Honda has perfected the hybrid set-up in the HR-V but a pure electric version is sadly lacking, writes Sean O’Grady
So here it is then, the new Honda HR-V, a compact SUV, as is so fashionable these days, up against the likes of the Ford Puma and Volkswagen T-Roc. It’s based on the Honda Jazz, hybrid version, which is a good start, and a petrol-electric hybrid system is the only option – no diesel, of course, but also, sadly, no pure electric variant. The lovely new baby Honda e, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, is an electric marvel, and shows just what Honda, still an independent player in an industry of agglomerated behemoths, can do. Missed opportunity, certainly, that, as no hybrid, no matter how smart, can approach an all-electric battery electric vehicle. Honda needs to pick up some speed with its transition to electricity.
Anyway… talking about smart, the HR-V is smart in every sense of the word. I like the coupe-SUV styling with the muscly lines and the concealed door handles on the rear passenger doors, which make it look like a three-door. There’s not much point to doing that, and the handles are a bit awkward to use, but it adds a little visual interest. The grille slats are body-coloured, which only really works on the red version, which is a bold enough shade for you to notice.
The interior is also smart – fairly uncluttered, a nice nine-inch touchscreen, high-quality materials everywhere and that nice precise tactile sensation you usually get on a Honda. It oozes quality. Even though Honda hasn’t ever quite made it to “premium” status most of its products have been more reliable and some more durable than its storied German rivals. There’s no sense of occasion, but nothing will fall off.
The really smart stuff goes on under the bonnet and indeed the floor, where the Honda engineers have really shown their prowess. The basic premise of a hybrid is pretty flawed and becoming obsolescent in a world of practical electric vehicles with ranges of 200 or 300 miles – and within sight of the steep prices demanded for the HR-V, some £32,210 in the well-equipped version I sampled. But, given that, Honda has maximised the potential of the hybrid set-up with some imaginative fixes, and the company, like Toyota, has been a hybrid pioneer for a quarter of a century. The Honda has two electric motors, for example, which operate in separate ways to supplement the 1.5-litre petrol unit, which is mostly reserved for higher-speed cruising.
At lower speeds the battery pack and main electric motor drives the front wheels directly, rather than through a shared transmission with the petrol engine, a uniquely Honda system (they call it IMA – integrated motor assist). As with other hybrid internal combustion engines it uses the unusual “Atkinson cycle” to generate its power, which is very fuel efficient but compromised on power – and thus perfectly fine for higher speed high-gear crushing. The lithium-ion batteries are packed densely and now benefit form water-cooling because, as you may have noticed from your laptop or smartphone, they can get jolly hot. It even as a “hill descent” function, aping a proper off-roader, though it only has front-wheel drive.
The only disappointment with all that technical excellence is that the automatic “transmission”, such as it is, is a bit whiny and unresponsive compared with a traditional torque-converter automatic box mated to a conventional petrol unit. But as long as you drive the HR-V gently, in the spirit of our greener times, it’s quiet and refined.
I can’t say honestly that it’s a Great Leap Forward from the Jazz that it shares much of its personality with, and it’ll set you back around £10,000 extra just so you can sit higher up (there’s not much difference in interior room and boot capacity – both Jazz and HR-V being very versatile). You’d also need to do quite a high mileage at the HR-V’s optimal operating speed of about 40mph to 50mph to get the financial benefit of all that advanced mechanical, electrical and software engineering. Few people regret running a Honda, but I’m not sure the HR-V would be a smart choice for everyone.