Unfortunately, there was no anticipation of how much growth there would be in the compact MPV segment as people up-sized from traditional lower-medium segment cars and downsized from the dwindling upper-medium sector.
And the Multipla’s eccentric appearance put off more buyers than it attracted, sothe six-seat MPV market has been left dormant since then with other manufacturers choosing the five-seat or seven-seat route.
Honda’s engineers decided four years ago that the seven-seat Stream was the way forward in the compact MPV sector, and with sales of about 5,000 a month in Japan when it was launched, Honda was surprised to find how slowly it sold in Europe.
The lack of a diesel engine would have been a major factor in hurting sales of the Civic-based Stream, but also its third row of seats is not really clever enough when comparing it to the Zafira and newer rivals like the Volkswagen Touran, Renault Grand Scenic and Toyota Corolla Verso.
Honda has gone back to the drawing board with its latest MPV, and instead of utilising the Civic parts bin, this one is based on the same platform as the CR-V. While there will be no diesel when the car arrives in the UK this month, it will be offered next summer with the same 2.2-litre i-CTDi engine found in the Accord.
Described by Honda as having a three-plus-three seating arrangement, it takes the principle of three abreast seating front and rear found in the Fiat Multipla and improves on it. While the Fiat has a front centre seat set back from the two outer seats, the Honda has the same formation in the rear.
The front seat has 270mm of travel, the seat back can be folded forward to form an armrest or table, and there are two other storage compartments hidden in the seat base.
Despite the seating arrangement, the FR-V is 60mm narrower than the Multipla and even the more conventionally furnished Ford Focus C-MAX is wider. It is longer than a Renault Scenic, but has a slightly shorter wheelbase.
This gives the FR-V a smaller turning circle than many rivals, making it more manoeuvrable at parking speeds.
Perhaps more importantly, the FR-V is below average height in its class. This has an impact on how much the car rolls when cornering, and the FR-V is second only to the Focus C-MAX – the class benchmark for handling – in terms of its low roof line.
One of Honda’s aims with the FR-V was to set high standards for quality and refinement. Like the Accord, the entry-level car is badged SE and materials have been chosen to give the FR-V an upmarket interior feel.
Honda expects the FR-V to gain a four-star rating for occupant protection at a time when many new cars are achieving the maximum five-star rating.
The company’s engineers point to the formulaic nature of the tests, suggesting that items like the position of the ignition barrel would affect the outcome.
However, the FR-V is expected to gain three stars for pedestrian protection, equalling Honda’s best results to date in that area, and those of any car.
Fleet sales of the FR-V are not really expected to take off until the diesel goes on sale next August, with a 5:1 retail bias for the petrol model.
When the full range of engines becomes available, corporate sales are expected to make up one-third of FR-V registrations in the UK.
Honda expects to sell a total of 5,000 FR-Vs in a full year after the introduction of diesel.
James Daulton, head of corporate sales, said: ‘The FR-V will be a viable alternative to mainstream products, and, like the Accord, will have the feel of a premium car at the price of a quality car, with the running costs of a mass market car.’
Behind the wheel
THE FR-V’s proportions help give it the appearance of a large hatchback rather than a proper MPV.
It doesn’t look like anything else currently in the Honda family, but tight panel gaps, chrome door handles and a hint of Mercedes-Benz M-class around the tailgate help give it an upmarket appearance.
With soft cloth seat fabric and metallic trim, the interior is only spoilt by a fake wood panel across the dashboard in the SE model, but the innovative layout of the controls is appealing.
The middle passenger in the front has a relatively clutter-free environment when the seat is set back, with the gear lever and parking brake handle sited on the dashboard.
Being able to move the centre seat rearward in the back means those sitting in the middle aren’t short of legroom. Headroom in the rear is also generous, thanks to a sculpted ceiling area.
A minimum of 419 litres of luggage space is available with the rear centre seat as far back as it will go, and the whole rear row can be folded flat to maximise load volume.
Honda claims that removable seats were ruled out because people who have cars with removable seats seldom take them out more than once. Honda’s seat know-how, as demonstrated in the Jazz, is second to none for innovation and the rear seat cushion in the FR-V lowers as the seatbacks come down to leave a flat luggage area.
No diesels were available at the European media launch of the FR-V, but both petrol engines were present and the 1.7 VTEC engine seemed more than adequate most of the time.
Relatively short gearing meant that motorway cruising at the legal limit in Spain (81mph) in fifth gear resulted in about 4,000rpm on the rev counter and a slightly buzzy quality to the engine note. Wind noise around the A-pillars was also noticeable at this speed. At 70mph in the UK the problems would probably be less pronounced.
The six-speed 2.0-litre i-VTEC is the same as in the Accord and is about as refined as you can get for a four-cylinder petrol engine. It is silent on the motorway and the FR-V has possibly the most comfortable ride of any MPV.
It isn’t at the expense of handling either. The FR-V turns in crisply when required and although there is more body roll and a little less composure than the Ford Focus C-MAX, there’s not that much in it.
HONDA believes there is plenty of growth left in the compact MPV segment and it should win many friends with the innovative and practical FR-V. Most user-choosers might be better off waiting until August for the diesel which offers better performance, improved fuel economy and lower BIK liability.
HONDA FR-V FACT FILE
|1.7 VTEC||2.0 i-VTEC||2.2 i-CTDi|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||125/6,300||150/6,500||140/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||114/4,800||142/4,000||250/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||113||121||116|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||37.7||33.6||44.1|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||179||199||170|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||58/12.8||58/12.8||58/12.8|
|Transmission:||5-sp man||6-sp man||6-sp man|
|Service interval (miles):||12,500||12,500||12,500|
|On sale:||November||(diesel summer 2005)|
Price (OTR): £14,750-£16,400; diesel approx £17,700