A mad niche car or a CUV pathfinder? We examine the Honda HR-V.
Had we realised how the mainstream motor vehicle would evolve over the intervening time, we might have paid a little more attention to the announcement of Honda’s HR-V, an event which occurred all of twenty years ago. As it was however, the automotive press were content to file it with all the other amusing, if slightly lightweight offerings from the more whimsical side of the Japanese automotive juggernaut.
The HR-V, which rather un-memorably stood for High Rider vehicle was previewed in mildly conceptual form at the 1998 Geneva motor show as the even more memorably coined J-WJ, where the positive reception was said at the time to have stiffened Honda’s resolve to build it. This theory however dissolves under the most perfunctory scrutiny, given that by then the production car was already most likely at the pilot-build phase.
No matter. Arriving to these shores in February 1999 as a single model, the HR-V was powered by a 1.6 litre SOHC power unit, developing a fairly low-key 105 bhp. This was mated to Honda’s ‘Real Time’ four-wheel drive transmission, with a dual pump system which engaged when the front wheels lost traction. Later that year, a front-wheel drive version was added, which was marketed (in the UK at least) under the more indelible ‘Joy Machine’ moniker. While Honda sold the 4WD version as a ‘go anywhere, do anything vehicle’, the front-drive model was touted more as a fun urban car.
People tend to cleave to the known and quantifiable, so the HR-V was greeted with a degree of scepticism initially, with many somewhat unsure as to what precisely it purported to be. Car magazine was typical, describing it as a ‘Mad Niche Car’. But in reality it was a high riding, compact estate, more akin perhaps to the concept that underpinned Matra’s seminal 1977 Rancho – widely believed to have been grandparent to the modern crossover. Whether it was or not is of course debatable, after all it’s not difficult to imagine someone of the calibre of a Richard Teague having previously dreamed up something along similar lines.
While the HR-V appeared somewhat unusual at the time, its design was a prime example of a strong initial theme, really well executed. Honda themselves pitched the design (for the J-WJ concept) as follows. “something entirely new for cross-country vehicles: a futuristic look that is appropriate in any setting. Exterior styling, especially the area around the projector type headlamps, speaks of city-bred refinement… the J-WJ frees itself from the conventional perception of cross-country vehicles”.
Indeed there could almost have been a Land Rover aspect to its forms and in particular, the canopy treatment – in fact, it wouldn’t have been inconceivable to imagine something along these lines as an alternative universe Freelander, instead of the rather soft-formed Gerry McGovern confection which emerged in 1997.
But if the exterior was arresting, the cabin was largely a symphony of grey injection moulded plastic. While the J-WJ’s interior style was clean and in fact rather prescient in its forms, the HR-V’s while broadly well designed, and of course, like all Hondas of the era, well wrought, was a bit of a let-down. Nevertheless, with a 90,000 mile warranty from new and the reassurance of Honda’s superb reputation for build and durability, it wasn’t hyperbole on Car’s part to dub the HR-V a “cast iron ownership proposition“.
Honda went to considerable lengths to ensure the HR-V lived up to its ‘Joy Machine’ billing, ensuring the car’s dynamics were viceless and that despite its raised ride height, it would neither unsettle its occupants, nor fall over at the merest sight of a moose. This appears to have been achieved, Car making its incredulity plain when it stated, “We wouldn’t have expected it, but this is a good car. First off, its smoother and quieter than a CR-V, it doesn’t roll in corners, the steering’s quick and accurate and the suspension supple in town.”
In early 2000, a five-door model was added to the range, as was a 123bhp VTEC engined variant. Having received a very mild facelift in 2001, the range was whittled down in 2003 to just two models – a 1.6-litre CVT and 1.6-litre VTEC manual – the three door being dropped. Production ceased in 2006.
Not only was the HR-V for the most part haughtily ignored by the mainstream press, it received similar short shrift from rival European carmakers, who mostly failed to see the potential – for some considerable time at least. One rival who did perhaps take notice was Skoda whose 2009 Yeti could be said to have at least sipped from the same pool. Not that Honda were much better themselves, neglecting to adequately develop the concept and in the European market at least, leaving it a good decade before reintroducing a HR-V badged model – now a fully fledged (and drearily predictable) compact crossover.
It’s probably unfair to lay responsibility at the door of creative pathfinders for what lesser minds create in their wake, so the idea that the HR-V spawned monsters probably isn’t Honda’s fault. But even were it to be so, it doesn’t detract from the fact that car design has shifted markedly in the two intervening decades since the HR-V entered our consciousness.
Characterised by a sense of playfulness and a non-aggressive demeanour which has long been a Japanese hallmark, the HR-V may not quite have been the joy machine its marketers wanted us to believe, but it did raise a smile. And that’s a characteristic sorely missing in our current overwrought CUV-saturated landscape.