Gateway drug: 2016 Honda HR-V first drive

2016 Honda HR-V compact crossover first drive Photo 84

The most important new Honda in years taps into entry crossover market

What is it?

Think of the 2016 Honda HR-V as the gateway drug for a legion of future Honda junkies.

Honda prefers the term “gateway product,” yes, but the company knows an opportunity when it sees one. The prospect of a largely untapped, potentially big-volume vehicle category comes rarely for a mature, full-line brand like Honda. Subcompact sport-utility vehicles and the all-new HR-V—“entry crossovers,” in market speak—represent exactly that.  

The 2016 HR-V traces its genesis to several phenomena. The CR-V is currently Honda’s smallest, least expensive SUV, and while it’s grown into North America’s best-selling sport utility over its 20-year run, the CR-V has also grown steadily in size and price. The modestly successful, CR-V-based Element—a Honda experiment in out-there—was buried in 2011 after eight years, partly to make room for the HR-V. The Mini Cooper Countryman and Nissan Juke both debuted at Geneva in 2010. GM has answered with the hot-selling Buick Encore and the recently launched Chevy Trax, and Jeep with the new Renegade. Ford, Hyundai and Toyota have yet to make a move.

2016 Honda HR-V front view

As those brands dither, Honda is jumping in with both feet, making a new buck with the HR-V in the short run and hoping to create another corps of loyalists as the CR-V, Accord and Civic did decades prior.

Honda says the HR-V was developed on the brand’s strengths, and that’s probably okay, because Honda strengths such as fuel economy, efficient packaging and refinement should play perfectly in entry crossovers. In key areas the HR-V moves immediately to the head of the class.

The HR-V surfaced in 2013 as Honda’s Urban SUV concept at the North American International Auto Show. It hits showrooms this May developed on Honda’s global subcompact platform, known in North America primarily through the Fit hatchback. The HR-V is nearly a foot shorter and few inches narrower than familiar compact SUVs like the CR-V or Ford Escape. Its exterior dimensions come within a fraction of competitors like the Encore, Renegade and soon-to-arrive Mazda CX-3, with one glaring exception.

At 102.8 inches, the HR-V’s wheelbase is less than an inch shorter than the larger CR-V’s, and up to three inches longer than some if its class competitors. Factor in a fuel tank cleverly mounted between the main frame channels and forward of the rear axle, and the HR-V offers the most rear-seat volume and cargo space in its class–by a substantial margin. It has a bit more interior volume than even some class-larger SUVs, including the Escape, without necessarily looking that way from the outside.

2016 Honda HR-V rear view

At 30 paces the HR-V is catchy, like an ad jingle. Blacked-out roof pillars, hidden rear door handles and the upswept character lines on its flanks create the feel of a coupe. The HR-V looks more dynamic than the slightly frumpy CR-V, less formal than the Encore, less cute (or maybe cartoonish) than the Renegade, and it will cost a lot less than a Mini Countryman.

The 1.8-liter, single-cam iVTEC four under the HR-V’s hood comes from the standard Civic, with the same 6,700-rpm redline but two fewer horsepower and pound-feet—peaks of 141 and 127, respectively. Those figures rank near the bottom of the small-ute class. EPA ratings, on the other hand, are best in class. Depending on the transmission and drive configuration, the HR-V is rated at 25-28 mpg city and 32-35 highway.

2016 Honda HR-V engine and underhood

A six-speed manual transmission comes standard, but customers who want all-wheel-drive–with Honda’s hydraulically actuated transfer case–will have to choose the optional CVT automatic.

The CVT is programmed with seven step ranges, and Honda’s G Design Shift Control is intended to mimic a conventional automatic under hard acceleration by allowing the engine to rev to its horsepower peak before the ratio changes. Higher-trim HR-Vs feature a Sport mode and paddle shifters for manual step changes. All CVTs have an ECON button that introduces three alterations; reduced rate of throttle application between about 10 percent and 60 percent of pedal travel, cruise control that maintains speed less aggressively on uneven terrain, and more economical AC operation.

2016 Honda HRV shifter

The HR-V is suspended with McPherson struts in front and an H-shaped torsion beam and coil springs in back. The solid rear axle was chosen for both packaging and (we’d guess) cost advantages. This is the first Honda with an electric parking brake, enabling features like hill assist and auto brake hold. All HR-Vs will come with 17-inch alloy wheels and 215/55 section all-season tires.

New chassis tech rests primarily in what Honda calls “amplitude reactive double-valve shock absorbers”—an effort to mechanically replicate rheostat-controlled, variable-rate suspension at an entry-level price point. Each shock has two separate pistons and valves that work at different rates depending on the frequency and distance of compression and rebound, delivering a broader range of damping rates compared to a conventional, single-valve shock. There’s also something called Motion-Adaptive EPS. Using data collected by the skid-control electronics during cornering or hard braking, the rack-mounted electric steering assist can encourage appropriate counter-steering by nudging the wheel in the proper direction.

Honda HR-V drivers seat

The HR-V should appear by May from Honda’s Fit plant in Celaya, Mexico, starting at $19,995 with destination for a front-drive LX manual. The line-topping EX-L retails for $26,720 with CVT and AWD.  That price range sits about $4,000 above the Fit, a bit above Civic and $3,500-$7,000 below CR-V. All HR-V’s will come with a back-up camera. EX and above add Honda’s Lane Watch camera on the right-side mirror.

Honda claims that 63 percent of the people who have purchased a CR-V, Element or Pilot SUV bought another Honda the next time they shopped for a vehicle. With that kind of return rate, the “gateway” part of the HR-V equation comes into sharper focus.

The company predicts that HR-V buyers will present one of the broadest demographic ranges among its vehicles, from Millennials endowed by parents to empty nesters in search of a motor home tow-along. Half of them should be new to the brand. The planners at Honda HQ in Torrance, Calif., expect about 70,000 HR-V sales the first full year of production.

That equals sales of the Subaru XV Crosstrek in 2014, or just 20 percent of CR-V volume. Competition for small SUV buyers is bound to increase with each passing season, but given the product, the brand and the timing, 70,000 projected sales seems to undervalue the HR-V drug.

Honda HRV detail gallery and review

How’s it drive?

Unfortunately, we didn’t drive it enough; we barely squealed a tire in passion, and then only in an empty parking lot. The drive opportunity came straight, flat and largely bogged with traffic.

It might not matter anyway. Many buyers will routinely drive the HR-V as we did in south Florida, and we doubt Americans bought 335,000 CR-Vs in 2014 based on that SUV’s transient dynamics at the limit of grip. It’s reasonable to think entry-crossover buyers are looking for reliably economic transport in whatever circumstances they might encounter, with as much utility as they can afford. They’d probably like their  vehicle to reflect some sense of style, and maybe to instill a feeling of well-being when they’re in the driver’s seat. If that’s true, the HR-V fills the bill. 

The electric steering assist delivers even, nicely weighted feel. The HR V’s body stays level enough under a moderate G load to achieve that intangible “sporty” feeling manufacturers seek, but the ride is never rigid. The suspension is compliant enough for smooth, low-noise urban operation. The solid axle in back is neither bouncy nor particularly clunky. The empty parking lot demonstrated that it takes a lot of throttle and a pretty good load on the front tires to get the HR-V plowing in an obvious fashion.

Honda HRV rear driving

The pilot production cars we tested weren’t up to familiar Honda build quality, based on the fit of the body seams, but the HR-V’s unibody is tight and less prone to vibration than some competitors. Its 1.8-liter four is so smooth and quiet at idle that we initially thought the HR-V might be equipped with start/stop (it isn’t). Overall refinement ranks high. The HR-V is coarser than the grade-up CR-V, but quieter than a Fit, and smoother than a Nissan Juke.

Scoot? The HR-V weighs from 65 to 350 pounds less than other vehicles in its class, despite its expansive interior volume, and that helps. With hard throttle, it’s not as kicky as a Juke or a Countryman turbo, but it’s livelier than an Encore. The 1.8 works in familiar Honda style, which means it’s snarly and nice to listen to in long wind-ups, but still smooth. And it loves revs. The meaty torque doesn’t come until almost 4,000 rpm, and the 1.8 remains eagerly pleasing all the way to the 6,700-rpm redline.

The CVT just squeezes a lot of joy out of a nice little engine. Honda’s remains one of the better CVTs offered, and the control logic is further improved in this one. In certain, limited circumstances the HR-V feels almost like it has a conventional automatic, but that only makes us dislike CVTs slightly less. The only way to banish that stretchy, droning sensation is to work the CVT steps manually just about all the time, and if one plans to do that there’s no reason to choose the CVT to begin with.

It’s a minority opinion, perhaps, but in the HR-V we’d forgo the all-wheel-drive to keep the manual (and maybe our sanity). We’re enormously pleased that Honda offers a manual to begin with, because even in this class it’s no longer a given. The GM twins and the forthcoming Mazda CX-3 do not have a manual option.

2016 Honda HR-V EX interior

From the front seats, the HR-V will feel familiar to anyone who’s been in a Fit, only nicer. The three-dial instrument cluster is identical, with a big speedo in the center, tach on the left and a selectable display on the right with a range of useful information. The audio touch interface on the center-stack screen is identical, too. Higher trim HR-Vs get automatic climate control with touch operation, as opposed to the Fit’s big, round mechanical knobs. The HR-V LX keeps the knobs, which probably work more efficiently anyway.

And even with the similarities, the HR-V is generally finished more lavishly than a Fit. Most plastics have a softer touch. There’s more brushed chrome and a broader splash of piano-black trim. The HR-V’s high center console, with sliding armrest and a good-sized storage box, adds a feeling of substance. All seats are manually operated, and while that doesn’t bother us, it might bother some potential buyers. The standard three-mode back-up camera (top view, normal or wide) is one of the best in any vehicle. 

Honda HRV rearview camera and display

If you’re expecting Fit in the back seat (that’s a space efficient little fella in its own right), you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the HR-V. The extra knee and head room is immediately obvious, and there’s more hip and shoulder room, too. The rear seat itself is more than an afterthought—firm, contoured and supportive, with headrests that lower completely to open the driver’s rear view.

Then there’s the flexibility built into the rear seat. The bottoms can fold up against the back, leaving space to stand taller items like a large houseplant or table lamp behind the front seats. The seatbacks fold flat (literally flat), 60/40, with a fairly even edge to the cargo floor and a couple of tie-downs to keep things from sliding. The front passenger seat slides far enough forward that its back can recline down to the edge of the folded rear seat. That leaves uninterrupted length for narrower items like 2x4s from the tailgate all the way to the passenger foot well.

In cargo volume, the HR-V tops the class (though Mazda has not published numbers for the forthcoming CX-3). With 24.3 cubic feet behind the rear seat back and 58.8 with the seat folded, the HR-V surpasses its nearest competitor by 29 percent (seat up) and 16 percent (seat down).  

2016 Honda HR-V rear seats folded up

Do I want it?

Do you want a little Honda SUV? We boldly predict that there are many, many thousands of car buyers who do.

Presumably these people want the same thing as CR-V buyers. They just have less cash to get started. They want a vehicle that fills every role—economical commuting, easy parking, functionality for a camping trip, space for the dog or a couple of kids or friends—and they don’t want the vehicle to bore them. They’d like it to seem sort of cool, and they don’t want to fear the elements.

The HR-V gets it all done, and it will be doing it while other big, go-to manufacturers like Toyota, Ford and Hyundai aren’t yet an option. Whether you want it or not, we’re having a hard time finding reasons to think the HR-V can go wrong.

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