Honda begrudgingly accepts the HR-V will be compared to the Suzuki Vitara and Toyota RAV-4, but is also confident it will compete with 'lifestyle' cars like the Ford Puma. Honda expects to sell 2,000 HR-Vs before Christmas and 4,000 before the end of the forthcoming financial year. The car will go on sale on March 1, but in order to stir up pre-T-plate interest will be in showrooms from today. With the HR-V the company is determined to shake off its 'pipe and slippers' image, and win a younger following through mixing unconventionality with Honda's well known reliability and performance.
The target market is 25-35-year-old young professionals who want a car with sporty performance, the ability to go off the beaten track and the room to put a surfboard in the back. Tom Gardner, Honda's project planning manager, said at the car's European launch in Spain last week: 'We will be putting it on the company car choice list, but this is not the vehicle for the corporate man. It is for the young and the youthful who want a multi-use vehicle that's fun to drive.'
We drove an HR-V dual pump 4WD 1.6 with continuously variable transmission (CVT). It is the first Honda to offer four-wheel-drive and CVT together. An elevated body gives 190mm ground clearance and 16in alloys are standard on the 4WD. Externally, build quality was excellent. The panels meet tightly, paintwork is excellent and it feels built to last.
Performance-wise Honda says the HR-V can do 0-62mph in 13.1 seconds. But the CVT was uncompromising. Put your foot down hard and the response is a noise from the engine like that of a blender, but there was little immediate response and I could not help feeling the engine was struggling. A button on the side of the steering wheel allows the driver to choose between sport and regular driving mode - in sport the engine provides much higher revs to provide the power, but in standard drive it spins to about 5,000rpm.
Its braking ability proved breathtaking - I'm glad I didn't have to do an emergency stop because a little bit of firm pressure and the ABS system brought the car to a dead stop with barely a whimper (except from the driver). The elevated ground clearance, high seating and large windscreen provide excellent front visibility. Rear visibility is disappointing, although the wing mirrors are dressing table-sized and offer good views, but the rear view mirror is too small and reversing was tricky.
Inside, the HR-V is a bit of a mixture. The instrument dials below the binocular-shaped binnacle are blue and the three-spoke steering wheel has the distinctive Honda logo. There are five cupholders, net pockets galore and an unattached ash tray shaped like a hand grenade. All are quirky, but welcome touches. The fascia in particular abounds in grey plastic. Whereas on the outside no expense has been spared, on the inside it's clearly tight budget-time. It felt like I was back in my F-reg Civic. But in its favour, the unappealing plastic feels like it will take many years of pushing and twisting.
The seats are firm, leg-room in the back is poor and without the 50/50 divided rear seats it would be difficult getting more than the week's shopping in the back. There are driver and front passenger airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, the rigid bodyshell offers side-impact protection and head impact protection through reinforced side-frame rails and high tensile steel bumpers.
To enhance pedestrian safety the HR-V has wiper pivots that slide along their axis when hit and bonnet hinges that compress on impact. The top of the front wings and the bonnet have also been designed to crumple and provide a cushioning effect.
The HR-V comes with the standard Honda three-year/ 90,000-mile warranty, six-year anti-perforation warranty and three-years' roadside AA cover.
The HR-V will succeed - and not necessarily due to its appeal to the 25-35 age group: it is simply a good all-rounder.
Honda has succeeded in mixing and matching sharp hatchback design with off-road sporty flavour. It's built to run and run and its appeal will be boosted by the launch of a five-door version in about a year's time.
On the downside the CVT engine was disturbing, despite being told by Honda that the noise is normal. The CVT is expected to account for only 20% of sales.
The interior is a little cheap-looking, but since this is a fun vehicle and not an executive car it is acceptable - and, like the rest of the car, it will last.