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2016 Honda HR-V Test Drive Review
Sales of small SUVs and crossovers are growing aggressively. Honda has jumped into the fray with its new 2016 HR-V, which fits into the lineup below the well-respected CR-V. Does Honda lose anything by shrinking its successful formula to fit into a new niche?
Look and Feel
The 2016 Honda HR-V is a new compact crossover that happily owns up to its mission as a car-based, SUV-influenced flavor of the month. People are flocking to this class of vehicle, and every automaker is frantically trying to meet the demand. The HR-V looks exactly like a Honda should. Based on the Fit hatchback, the HR-V is handsomely styled, with creases that bend reflections, creating the illusion of a larger vehicle without the actual size. The HR-V simply looks fantastic, with a restrained exterior design free of any forced elements. More than once during my time with it, the smaller HR-V was confused for its larger CR-V brother.
HR-V trim levels are LX, EX, and EX-L with Navigation. Base prices are tightly grouped between $19,000 and $25,000. Front-wheel drive (FWD) with a 6-speed manual transmission is the standard configuration, with a shift-free continuously variable transmission (CVT) available as an option. All HR-Vs with Honda’s Real Time all-wheel-drive (AWD) system use the CVT.
Standard features for the HR-V LX include a rear-view camera, the Fit’s “Magic Seat” 60/40 split second row, 17-inch alloy wheels, and an audio system that includes a 5-inch color LCD, Bluetooth for hands-free calling and music streaming, and USB connectivity. The niceties all new car buyers want are standard, including air conditioning with filtration, cruise control with steering-wheel-mounted buttons, power windows, and a tilt and telescopic steering column.
While the LX comfortably covers the basics with features to spare, the HR-V EX steps up the game with more convenience and comfort features. Comfort is covered by the EX trim’s standard automatic climate control, rear privacy glass, power moonroof, and heated front seats. Increased convenience comes by way of the dynamic guidelines for the rear-camera display, push-button start, automatic headlights, variable intermittent wipers, and heated exterior mirrors. The HR-V EX also carries an upgraded audio system with a 7-inch WVGA touchscreen, dual USB ports, and 180 watts powering 6 speakers.
Fully loaded, the HR-V EX-L with Navigation serves up nearly luxury-car levels of features and refinement. The recipe is this: Take everything available with the HR-V EX and add roof rails outside, leather-trimmed seats inside, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and the Honda satellite-linked navigation system with traffic information and voice recognition.
Performance is a relative term at this end of the market. Rather than racing, it’s more about efficiency and flexibility. Being based on Honda’s exceptional Fit, expectations for the HR-V were high. The HR-V's fuel-economy estimates are 28 mpg city/35 highway, significantly lower than the Fit’s 33/41 ratings. They're still good, but you might reasonably expect better. Part of the drop can be attributed to the aerodynamic penalty for the taller overall height of the HR-V, but on the plus side, the Fit returned 33 mpg combined during my test.
The engine for all HR-V models is a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder that generates 141 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. It’s smooth, even when revving up to its 6,500-rpm horsepower peak. Full torque peaks at 4,300 rpm, but the CVT is paired very well with the engine, and the powertrain response is strong and satisfying from stops up to highway speeds. All-out acceleration or hairy passing maneuvers are not the HR-V’s strong suit, but for most people in most driving situations, there’s more than enough reserve power. The CVT kept the engine turning calmly during highway drives; 70 mph is roughly 2,000 rpm.
In the winter months, the HR-V's AWD is a welcome confidence booster. Conditions were dry and warm during my time with the HR-V, so no traction challenges were encountered. The design of the AWD system will make it unobtrusive, anyway, with the HR-V defaulting to FWD until slippage occurs. All HR-V models are linked to the road by 17-inch wheels and tires.
Like the Fit it’s based on, the HR-V is rewarding to drive. The ride is disciplined and feels expensive. It’s a sensation of careful chassis tuning that feels expensive from behind the wheel, the kind of balance you’d expect from a premium vehicle. Cornering is competent, though the body rolls enough to encourage you to cool it. Braking is responsive and easy to control with small changes in pressure on the firm pedal. It’s not all sporty reflexes and driving bliss, however. The electric power steering doesn’t communicate the load on the front tires, and the manual shift paddles for the CVT deliver suggestions to the gearbox, rather than commands. It’s less frustrating to just leave it in Drive and be less aggressive.
During the laps of the daily commute, the HR-V’s well-tuned ride and handling combine with a quiet cabin environment for an overall feeling of luxury and refinement, especially in EX-L trim. If you like to drive, you’ll enjoy the HR-V, and even if you don’t, it’s a fairly serene, commuter-friendly place to spend time. The expectation of a trouble-free Honda ownership experience is underscored by 100,000-mile tuneup intervals, too.
Form and Function
For all the talk about this new class of compact crossovers, keep in mind that all cars have grown significantly over the last decade. In fact, the HR-V is almost exactly the same size as the original CR-V of the late 1990s. It delivers much of the same charms, as well. The front and rear seats have good space, and the HR-V's 24 cubic feet of cargo area is among the largest in the class.
In contrast to the airy feel of that first CR-V, the HR-V’s raked windshield and curved roofline cut into headroom for taller occupants. Some of the cubbies and storage spaces throughout the interior are on the small side, limiting usefulness. The interior has a cockpit feel for the driver, and the overall small size of the HR-V can make it cozy. For some drivers or passengers, it’s going to feel too cozy.
The main controls are well-located, though secondary controls will likely require some time to become familiar. There are some trouble spots, too. The ventilation system uses some touch-sensitive elements, such as temperature and fan speed, and these can be distracting to use, because they don’t offer any tactile feedback and can be unresponsive. The same applies to the integrated audio/navigation system, but worse. The system doesn’t even have a volume knob, but a featureless area for control on a flat touchscreen.
Materials quality is high. In the EX-L, the seats are trimmed in leather, and the dashboard has a padded area in front of the passenger. The quality of materials is high, and the stitching, graining, and assembly quality is what you’d expect from a brand with Honda’s reputation.
The biggest area of deficiency in all modern Honda vehicles is the audio/navigation/communication interface. Drivers use these functions more than anything other than the blinkers, which makes it even more frustrating when things don’t work as elegantly as they should. The HR-V does have a good-looking list of features, including navigation that can include traffic information, a 180-watt audio system with satellite radio, Bluetooth, Pandora integration, and the connectivity system called HondaLink Next Generation. With this smartphone integration platform, you can add functionality with exclusive HondaLink apps. The system also has SMS text-message capabilities.
Actually using those features, though, can be frustrating. The in-car touchscreen is often unresponsive and offers little feedback. It’s especially difficult to use while driving; it will distract you more than systems in other vehicles. Even something as simple as adjusting the radio volume requires accurate aim on the featureless touchscreen. Luckily for that function, the steering wheel has a redundant control, but using the navigation or switching sources and apps can take your eyes and attention off the road for far too long. It’s the same story as the ventilation system controls, only worse. Using the voice control is just another kind of distraction.
The HR-V carries an overall 5-star safety rating from the U.S. Government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Insurance Industry for Highway Safety hasn’t yet tested the HR-V. The standard rear-view camera, brake assist, and vehicle stability assist systems fill out the active safety gear. There are other touches that enhance safety as well. The HR-V uses Honda’s ACE body structure design, which channels crash energy around occupants, an expanded-view driver’s side rear-view mirror, and the optional Honda LaneWatch camera system.
The difficulty you face when using the infotainment system is a significant safety problem, however. Even LaneWatch, which displays an image on the LCD from a camera mounted in the passenger-side mirror when you activate the blinker, takes getting used to, and it trains you to rely on it instead of properly adjusting your rear-view mirrors to eliminate blind spots. As owners get more familiar with their HR-Vs, they will likely have less trouble figuring out the system, but the basic design has flaws that require too much attention to use while driving. The same mistakes are repeated to a lesser degree with the climate-control system, giving drivers a double whammy of distraction.
The HR-V gets fuel economy close to, or even above, its combined ratings. In FWD trim, that’s 31 mpg, and AWD HR-Vs are rated at 29 mpg combined. The 33 mpg I observed was pretty good commuting economy, but there are other vehicles that offer more space and economy for the same price. Even the Toyota Prius is priced within striking distance of the HR-V, though that’s admittedly an entirely different class of vehicle.
Among its class, the HR-V LX and its $19,100 starting price are attractive, but the class just keeps getting more and more competitive. The Hyundai Tucson has a higher starting price but offers more features, a more powerful engine, and can be equipped with tech that’s easier to use. That’s the same story for the related Kia Sportage. The HR-V is larger than the similarly inexpensive Chevrolet Trax, but again, the competition's tech is better.
Fuel economy isn’t the only reason to go with a compact crossover, and on those points—driving enjoyment, useful space, quality, and reliability—the HR-V is a good bet. If you can ignore the infotainment system, or get comfortable using the voice control, then the HR-V does a lot to recommend itself.
Dan Roth is a Boston-based automotive journalist who’s been writing about cars for a decade. A parallel career as a video producer and creative professional helped open the door to car writing in 2006, when he started working with Autoblog on its long-running podcast and producing videos. Dan has been fascinated with cars his whole life, leading to a large collection of tools, a driveway that houses a broken Volvo, and many sketchbooks filled with designs for his own cars that will never get built.
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