BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Like many models available these days, the Honda HR-V was put into production after receiving favourable feedback as a show car. Despite being more practical than most prototypes, it still retains the image of a trendy plaything. That may well be selling the HR-V short. As rapid urban transport it's pretty good fun. Although offered in two and four wheel drive, it would be a brave, if not foolhardy, driver that chose to take an HR-V mud plugging. The target market for such a vehicle is affluent twenty-somethings who wouldn't dream of getting mud on their Birkenstocks. No, the HR-V looks far more at home outside a gym or trendy eatery, and the driving is experience is more car than jeep-like. Contrary to many perceptions, the HR-V range was never marketed as the Joy Machine. That title was aimed solely at the front-wheel drive models, aiming to create a wacky and fun image. The HR-V moniker stands for High Rider Vehicle, a bland and obvious title that never caught the public's imagination.
Models Covered: (3/5dr estate 1.6 petrol [2wd/4wd/VTEC])
The HR-V's launch was met with a great deal of head scratching and pondering. What was this thing? It wasn't an MPV, a 'proper' 4x4 or a conventional estate. The best most could do was compare it to the Matra-Simca Rancho of years back. It talked the talk, but couldn't walk the walk, as it were. In the intervening years, the HR-V has become socially rehabilitated. We understand it now. It's just a bit of fun, something from Planet Honda to put a smile on your face. Sales have put a smile on Honda's face too, so whilst used models may be a rare sight on franchised dealer's forecourts, that won't always be the case. The HR-V range was initially launched in February 1999 with just the 105bhp 4wd three-door estate. This was followed in September of the same year by a down-specified front-wheel drive version. A limited edition SE two wheel drive was launched in December 1999 which boasted the same wheels and spoilers as the four-wheel drive model. In early 2000, the five-door model was launched, available only in four-wheel drive. At the same time, Honda offered a 123bhp VTEC engine option for both the three and five-door four-wheel drive models. Therefore, you could never have a five-door front-wheel drive, or a VTEC-engined front-wheel drive. In 2001 the HR-V received a mild facelift, the front becoming slightly beefier, the rear end tidied up a bit and the interior treated to a few flashes of silver. By early 2003 the range had been condensed to just two models - the 1.6-litre CVT and the 1.6-litre VTEC manual. Both were only available in 5-door form.
What You Get
Honda is keen to stress that its baby is not an off-road mud-plugger in 4x4 form, though it also claims this version of the HR-V is a 'go-anywhere, do anything vehicle' that's versatile, fun to drive and yet still a sensible choice. As long as 'go-anywhere' excludes terrain that you'd think twice about driving over in the family estate, the description is bang on. In fact, it most closely resembles a small all-wheel drive estate car. The 2WD model is an attractive alternative to the regular three-door Civic, especially if you like a high driving position, and doesn't cost much more than an entry-level 1.4i Civic. Safety has been a priority for the HR-V's designers and the car's bodyshell has been engineered to minimise body deformation and the impact on passengers in an accident. To prevent the high-sided little car from toppling over (like Mercedes' A-class and other tiny but tall town cars had a tendency to do), Honda says it has employed state-of-the-art technology in a number of areas - though the company isn't too specific about what these are. We do know, however, that extensive testing should have produced a chassis usefully resistant towards roll-over tendencies in extreme swerving situations. The cabin is as stylish as the exterior with its large blue speedo and rev counter dials nestling under a deep hood. Like all Hondas, the HR-V's switches and controls are as easy to operate as those on a Fisher-Price child's toy and it's all put together with the precision of a Swiss watch. Essentials include power steering and twin airbags. But it's the creature comforts that make the HR-V seem such good value for money: air conditioning, electric windows and door mirrors, anti-lock brakes, remote central locking and an RDS stereo are all standard kit. On the practical side, both two and four-wheel drive versions will have split/folding rear seats so owners can squeeze long items into the cabin.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Honda's traditional reputation for excellent reliability is just as valid with an HR-V as with any other model in the range. Do inspect the HR-V carefully, especially the four-wheel drive. Human nature being what it is, some owners are bound to have taken the 'go-anywhere' part of Honda's marketing spiel a trifle literally, with predictable results. The VTEC engines may sound as if they are perpetually about to turn themselves inside out at high revs, but are uncannily untemperamental. Check the loading bay for damage and insist on a full service history, but otherwise buy with confidence.
(approx prices based on 1.6i 2wd) Not the cheapest catalogue of spares, but then with Honda's reputation and warranty, these prices may well prove academic. A full exhaust system retails at around £320, whilst front brake pads are around £60 a set. A new radiator will be approximately £180, and a new alternator £375. A replacement starter motor weighs in at £265, and a new headlamp is £115.
On the Road
Most manufacturers of four-wheel drive vehicles cannot resist trotting out the hackneyed line that their offering is 'car-like' to drive. Rarely is it true. The Honda HR-V driving experience, whilst not totally bereft of float, is not too dissimilar from one of the 'extended-utility' estates, such as the Volvo V70 XC or the Audi Allroad, albeit a chunkily toytown version. The 1.6-litre 16-valve, 105bhp engine is allied to a five-speed manual gearbox and delivers as much performance as you'd expect from a warmish supermini - Honda claims it will reach 60mph from rest in 12s and climb to 101mph. To make life less stressful for town dwellers, there is also the option of a CVT automatic transmission, priced at £900. If you need more power, take the VTEC 123bhp 1.6-litre unit. The 4WD model's 'Dual Pump' four-wheel drive system, borrowed from the CR-V, automatically engages drive to the rear wheels when those at the front lose their grip. While this set-up won't help you to clamber up a mountainside or through a river at the weekend, it should ensure that the car's tyres keep their grip better than most on wet or greasy roads. It will also provide a certain amount of extra traction on gravel driveways and slippery playing fields.
You may expect to hate the HR-V, playing as it does to a trendy youth audience, but it's better than you'd expect. A car-like driving experience mated to an elevated driving position in a compact package are what most 4x4 owners really want. The off-road capabilities are extremely modest, so why not hang the expense and pretence and buy a front-wheel drive version? This Joy Machine is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.