Two years ago Honda hadn’t even staked their claim in the burgeoning subcompact SUV category, but after its first full year of availability the HR-V shot up to second place in the U.S. market with 82,041 sales, only beaten by the similarly fresh Jeep Renegade that managed a class-dominating 106,606 units in its first full year.
The same scenario is playing out in calendar year 2017, with 53,027 Renegades and 46,628 HR-Vs sold by the close of Q2, with the rest of the market segment including Buick’s Encore at 42,331 units, Chevy’s Trax at 36,931 (these two badge-engineered models actually combining for 53,314 deliveries, giving GM the overall lead in the category), Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport at 15,066 sales, Mazda’s CX-3 at 7,611, Nissan’s Juke at 7,245, Mini’s Countryman at 6,364, Toyota’s new C-HR at 5,498 (and it’s only been here since April), and Fiat’s 500X at 3,980.
Just why Jeep’s Renegade is number one and Fiat’s 500X is so unloved is difficult to surmise, especially when considering they’re mostly the same under the skin, but more importantly (to anyone but Fiat dealers) will be how well the C-HR integrates into this growing market (so far it’s not a threat to the Renegade or HR-V), but two new entries that will soon come online might be. One is the new Rogue Sport that slots in between the tiny Juke compact Rogue, the latter SUV now numero uno in its much more established category with 195,689 sales as of Q2 2017, and the other is Ford’s EcoSport that’s done well in other markets and should become a major player here. I can just imagine the impishly badass Renegade and equally impertinent HR-V saying something like, “Bring it on!”
The C-HR makes the subcompact SUV class 10 competitors deep, while the Rogue Sport and EcoSport will make it an even dozen when they arrive later this year. Consider for a moment that calendar year 2014 only found five challengers in this category, while there were just four competing in 2013 and only three going head-to-head in 2010 (the Juke, Outlander Sport and Mini Countryman in case you were wondering). That two newcomers have managed to steal most of the thunder is shocking, but then again much of that equation will make a whole lot of sense to anyone who’s spent time with the amazingly practical little HR-V.
From the outside it’s difficult to figure out exactly which trim level you’re driving, mostly because the HR-V is so nicely featured in base trim. All get fitted with the same sizable 17-inch five-spoke alloys on 215/55 all-seasons, body-colored side mirrors, and body-colored rear rooftop spoiler, while the headlights are multi-reflector halogens and taillights filled with LEDs. Lastly, matte-finish black plastic cladding trims out the lower front fascia, wheel arch edges, side skirts, and the bottom half of the rear bumper in typical SUV fashion. The move up to EX adds circular fog lamps up front and LED turn signals within the side mirror housings, while the top-line EX-L Navi gets a set of silver roof rails to make it stand out.
Buyers in this class seem to love or loathe the HR-V’s styling, a theme that I’ve witnessed firsthand while living a week at a time with Honda’s latest designs. People are either enamored with the modern, edgy, origami look or they won’t be caught dead in one, which is certainly a different strategy than the mainstream volume brand has played for most of its existence. I’ve always loved Honda’s engineering, but been lulled to sleep by its styling, so I can hardly complain after they’ve spiced things up. I can’t say I’m in the enamored camp, but I’m hardly frothing at the mouth in rabid rage either. To me it’s not as handsome as the aforementioned CX-3, but nothing in the class is. The stylish Mazda is one of the best to drive too, but if forced to decide between styling and performance or overall practicality, I’d probably lean towards the latter as so many others have.
Instead of talking up the HR-V’s innovatively flexible interior design right now, I wouldn’t want to leave you wondering if there’s something wrong with the way it drives. While not the segment’s sportiest it’s still plenty enjoyable, Honda purposely choosing to make the HR-V one of the more comfortable little utes in the class rather than win any canyon carving slalom awards. That’s ok by me, as I’m not about to autocross my subcompact SUV on a Sunday afternoon, these types of vehicles meant for daily commuting, running weekly errands, and occasionally coursing up the mountain for hiking in summer or the hitting the slopes mid-winter, not to mention the odd family vacation road trip.
If the pavement below happens to undulate and wind in any of the latter scenarios you’ll be well taken care of as the HR-V’s independent front MacPherson strut and rear torsion beam suspension setup isn’t only about comfort, but rather zigs and zags quite well thanks to amplitude reactive dampers and a stabilizer bar at each end. Electrically powered rack-and-pinion steering provides decent feedback for the class too, while my tester’s Michelin Primacy MXV4 all-seasons did an admirable job of holding their chosen lane when pushed hard.
Overall the HR-V’s handling seems to have improved since it came out two years ago, with a slightly tighter feel and better response to steering input, while takeoff remains very good for the class thanks to its 141 horsepower 1.8-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine and fairly responsive continuously variable transmission (CVT). Again, I don’t think people who buy into this class are looking for something particularly sporty, but the HR-V delivers above its requirements and more importantly the CVT is extremely smooth.
You can slide it into Drive for the best economy, which is where I left it most of the time, but when you’re feeling frisky just pull the gear lever further back into “S” sport mode and play around with the steering wheel paddles for a little fun. Yes, you heard me right, paddle shifters in a subcompact SUV. It’s not going to put you off the eventual purchase of a Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S or something similarly sporty down the road, but as far as having a little fun behind the wheel the HR-V’s CVT proves engaging enough, especially for downshifting. If you leave it in Sport mode it’ll even hold its gear up to redline before shifting, and shifts quite quickly compared to other pseudo automated stepped CVT transmissions I’ve tried. Good job to Honda for making this gearless box as good as CVTs get.
Likewise its standard four-wheel discs provided ample stopping power when called upon, the ABS system providing zero lockup during panic test stops thanks to the usual electronic brake-force distribution and emergency brake assist joining in. Of course, electronic traction and stability control are also part of the standard safety package, even making front-wheel drive models capable in slippery conditions, whereas hill start assist prevents rollback when taking off uphill on a steep incline. The HondaLink Assist automatic emergency response system is also included, along with the usual six airbags just in case.
Despite having tested a top-line EX-L Navi model, Honda’s U.S. operations continue to deprive American consumers of ADAS features like forward collision warning and lane departure warning that are included with the same trim in Canada and available in other markets, but at least Honda’s Real Time AWD with Intelligent Control System is available, and was included with my tester.
You have no control over the AWD, the car’s systems deciding when to add torque to the rear wheels on their own, but you can turn off the stability control if you dare, and you’ve got full power over the big green “ECON” mode button too. Press it and power gets doled out more evenly and shifts arrive sooner to minimize fuel usage, while you can also check the HR-V’s handy Eco Assist driving coach to make sure you’re not wasting fuel unnecessarily. Years of building HEVs has taught Honda a thing or two about environmental issues, so don’t think for a minute the HR-V isn’t a green SUV just because there’s no hybrid badging on back.
On that note the HR-V is particularly thrifty on fuel at 25 mpg in the city, 33 on the highway and 28 combined when suited up to the manual and its lone front-wheel drivetrain, or an even more impressive 28 city, 34 highway and 31 combined with the FWD CVT. My as-tested AWD CVT was rated at 27 mpg city, 31 highway and 29 combined, which is still excellent for an SUV with very capable four-season functionality.
Now that I’m talking practicality again, it’s time to tell you why I recommend the HR-V (and the Fit hatchback) more often than any other vehicle in this class: “Magic Seats”! Ok, they’re not magic, but they’re engineering wonders that deliver near best-in-class cargo capacity and completely unmatched passenger/cargo flexibility. Honda uses the same rear seating system for its Fit, by the way, and they’re so much more useful than anything else in their respective classes that it’s a wonder any competitors sell at all. In a nutshell, the rear row is split in the usual 60/40 configuration and folds down just like any other subcompact SUV’s second-row seats, although thanks to a flat mid-mounted fuel tank they lay deeper within the floor for a much taller rear cargo compartment and therefore a lot more space than average, but that’s not the “Magic” part.
If you leave the seatbacks upright you also have the ability to lift the lower cushions up, similarly to the rear seats in some pickup trucks, and they lock into place by pushing their metal legs inward. In this scenario you’ve got room for a bicycle (sans front wheel), tall plants, otherwise awkward furniture, and the list goes on.
The numbers tell the rest of the story, with the HR-V offering up 24.3 cubic feet of volume behind its upright rear seatbacks in FWD trim or 23.2 cubic feet with AWD, a scant 1.1 cubic-foot difference, or 58.8 cubic feet and 57.5 cubic feet respectively when those seats are laid flat. Unfortunately Honda doesn’t provide information about cargo volume behind the front seatbacks and ahead of the rear seats when the rear cushions are raised, but there’s no competitor to compare the measurements to anyway, so the point is moot.
There are plenty of competitors to compare the former numbers to, of course, so I made a list to help you out. I’ve sorted them with the most rearmost cargo volume first, so keep in mind those with more maximum cargo (when the seats are folded) may not necessarily fall in order (the CH-R compared to the Encore, Trax and Renegade, for instance, and later on with the CX-3). The Qashqai is next-best behind the rear seats at 22.9 cubic feet and actually roomier when lowered at 61.1 cubic feet, this followed by the RVR at 21.7 cubic feet and 49.5 cubic feet respectively, the CH-R at 19.0 cubic feet and 36.4 cubic feet, the Encore at 19 cubic feet and 48.4 cubic feet, Trax at 18.7 cubic feet and 48.4 cubic feet, Renegade at 18.5 cubic feet and 50.8 cubic feet, Countryman at 16.5 cubic feet and 41.3 cubic feet, CX-3 at 15.9 cubic feet and 53.9 cubic feet, 500X at 12.2 cubic feet and 19.9 cubic feet, and finally the Juke at 10.5 cubic feet and 35.9 cubic feet.
The HR-V¿s passenger compartment is plenty roomy for the class too, while overall visibility is excellent. Even more impressive was the luxury detailing found throughout the cabin of my EX-L Navi tester, thanks to some very upscale soft touch surface treatments normally only found in the premium subcompact SUV class. It starts with a nicely padded and stitched leatherette instrument panel that starts just to the right of the primary gauges and stretches across the front passenger area to the door. Additionally, the sides of the lower console are trimmed in the same material, all the way to their rearmost edges, this treatment also covering the center and side armrests. The door inserts are even softer and more leather-like, while the door uppers are finished in the same high-quality treatment as the inserts. Believe it or not, Honda has taken this high level of detailing into the rear seating area too, even finishing the doors off the same way. This is unheard of in this class, some premium branded models not even going so far to pamper their occupants.
Honda falls short of wrapping the roof pillars in cloth, but again some professing to hail from luxury brands don’t go any further than covering the A pillars in anything but textured hard plastic, so once again it’s a moot point. It’s just so good in every other way I almost expected the ultra-plush treatment.
Additional high-end kit includes a superb high-resolution 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen with navigation, a multi-angle backup camera with active guidelines, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and the pièce de résistance, Honda’s exclusive LaneWatch blindspot display that projects a real-time rearward view of the car’s passenger side onto the infotainment display when employing the right turn signal, plus a beautifully finished, mostly touch-sensitive dual-zone auto HVAC interface just underneath.
The upgraded six-speaker 180-watt audio system is quite good, although it seemed better suited to dance than rock. This should suit its millennial-aged target market better anyway, and I’m guessing a little more time spent with the tone/EQ controls would help improve audio performance when listening to either Jimmy’s flailing guitar solos. Just in case your genre is predominantly Ma or Marsalis, or talk radio is your thing, sound quality certainly didn’t fail me in these varieties either. In other words, it’s a pretty good system for a car in this class. Audio sources are equally impressive, including AM, FM, satellite, HD, CD, USB, iPod, aha, Audio apps, Bluetooth streaming, and HDMI.
A bold red pushbutton ignition on the dash follows Honda’s usual sporting form, while a chrome tipped electromechanical parking brake pull switch and brake hold button finishes off the lower console. Switchgear is excellent throughout, especially those on the nicely formed leather-wrapped sport steering wheel. Honda has splashed bright metal accents and piano black surfacing throughout too, really sprucing up the interior, while the leather seats are another move upmarket for this little SUV.
A short list of EX-L Navi features include roof rails, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, leather upholstery, navigation, voice recognition, HD and satellite radio, and HD digital traffic info.
Items yet mentioned that get pulled up from lesser trims include auto on/off halogen headlamps, proximity-sensing keyless access, heatable powered side mirrors with a driver’s side blindspot mirror, a windshield wiper de-icer, variable intermittent wipers, one-touch turn signals, powered windows, illuminated vanity mirrors, a powered moonroof, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel with illuminated audio and multi-information/infotainment switchgear plus Bluetooth phone and cruise buttons, heatable front seats, next-generation HondaLink smartphone integration with text message capability and Siri Eyes Free, Bluetooth streaming audio, dual USB ports, an aux jack, three 12-volt power outlets, an LED pocket light, rear tinted privacy glass, a cargo cover, cargo area tie-downs, and more.
Is it the best SUV in the subcompact class? As noted earlier, plenty of Americans buying into this segment seem to think so. It’s hard to knock Honda quality either, or the NHTSA that awarded it with 5 stars for safety, although the IIHS wasn’t so generous. It achieved a best possible “Good” rating for its moderate overlap front, roof strength, and head restraints and seats crash tests, but only “Acceptable” ratings for the small overlap front and side impact tests, while its rear child seat latches were only “Marginal” in their ease of use, and headlights were downright “Poor”. I certainly didn’t notice that while night driving, but who am I to argue against the IIHS. The only small SUVs in the HR-V’s class to earn IIHS Top Safety Pick or best-possible Top Safety Pick Plus recommendations were the 500X with the former rating and the CX-3 with the latter, so you’ll need to balance out priorities when choosing.
When weighing good and bad I’m still ardently in the HR-V’s camp, but don’t just take my word for it. After all, you may not carry as much cargo as often as I do, or maybe shuttling kids or aging parents aren’t as high on your priority list as sporty styling and zippier performance. Then again it may just be you and your significant other trying to eke out as much from a gallon of gas as possible while touring the nether reaches of the continent. No matter the purpose, the HR-V is a good choice.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press