Interior comfort, pricing, practicality
Room for improvement
Struggling 1.6-litre engine
By TIM BRITTEN 13/03/2000
HONDA'S recent success in the off-road lookalike market with its CR-V model has been phenomenal.
The practical four-wheel drive (but not off-road) wagon has been creaming the market of late, storming ahead of competitors such as the Suzuki Grand Vitara, five-door Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester to become by far the most familiar wagon of its genre on Australian roads.
Not quite so the smaller HR-V which, at the current sales rate, has been selling about one-tenth of CR-V volume.
Intended for the bottom end of the market contested by the likes of Daihatsu Terios, Suzuki Jimny and Vitara, the HR-V promotes a youthful image with its quirky looks and a bag full of appealing goodies. But it seems this market is harder to crack than the more family-oriented sales base for the CR-V.
Now the HR-V range has been stretched to include a slightly bigger model, with more wheelbase and two more doors, for a price premium of around $2000.
The body stretch and addition of doors makes the vehicle look better (it is very slab-sided in three-door form) and adds very useful legroom for rear-seat passengers.
The mechanical layout remains the same, which is a pity because the 1.6-litre engine has trouble coping with the five-door's extra 60 or so kilograms.
In manual form a five-door HR-V driver needs to make regular use of the five-speed shifter just to keep the HR-V mobile. Second gear is used where most other cars will accelerate away in third and any thought of acceleration in fourth or fifth is best forgotten - especially when the (optional) air-conditioning is switched on.
With its maximum torque of 138Nm coming in at 3400rpm and 77kW peaking at 6200rpm, it is unable to make any real impression on the HR-V's 1217kg.
It would be more at home with at least 200kg less to carry around. The 94kW 2.0-litre used in the bigger CR-V would really be a better proposition.
Although the single camshaft VTEC engine is red-lined at an impressive 7000rpm, it never really feels happy at high speed. It is not suited to what is really a semi-utilitarian vehicle.
Thankfully, the five-speed transmission does not mind a bit of cog-swapping. It is light and precise in action although the clutch could do with a bit more progressiveness and overall feel. The optional CVT transmission may well do a better job.
Otherwise, the HR-V is a dynamically well balanced package.
The suspension, independent strut style at the front and De Dion style at the rear, feels supple and absorbent, and does a reasonable job of hustling the upright little wagon around corners.
Understeer is there but it is never intrusive and the steering, weighted slightly on the light side, is nevertheless reasonably communicative.
On rough roads the HR-V feels pretty stable, helped along by a relatively simple all-wheel drive system that only activates when the front wheels start to slip.
In most circumstances the HR-V operates as a front-driver, slipping into four-wheel drive through a clutch system when extra traction becomes necessary. There is no pretence that the HR-V will take its passengers very far off the road, although ground clearance is pretty generous and the short overhangs mean there is some handy approach and departure capability.
But there is nothing so frivolous as a set of low ratio gears designed to help creep up those rock-strewn washaways encountered in the "real" bush. And the tyres are obviously intended solely for on-road use.
Where the HR-V five-door comes into its own is as a handy carry-all for either passengers or goods.
The rear seat - with adjustable backrests - offers a 50-50 split fold and if stowed completely away will open up a relatively vast loading area.
The big test is to see how easily a mountain bike can be slotted into place and here the Honda scores top points because the Cannondale went straight in without a wheel having to be removed.
The back seat itself is surprisingly generous, making the Honda feel spacious inside, a pleasant place for four adults with quite subdued noise levels and a comfortable, absorbent ride.
Something of a surprise was the HR-V's tendency to suffer rattles and squeaks when being driven over unsealed country roads, suggesting the cabin is not as taut in five-door form as in three-door. This was doubly intriguing because the supple suspension meant the ride itself was comfortable and absorbent.
For the money, the buyer of a five-door HR-V gets - in addition to a revised fascia that relocates the power mirrors switches on the dash proper and includes a digital clock in the radio display - dual airbags, remote central locking, power windows and an extra two radio speakers.
Catering to the market, the HR-V has three rear cupholders and one up front - if you do not count the dinky little ashtray insert that occupies the other aperture.
The interior architecture is basically of Japanese standard with a clean, uncluttered instrument display and logical placement for all switches. One continuing Honda design aberration is the double-action wash-wipe in which the driver has to activate both the washers and wipers in two separate operations. Annoying and unnecessary.
Overall it is an appealing package, especially with a price premium over the three-door of just over $2000.
What the five-door HR-V really needs is considerably more engine. VTEC or not, 1.6 litres is just not enough to allow the Honda to quickly get out of its own way. 1.8 litres would help but it could really do with 2.0 litres.
And the CVT (Constantly Variable Transmission) automatic transmission version may seem a little out of place in an "occasional" off-road vehicle, but in the case of the HR-V Honda it does at least allow the high-revving, 1.6-litre engine to operate regularly within its narrowish power band.
In part-throttle, around-town operation, the CVT is smooth and progressive, probably more responsive than the five-speed manual.
On the open road the ability of the transmission to slide steplessly up and down the ratios takes some getting used to.
It feels a little like a badly slipping clutch as the revs rise on encountering an upward incline, without any noticeable effect on road speed. Any pressure on the accelerator results in this eager build-up of rpm, unlike a conventional lock-up auto that will remain steadfastly in gear until accelerator pedal pressure becomes really insistent.
So a cruise down the highway is accompanied by a steady rising and falling of engine rpm, similar in some ways to a commercial jet as the engines spool up on takeoff or as the plane flares out in preparation of landing.
But the CVT does make better use of the characteristics of the engine, especially when the 'sport' mode is selected, wherein the little 1.6-litre V-TEC is allowed to explore the higher reaches of the rpm band.
At the end of the day, however, keen drivers will still tend towards the manual five-speed, even with the engine's shortcomings that require it to be used with unusual frequency.