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Car reviews - Honda - HR-V

Our Opinion

We like
Design, practicality, functionality, space, ease, reliability, economy, smoothness, five-year warranty, AEB now across the range
Room for improvement
Choppy low-speed ride on RS, no performance gain for RS, no Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, low-fi and fiddly multimedia system, no AWD availability, no escape from CVT, no adaptive cruise control

Extra kit makes the Honda HR-V better value but sportier RS deserves more muscle

29 Aug 2018

IN EVERY sense the Honda HR-V makes a sound, if rather vanilla choice, among small SUVs. 
Handsome, roomy, practical and easy to drive, there are many positives and few negatives. The Series II is more of the same, but with a bit more extra safety and minor specification enhancements to make it better value. 
The new RS also brings more involving steering and improved high-speed handling, but, disappointingly, no extra performance.
And the competition is hotting up, so has the Thai-built HR-V Series II evolved enough to keep it at the pointy end of a very hungry pack?
Drive impressions
In many ways, the Honda HR-V has been the sensible choice among small SUVs. 
Handsome, dependable, easy to live with, sufficiently powerful, undemanding to drive and cheap to run – it’s the sort of set-and-forget vehicle you’d recommend to folk who don’t want to be challenged by what they commute in in any way.
Little wonder that this was the best-selling small SUV in the world between January 2015 and December last year.
However, while a top-five segment player in Australia, the HR-V seems to have been hamstrung by a strict regime of little or no choice, revolving around just the one powertrain – a dated 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine driving the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission. 
In contrast, arch-rival Mazda’s CX-3 dazzles buyers with a smorgasbord of diesel, or all-wheel drive, or manual options. Sixteen different flavours, in fact, compared to just four from Honda.
So, it was with some anticipation that we approached the model year 2019 HR-V facelift, mainly due to the arrival of a sporty new variant tantalisingly badged the RS.
Now, our experience with Honda of late means we weren’t expecting a turbo AWD rally weapon, especially as there is no performance upgrade whatsoever; but a faster (and now variable) steering system, recalibrated stability control software, revised springs, dampers and anti-roll bar, bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres, better front seats and additional sound insulation did promise something a bit spicier than the regular VTi/VTi-S/VTi-LX versions. It sure does look the part.
Plus, fettling with the CVT software across the HR-V range introduces artificial stepped ratios; combined with the new ‘drive’ and ‘sport’ modes, the aim is for a more natural feel under acceleration with reduced droning from the gearbox. What’s not to like?
A brief stint behind the wheel of the RS and VTi-LX did reveal a subtlety smoother and quieter car than we recalled from the earlier model, especially in the latter, which rides on 17-inch alloys. And we were reminded once again how inviting, roomy and airy the HR-V’s interior is. A real ‘back at home’ experience. Nice.
However, at lower speeds, the RS’ suspension is just too firm on some roads, hitting smaller-frequency bumps with a hardness that we weren’t prepared for. Is the sportier chassis tune to blame? The 18-inch rubber? Or a combo thereof? We have our suspicions.
At higher velocities, the racier HR-V’s steering, handling and road holding certainly do gel together better than anticipated, thanks to quicker turns requiring less effort, greater agility and control over a wide range of road surfaces and a generally more sure-footed feel. Small but worthwhile improvements.
We wonder whether the RS’ chassis on 17-inch wheels might make for a sweeter riding as well as driving machine? Perhaps reaching for the 18s was stretching it an inch too far for this Jazz-based crossover.
What is more frustrating about the RS, however, is that it can clearly use a stronger engine and better transmission than the still-quite-laggy CVT. 
Yes, there is ample performance for most buyers, but sometimes a chassis deserves better and this is one of those times. We have heard many times now that the Thai plant that supplies us with all HR-Vs doesn’t offer a manual gearbox option, or turbo, or AWD as per other facilities that make this model around the globe, but when the engineers create a more dynamic driving machine, surely, they should add a powertrain to match?
As for the rest of the HR-V range, well, Honda could not provide any lower-end variants as a boat hadn’t arrived in time for the launch, including the expected best-selling VTi and VTi-S, so we cannot tell you how the bread-and-butter versions drive or feel. 
We can say that in RS and VTi-LX, the central touchscreen looks especially cheap and aftermarket for two top-tier propositions, due mainly to ugly graphics and an unappealing interface; it also lacks Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech, which seems out of step. And no adaptive cruise in a mid-30K small SUV is also a specification anomaly nowadays. Every Toyota C-HR has got it.
So, the 2019 HR-V takes a small step forward for offering a visually more pleasing and dynamically more capable RS variant, but then takes another two backwards with hard suspension on 18-inch alloys, a couple of equipment shortfalls and a pedestrian powertrain. Or, in other words, as the newer gets stronger, the Honda is starting to feel its age and is falling behind.
Having not driven the sub-$32K HR-V, we cannot tell you whether the base variants still deserve to be on our shortlist of recommended small SUVs, but we can say that if the RS was a flavour, it would at least be vanilla bean. 
If your palette demands something with a bit more bite you may have to look elsewhere. For everybody else, it’s more of the same and so more of what you love from the Honda HR-V.

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