You may have noticed Honda beginning to exit the design doldrums, at least so far as its mainstream cars are concerned.
In the electric Honda E, it has created perhaps the most distinctive-looking city car since the original Smart, and even the new Jazz possesses an authentic kei-car charm that the old version utterly lacked. These cars, although of considerably lowlier petrolhead status, today sit more comfortably in the showroom alongside the instantly recognisable personalities of Honda’s sports cars – the NSX and the Civic Type R.
The most recent model to receive its makeover is the HR-V, the hitherto anonymous crossover that’s nevertheless something of an engine room for Honda in terms of global sales volumes. This car lives in the same class as the likes of the Renault Captur, Peugeot 2008 and Hyundai Kona, although its main rivals are the Nissan Qashqai and Volkswagen T-Roc. It’s an overpopulated class, with no shortage of competition for the HR-V, which is why Honda has pulled out quite a few stops for its coupé-mimicking crossover.
Other than the surprisingly sleek design, which we’ll come onto in a moment, the third-generation HR-V is now hybrid only, as denoted by the ‘e:HEV’ element of its name. It drives like an EV at town speeds but uses its engine alone on the motorway to maximise efficiency and it blends the two on routes that fall somewhere in the middle. It follows the hybrid-only Jazz in this sense, and the HR-V is perhaps Honda’s most important step to date on its path to electrifying all of its European mainstream models by 2022.
Honda isn’t just targeting a fresh aesthetic and exceptional efficiency with this car, either. It also claims this car has class-leading packaging and cabin comfort, and as if all that wasn’t ambitious enough, the HR-V has also been “engineered for the joy of driving”. Just how much of that rings true? Let’s find out.
The Honda HR-V line-up at a glance
The old HR-V was available with either a 1.5-litre petrol or a 1.6-litre diesel, although neither has been carried over to the new model, which is offered with Honda’s new hybrid powertrain only.
There are, however, three trim levels, rising from Elegance to Advance to Advance Style. All models come with Honda’s ‘Magic Seats’ – the highly adaptable folding rear bench – and parking sensors, but only on the higher two trims do you find LED lights, a powered tailgate, wireless phone charging and the premium audio system.
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The HR-V e:HEV is unrecognisable from the car it replaces. The footprint is mostly unchanged – this crossover continues to take up as much space on the road as a Volkswagen Golf – but the silhouette is markedly different, shedding the MPV-like style for something with an unmistakable snout (note also the bolt-upright grille) and the same sloping rear glass we’ve recently seen on the premium likes of the Polestar 2 and BMW X4.
Honda has also lowered the roof line but raised the ride height, and shortened the front overhang while elongating that of the rear. There are fewer creases in the body, too, although what lines exist are now more powerful and, together with punchy wheel-arch cladding, help dramatically to redefine the HR-V’s outward character. Along with its new lighting, including an unbroken rear light bar, the Honda is now a match for the more memorable-looking cars in the class – the Peugeot 2008 in particular.
The car is much changed beneath the skin as well, with just one hybrid powertrain now offered. It takes a similar form to that made famous by the Toyota Prius, although the systems are not exactly the same in practice. The HR-V’s hybrid set-up consists of a four-cylinder 1.5-litre Atkinson cycle engine that alone develops 106bhp but is paired with an electric drive motor for a combined total of 129bhp.
The electric motor can power the car alone at lower speeds, courtesy of a battery pack that sits beneath the boot floor, and makes 129bhp all on its own. But the engine can also drive the car alone, connecting directly to the front wheels via a clutch that engages for more efficient high-speed cruising. The two sources unite in Hybrid mode, which is used for maximum performance, and so that the engine can at times charge the battery via a second generator motor. This arrangement is the same one found in the Jazz, albeit with more power and 25% more battery capacity.
The HR-V also uses a lower ratio for its fixed-gear e-CVT, which helps improve performance.
The car uses Honda’s Global Small Platform, which is considerably stiffer than the previous HR-V’s. The steering column is also said to be 15% more rigid than before, which bodes well for the driving experience.
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Ergonomics are the HR-V’s strong suit: visibility and the positioning of all the various controls are better than average in this class, and with the ‘Magic Seats’ fitted, second-row space is exceptional in terms of leg room, if not quite so impressive for head room.
Even the air vents have been redesigned to simulate the effect of a gentle breeze, rather than targeting a stream of air into one specific area of the cockpit.
Aesthetically, the cabin is also just about closer in feel to that of the characterful Honda E than the staid Jazz. There are numerous soft-touch finishes in here and some welcome colour (although you won’t find as much variety in lower-spec cars as in our Advance Style example, whose combi-leather seats are particularly fetching).
It feels fresh and modern but Honda has nevertheless decided to retain physical buttons, switches and dials for most of the major controls, which is helpful. Perceived quality is also strong, although we could do without the tall and distinctly old-fashioned gearlever, which clutters up the centre console unnecessarily and feels quite cheap to the touch. Overall, the Honda probably betters the Qashqai in this respect but falls short of what Mazda has achieved with the elegant CX-30.
As for the Magic Seats, you might be wondering what exactly they are. By moving the car’s fuel tank to the front portion of the chassis, and finding an extra 30mm of room between the rows of seats, Honda has freed up a large amount of space in the floor of the second row. It means that the rear seatbacks can be folded perfectly flat, as the bases can slip right down to the floor. Equally, the bases can flip upwards, cinema-style, to create an unusually tall load space that will accommodate a bicycle or large television. It gives the HR-V class-leading versatility in this respect, although outright boot space with the second-row seatbacks in place is relatively poor at just 319 litres. (Even this drops to 304 litres in Advance Style trim, because of the additional sound system speakers.)
Honda HR-V infotainment and sat-nav
All HR-Vs use the same 9.0in central infotainment touchscreen, which sits on the dashboard but doesn’t in any way impinge on the driver’s view forward. The graphics are passably sharp and the arrangement of menus straightforward, but our testers much preferred to hook up their smartphones and take advantage of the car’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The mirroring set-up slickly fills the entire width of the screen, and changes between, say, Spotify and any navigation apps you might use, can be quickly executed.
Honda owners will also benefit from the physical rotary volume controller to the side of the screen, although the volume can also be adjusted via the multifunction steering wheel.
The provision of USB-C ports is also good, so long as you take a trim level above the basic Elegance. For Advance and Advance Style, the two ports in the front are joined by two more in the back.
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We liked the 1.6-litre i-DTEC diesel engine fitted to the previous HR-V and not because of the performance it enabled. Almost 11sec to 60mph was slow back in 2015 and looks even slower six years later. However, this old-world engine never seemed anything less than on top of its brief, and well suited to the car’s role.
The HR-V’s new hybrid petrol-electric set-up makes less torque than the old diesel but fires the car to 60mph appreciably quicker – in just 9.2sec, according to our telemetry, marking one notable improvement. Thanks to the electric drive motor, throttle response is also better than ever.
Properly plant the accelerator pedal and the initial electric-driven surge of forward motion quickly fades to reveal very modest outright acceleration through the mid-range once the engine joins the fray, but for the kind of everyday manoeuvring most HR-V owners will engage in, those small bursts of responsiveness are satisfying enough. Under light loads, this engine is also decently refined – certainly more so than either the petrol or diesel units of the old HR-V – and on lower-speed routes, it fires up and shuts down in mostly inconspicuous fashion. For something of the HR-V’s ilk, this powertrain is fit for purpose.
What it doesn’t do is justify the sporting claims Honda makes for its new crossover in much of the literature. With its 1.2-litre triple, the similarly priced Peugeot 2008 is around a second quicker to 60mph, as is CX-30 when equipped with Mazda’s mild-hybrid 2.0-litre e-Skyactiv X engine. And if the Honda is off the pace objectively, it’s also unsatisfactory in subjective terms, should you ever need to exploit the car’s full 129bhp and 187lb ft.
The power delivery is characterised by the e-CVT set-up, with the engine loudly holding high revs. The level of noise generated and the sensation of acceleration experienced are totally out of kilter, which makes the HR-V feel even more frustratingly slow than it is in the first place.
One thing our testers did like was the broad range of regenerative braking settings accessible via the paddles mounted on the steering wheel. They’re useful and play nicely into the HR-V’s sense of quiet, neat competence when you’re not taking the powertrain out of its comfort zone.
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There isn’t an awful lot to say about the way the HR-V handles and, in a class better known for its handling-related foibles than its triumphs, perhaps that’s a good thing. Dependability is clearly what Honda has aimed for here and, in fairness, this is an extremely dependable car.
The light steering is geared in a way that it never makes the car feel nervous and yet it’s hardly a problem to get the bluff nose turned in to bends with a good level of accuracy. Neither is this helm hopelessly inert: there’s some ebb and flow to the weight as cornering forces build then dissipate, and although it isn’t enough to actively enjoy, it does impart some confidence.
Another pleasant surprise is that while the spring rates are clearly lower and more forgiving than you’d find with many cars possessing the taller body of a crossover, the new HR-V doesn’t pitch and roll uncomfortably. Instead, the rate of roll is well matched with the speed of the steering, so while the handling is nose led and stout rather than agile, the car can be hustled along B-roads, carrying good speed, without coming unstuck. Admittedly, to carry good speed, and keep on carrying it, you’ll need to leave the accelerator pedal in the pile of carpet, but do so and the chassis copes admirably with most things the road ahead can throw at it.
Alas, this is not in any way a fun car to drive, and there’s more satisfaction to be had at the wheel of the Mazda CX-30 in particular. What the HR-V does well is to remain composed, rather than entertain. It grips well and absorbs the road beneath it while never seeming to interact much with it.
In the official literature, Honda draws a line between the HR-V’s hybrid powertrain and the engine it supplies for the Red Bull Racing Formula 1 team, so it was only right that we took to Millbrook’s Hill Route in this new model.
Unsurprisingly, the car was out of its depth so far as true precision and pace were concerned. This engine is simply too weak to propel even the HR-V’s reasonably low mass along at any meaningful speed, and the perched driving position doesn’t exactly imbue the driver with confidence. As for Sport mode, which supposedly sharpens the throttle response, any real difference it makes is so slight as to be negligible.
And yet the little-ish Honda cuts quite a neat figure on this course – albeit also a very slow one. It isn’t hampered by excessive roll, and the light steering has a natural weighting and good accuracy for this kind of car. Grip levels are fine and you can happily hustle the car along, carrying as much speed as possible.
Ride comfort and isolation
The current CR-V shows that Honda knows how to make a fine-riding crossover, and the smaller new HR-V is mostly slick and refined on the move, neither rolling too generously nor labouring the road surface in order to retain control.
Pliancy is good, and although its 18in wheels are the largest yet fitted to the model, their diameter is offset by the tyres’ generous sidewall, which provides a good level of cushioning. Road roar also only becomes an issue on particularly choppy surfaces, and although our microphones show that the HR-V isn’t in absolute terms unusually quiet at a cruise by the standards of the class, it certainly feels so to the human ear – and backside. There is, of course, also the fact that the HR-V starts every journey as an almost silent EV and will sustain all-electric running for surprisingly long distances for something without a plug and a large drive battery.
The flip side to the car’s general refinement is the powertrain’s lack of manners under heavier loads. This can be avoided quite easily if you treat the HR-V as something with no sporting pretensions whatsoever, although it’s inevitable that at some point you will need to overtake slower traffic or pull out of a junction and quickly get up to speed, and at that moment the car’s sense of serenity will be left in tatters.
The decision to house the fuel tank beneath the front seats also gives the HR-V an unusually perched driving position, which makes for excellent forward visibility but can feel vaguely agricultural over longer distances. Adjustability in the driving position is otherwise good, at least, and the cabin materials are of sufficient perceived quality to impart some level of luxury.
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The HR-V looks to be quite expensive, but once standard equipment is taken into account, it’s well aligned with class alternatives such as the Qashqai. Even the entry-level Elegance model comes with heated front seats, adaptive cruise control, a reversing camera and parking sensors, as well as smartphone mirroring.
Even so, we’d spend a little more and opt for mid-range Advance. It adds a heated leather steering wheel, powered tailgate and some other useful amenities. The extra £2500 required to go from here to range-topping Advance Style isn’t necessarily worthwhile in light of the very average sound quality of the upgraded speaker system it brings, and the fact that the other additions are mostly cosmetic. However, wireless phone charging is a useful addition with Advance Style that’s not included with either of the other two trim levels.
As for efficiency, with its new powertrain, the HR-V puts in a reasonable but not groundbreaking performance. The car’s touring economy – what you can expect to see on the motorway – failed to break the 50mpg mark, although because of the way the powertrain works, with a heavy preference for all-electric running at lower speeds, the average test fuel economy across a range of driving environments wasn’t far off that mark. At our 44.5mpg test average, you can expect to go roughly 400 miles between fill-ups of the 40-litre petrol tank.
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Honda’s slick reinvention of its junior crossover hits plenty of high notes: the HR-V e:HEV is memorable-looking, has a cabin that majors on versatility and passenger space, and the car’s sole hybrid powertrain returns good fuel efficiency in a broad range of driving environments.
This Qashqai rival is also inoffensive to drive and rides well, yet it is not totally devoid of character from behind the wheel, and it comes generously equipped as standard, which mostly justifies the strong asking price. However, not being totally devoid of dynamic character does not equal ‘good to drive’.
There’s daylight between the sense of quiet driving satisfaction that more agile alternatives such as the Mazda CX-30 and even the Skoda Karoq give, and what the HR-V musters. Its powertrain is also under-endowed when it comes to brute propulsive force and quickly becomes unacceptably strained when anything more than modest acceleration is called for.
It’s more for these reasons that the HR-V doesn’t trouble our class leaders, even though its efficiency, style and ergonomics – small boot notwithstanding – ought to give it plenty of appeal among crossover shoppers.