It wasn’t too long ago that the station wagon was the most popular way to transport people and their things. Sadly, as is the case with most segments in the auto industry, people’s tastes changed, and suddenly station wagon was out, and the minivan was in. The minivan ruled the roost until sport utility vehicles became all the rage, but just as quickly as SUVs became popular, the crossover took its place.
The station wagon never lost any of its practicality, but to most people, there’s still nothing cool or hip about station wagons. Large wagons, small wagons, and even hatchbacks still suffer from that uncool reputation. Yes, they sell better in Europe, but in America, if they were ever going to sell again, station wagons needed a reboot. Enter the subcompact crossover.
Purported to be a crossover SUV but smaller, it’s hard to stand next to these miniature crossovers and not get the sense that they’re a modern interpretation of the wagon with more ground clearance and a more upright seating position. Take the BMW X1, for instance. To the untrained eye, it could very easily be mistaken for a 3 Series Sports Wagon. Actual wagons still don’t sell well in the United States, but the lift and SUV-like styling has these subcompact SUVs selling like hotcakes.
Not content to miss out on the party, Honda has its own version ready to go, the HR-V. A size smaller than the Honda CR-V, the HR-V is actually more closely related to the tiny Honda Fit. I got a chance to drive the 2016 Honda HR-V down in Miami recently, and based on my first impressions, it looks like Honda has another hit on its hands.
Visually, Honda says that its goal with the HR-V is to combine sporty, coupe-like styling with the toughness and utility of an SUV. Chasing a younger, more active buyer requires a car with style, and while the HR-V probably won’t necessarily be mistaken for a coupe, the design is still quite attractive. The character line that starts behind the front wheels and sweeps up to meet the C-pillar is particularly nice. The rear door handles are integrated into the C-pillar as well, which smooths out the design, but they also serve a functional purpose, as I found they made the doors easy to open. The front, meanwhile, has a bit of a feline-esque look to it. Your impressions may vary, but I think it fits with the HR-V’s focus on fun.
The added ride height gives the HR-V 6.7 inches of ground clearance, which is probably enough for basic soft-roading, but it also means that the seats are extremely easy to get in and out of. You don’t sit down in the HR-V as much as you just slide in and out. It’s an often-overlooked convenience, but it’s a convenience nonetheless.
Despite sharing a platform with the Fit, the HR-V doesn’t share its interior with the Fit. It’s very clearly a Honda interior, and it doesn’t do anything too out of the ordinary for the brand, but it still has its own look and feel, which helps the HR-V feel like its a unique vehicle in the Honda lineup. Everything you touch feels high quality, most of the plastics are soft-touch, and the controls aren’t hidden or overly complicated.
Directly in front of you, the steering wheel feels good in your hands, and even after several hours of driving, it still felt good. The leather-wrapped version on the top-end EX-L Navi model felt the best, but lower-spec models were still comfortable. Steering wheel controls are logical to use and handle the basics like cruise control, Bluetooth calling, and the audio system. The gauges are straightforward and easy to read as well, which is exactly what you would expect from Honda.
Infotainment, meanwhile, is handled by either a 5-inch LCD screen or a 7-inch touchscreen. If you can afford it, the touchscreen is probably worth it, and while I could probably find some complaints about the infotainment system if I spent more time with the HR-V in the future, initial impressions are fairly positive. Simplicity is the key to a good infotainment system, and the basics of getting to the navigation system, pairing your phone, and listening to music are simple enough.
The HR-V’s climate controls are probably going to be the most controversial feature on the car. Honda decided to forego traditional buttons and knobs in favor of an electrostatic touchscreen. It’s bright, simple, and easy to understand, but you can’t operate the controls without taking your eyes off the road. The electric parking brake will also probably be controversial for some buyers, but eliminating a traditional parking brake keeps the design clean and modern. Other than in one of the cup holders, there’s also no good place to put your phone while driving. It’s a minor annoyance, but it’s an annoyance nonetheless.
The HR-V’s biggest asset, though, is definitely its utility. Even if I couldn’t find a logical place to put my phone, there are quite a number of other storage areas in the cabin, making it a very good car to stash things in. The best part is that Honda borrowed the Fit’s “Magic Seats” for the HR-V, which means the seats are nearly infinitely configurable. About the only way you can’t fold the second row seats is sideways. Other than that, you can fold them up, you can fold them flat, and you can even fold the front passenger seat back nearly flat. That means the HR-V can carry anything from a house plant to a surfboard. The 60/40 split means the back seats can be moved independently of each other too, further adding to the HR-V’s flexibility.
Much like with the cabin, there aren’t too many surprises with the driving experience either. The HR-V’s 1.8 liter, four-cylinder engine fires up with a push of the start button and makes 141 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. It doesn’t have enough grunt to blow anyone away, but it will be plenty quick for most people’s needs. An HR-V Si could be a fun idea, but the engineer who I talked to didn’t seem to think it was likely to happen.
That’s OK though, because while the HR-V won’t be winning any drag races, it does deliver surprisingly good fuel economy. When paired with a continually variable transmission, the front-wheel-drive model is rated at 35 miles per gallon on the highway, 28 miles per gallon in the city, and 31 miles per gallon combined. Choosing all-wheel-drive or the manual transmission will knock a few miles per gallon off of those numbers but not many.
Speaking of the manual transmission, the HR-V offers one as an option for driving enthusiasts who still want to shift their own gears. Honda’s manual transmissions are known for being some of the best in the world, and while the clutch is both light and vague, shifts are smooth, and it’s incredibly easy to drive. The CVT will probably end up being far and away the most popular version, but it’s nice that Honda is still offering a manual transmission as an option.
On the road, the HR-V doesn’t have many surprises and instead drives exactly like you expect a Honda to drive. It’s comfortable, quiet, composed, and easy to drive. Its handling isn’t quite what I would call sporty, but it makes up for that by being enjoyable to drive for several hours at a time. Honda Lane Watch, a feature that uses a passenger-side camera to display a wide-angle view of the road on the infotainment screen, is surprisingly useful when changing lanes.
There are plenty of other safety features as well, from a rear-view camera to traction control, stability control, and anti-lock brakes. Those safety features, when paired with the HR-V’s easy-to-drive nature and excellent expected reliability, are going to make it a tempting buy for parents looking to put their teens in a good first car. It’s also probably a great choice for young professionals looking for a car that offers a lot of features for their money.
The Honda HR-V isn’t the only vehicle in its class, though, and most of them offer a long list of features at a good price. The Nissan Juke is the oddball in the segment, and anyone looking for something quirky or unique is probably going to be swayed in Nissan’s direction. For buyers who want to go off-road, there’s competition from both the Jeep Renegade and the Subaru XV Crosstrek. Both vehicles offer better off-road capability than the HR-V, and they also come from brands with a strong reputation for outdoor adventure.
The Honda HR-V is dialed in perfectly for the average buyer though. It’s a vehicle that owners will have fun doing things in, it will be able to handle the vast majority of beach trips, camping trips, and mountain getaways that owners will go one, and at the same time, it offers the kind of refinement and reliability that will make it a pleasant vehicle to own on a day-to-day basis. The HR-V also starts at $19,115 and tops out at $25,840, making it surprisingly affordable for the number of features and level of refinement it offers.
It certainly has some competition, but when the 2016 Honda HR-V goes on sale in the middle of May, you better get used to seeing them around because Honda is going to be selling a lot of HR-Vs.