rear seats, Bluetooth connectivity, automatic headlights and city braking assistance, while upgrading to the SE spec adds 17in alloys, front and rear parking sensors, and Honda's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system.

The headline addition to the SE Navi models is the inclusion of a Garmin-powered sat nav system, while the range-topping EX models get LED headlights and a panoramic sunroof.

Honda’s latest Connect infotainment system is pretty simple to get to grips with and, for the most part, is laid out logically. There are few physical buttons, so interacting with it requires constant stabbing at and swiping of the 7.0in touchscreen. Its responsiveness is so-so, although the infuriating need for two or three stabs is usually kept to a minimum. 

There is a world of Android-based apps to get to grips with if you feel the need to explore beyond the DAB tuner and a multitude of media connections (which we didn’t). The Garmin sat-nav that gives the test car’s trim level its name is a functional software package. It’s well behind better manufacturer systems in its appearance and intuitiveness but is easily dependable enough to get you where you’re going without much fuss. The six-speaker, 180-watt audio system is similarly serviceable.

As promised, you sit high – possibly higher than you might in other cars that share a supermini’s platform, making you feel more perched than elevated. The sense of spaciousness up front isn’t quite as pronounced as it is behind, but it feels no more or less airy than a Qashqai would. Which is probably the kind of comparison Honda can live with. 


The Honda HR-V has a robust aptitude common to the Jazz and the CR-V, underwitten wiith a splash of sprightliness

By most measures, the 1.6 i-DTEC is a fine small diesel engine. Honda prides itself on such things, and it shows. Responsiveness is never less than good and there’s no low-rev idleness or ugly intrusion from the turbocharger. The four-cylinder unit revs if not quickly then certainly cleanly and labours understandably only when getting close to its 5000rpm limit. 

Its output is laudable, too. Its 118bhp and 221lb ft of torque are superior to the numbers produced by the 1.5-litre diesel engine found aboard the Mazda CX-3 we tested recently. Nevertheless, the acceleration figures we recorded are almost identical; the HR-V posted 10.5sec to 60mph versus the CX-3’s 10.3sec, with only 0.1sec separating them from 30-70mph. The reason, predictably, is the larger Honda’s disadvantage on the scales, weighing a good 100kg more than its rival. 

Our 1.6-litre i-DTEC completed the standing quarter mile in 17.9sec at 78.1mph

In spite of that, the DTEC motor rarely seems overawed by the task. It’s a voluble companion, contributing to a level of noise well beyond the amount we measured in the Nissan Qashqai, but it was more than a second to the good when comparing each model’s 30-70mph times in fourth gear. Despite the chatter, the HR-V settles contentedly enough on motorways and is flexible enough in its top gear not to require wearisome gearchanges

Shifting, it must be said, is a divisive affair. Some testers considered the HR-V’s stubby lever and notchy selection to be at odds with the car’s even-tempered character. Others found the short throw and mechanical feel an endearing inclusion. Either way, Honda’s efforts to refine the gearchanges have yielded a slightly smoother unit, especially when it comes to engaging a previously grumbly reverse.

There’s currently no option to have the CVT with the DTEC engine, and even among testers not overly enamoured with the manual, none confessed to preferring the idea. In the diesel engine’s favour, no one pined for the petrol engine, either.


The Honda HR-V's ride on the firm side...

Frankly, neither the bar nor expectation is set particularly high here. The platform-donating Honda Jazz is a respectable supermini, but no one could accuse it of being compelling to drive – a sentiment that could be just as easily levelled at the entire small crossover segment, given its failure to produce a stand-out driver’s car.

The HR-V, sadly, doesn’t alter that deficiency but, from an admittedly low standpoint, performs rather well. Ease of use is understandably Honda’s primary concern and, backed by the willing diesel motor, the car is not difficult to rub along with. 

Ride is on the firm side, but the HR-V handles capably

The steering is reasonably light and amenable but comes with quite a slow rack, similar to that of the Jazz. Manoeuvrability is fine, though, as is forward visibility. There’s a hint of underlying firmness to the ride and a fair bit of suspension noise, but you won’t be paying the road surface undue attention unless you hit a pothole or similar intrusion. 

Certainly, the HR-V feels lighter and easier to manage than its bigger sibling, the Honda CR-V, yet there is something quintessentially Honda about the experience, too – a rugged roundedness that wells up from the build quality and arguably makes its supermini underpinnings easier to forget than they are in, say, a Peugeot 2008.

Still, there’s agility enough if you go looking for it. Despite having to sometimes labour at the wheel and its lacklustre rate of response, the HR-V offers plenty of grip and isn’t adverse to pressing on. Beyond-limit driving could hardly have been at the forefront of Honda’s thinking with this car but, as a testament to the engineers’ thoroughness, the HR-V is largely untroubled outside its comfort zone. 

The engine is perched on the front axle and there’s plenty of suspension travel to get through, so understeer is inevitably the default response to a loss of traction. However, the chassis possesses the same balance that was plumbed deep into the Jazz’s staid handling. Thus, with the right frame of mind and a big lift, the HR-V will turn lateral momentum into a gentle tightening of its line. 

Alternatively, leave your foot in and it turns in keenly enough, the lean easily felt but not to the point where it adversely affects transit around the apex. Indeed, the grip levels are determined enough for the car to lean onto its front wheels and lever the outside rear tyre from the ground. If only the steering were as keen. This all helps distinguish it from the Jazz, a supermini famously indignant at being asked to challenge the national limit.

The body control, while naturally inclined to permit some lean, is well managed and the chassis is keen enough to cock an unlikely rear wheel during spirited cornering. To describe it as fun would be a little generous but, nevertheless, it’s quietly satisfying to know that the well-built, robust aptitude common to both the Jazz and CR-V is underwritten here by at least a small dollop of sprightliness.


The original pioneer of the crossover range the Honda CR-V makes a comeback bid

As the crossover segment becomes increasingly crowded, there’s less and less elbow room to distinguish yourself on the value front.

Clearly, Honda would like the HR-V’s spacious interior to be taken into account when buyers are doing the maths, because the four-trim line-up starts at a significantly higher price than some of the alternatives we’ve summed up as smaller – the Peugeot 2008, Renault Captur and so on.

The HR-V is expected to retain 46% of its original value three years out, which is good compared to its rivals

The Mazda CX-3 and Skoda Yeti are closer to the £18k you’d pay for an HR-V in S trim and the Nissan Qashqai is just beyond it. The £22k needed for our SE Navi test car, which adds Garmin sat-nav to the SE’s decent kit list – dual-zone climate, 17in wheels, parking sensors, 7.0in touchscreen, auto lights and wipers, Bluetooth, DAB and so on – will not buy you quite as much Nissan. 

There is similarly little daylight in running costs, too. True MPG testing suggests that the 68.9mpg official claim is optimistic, but shortening it to a real-world 55.7mpg puts the HR-V in a very similar place to the equivalent CX-3 and Qashqai we’ve tested.

You can have the Nissan in sub-100g/km CO2 format, although we wouldn’t recommend it for the performance shortfall. For its 108g/km, the Honda is a lot worthier.

As, for the moment, are the early residuals, which suggest the HR-V is likely to retain close to half its value three years out, giving it a healthy advantage over the Qashqai. 

When it comes to specifying your HR-V, entry-level S comes as standard with almost everything you need but banishes the 7.0in touchscreen to the options list. SE returns it but has no sat-nav. SE Navi it is, then.



The competent all-rounder 3.5 star Honda HR-V

It has been easy, from an enthusiast’s point of view, to look down on the Honda Jazz and its stuffy, sensible-shoes idea of a supermini, but Honda has been merrily selling them to right-minded, mature folk for ages.

Transferring that car’s salient features to a crossover makes sense, and it isn’t hard to imagine dealers making the transition between the two seamless on the showroom floor. 

Competent achiever that will find buyers despite its dull, forgettable character

Does that make the HR-V a compelling purchase? No, not really. As well as invoking the Jazz’s better features, it also contracts the bad, most notably a remarkable capacity for disappearing from the memory almost immediately upon exiting it.

Practical, spacious and well engineered the HR-V may be, but too little work has been done to make this part of a wider, imaginative and appealing product.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Honda HR-V 2015-2020 First drives