Ode to Joy

A mad niche car or a CUV pathfinder? We examine the Honda HR-V.

Better as a 5-door? (c) autoevolution

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.

1999 Honda HRV: source

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Ode to Joy”

  1. These were the days (sic). I recall motoring journo wags referring to it as the ‘Hormone Replacement – Vehicle’, given that it seemed to gain popularity with ladies of a certain age. I always thought it neat and even sharply styled, and somewhat more of an urbanite than the CR-V. The most recent HR-V (there was a pause, wasn’t there?) is, or course, something of a tragedy in comparison – a rather hunched profile and perplexing riot of curving feature-lines which don’t cohere or resolve with each other. In fact, an interesting analysis would be to compare the Honda range of today with its counterparts of this early HR-V’s era.

  2. A ground-breaking car, but we didn’t recognise it as such back then. Never mind the Freelander, I see it more as a proto-Evoque, with its blacked out B and C-pillars, the upward sloping waist and (subtle) narrowing of the DLO towards the rear.

    The HR-V represents an era, sadly long over, when Honda was capable of designing good-looking cars with clean lines and minimal ornamentation. I really like the way the wheelarches flow into the deep bodyside crease that runs the length of the car. The dark shadow line created by the crease picks up the simple slot of the upper front grille, which is carried through the headlamps and under the indicators and down the sides. This visually lengthens and lowers the car, disguising its “crossover” proportions to a degree. The vertical tailgate is eminently practical and equally “right” for the design.

    I’d buy a new crossover that looked as good as the HR-V in a heartbeat. Unfortuntely, the current HR-V is typical of Honda’s current design malaise.

  3. The press coverage the H-RV received upon its launch in Germany was nothing short disastrous. If I recall correctly the testers at Auto Motor und Sport managed to almost tip the car over in their slalom handling test and put a photo of an H-RV balancing on two wheels, dangerously close to the tipping point on the title page. The car was then the first and only one I can recall to have received a mere 2 out of 5 stars in the road test. In Germany, that was that for the H-RV.

    Which leads to an interesting topic: national biases of car magazines. Auto Motor und Sport appears to be notorious for always letting the Germans win. On the rare occasion a Skoda can beat a VW – but apart from that, nothing can beat an Audi, BMW or Mercedes, other than an Audi, BMW or Mercedes.

    I don’t want to be so conspiratorial as to suggest the German motor press was bought by the German car industry (which nonetheless may not be entirely without merit) but the German motoring journalists, none of whom have anything close to celebrity status unlike some of their UK colleagues, just see the world through black-red-yellow glasses, the same of which is probably true for other countries respectively.

    In consequence, countries without strong domestic motor industry probably have the more objective motor press coverage. I grew up reading German car magazines. Their biases have become mine too.

    1. The moose test isn’t political, no actual moose are harmed.

    2. I think an automobile journalist bias to the home team is almost universal.

      The one exception, ironically, is the United States.

    3. Oh, German motor press bias… It has become truly horrible. There was always a preference, that’s clear, but when I read a lot of magazines (that was in the 80s and 90s), at least the journalists were still seemingly technical experts, and there was a lot more technical detail in the atricles. So the bias seemed a bit more founded to me.
      Regarding celebrity status, the only example I can think of is probably Fritz B. Busch. He was not only a passionate driver and technician, but also knew how to tell a story and make everything he wrote entertaining to read.

      I grew up reading German magazines, but later also French ones, as their Citroën coverage was obviously much more thorough. Sometimes we also had ‘Quattroruote’ in our house. All these biases combined probably made for a quite balanced view (if still a very Euro-centered one, of course).

  4. I like the look of this, but only in retrospect. It has an ‘amphibious’ air about it to me, especially at the front.

    Talking of Honda, I see that ‘Fully Charged’ have done a nice little piece on first driving impressions of the Honda e. Having been a bit disappointed in the production model, I’m now warming to it, after seeing it in motion. Even so, it’s probably best bought second hand, as it is likely to retail from £28k, new.

  5. Excuse me for going off the subject a bit, the e honda is a car with a more than pleasant design, if it were equipped with an internal combustion engine would cost around 14k eur, and would have a fair amount of success. It is the demonstration that honda still manages to design beautiful cars but to make mistakes with marketing.

  6. H-RV thoughts:

    For Honda, the HR-V was a low risk, low ambition product. It’s based on the cheap Logo platform, rather than the Civic’s more sophisticated component set.

    The same low risk, low ambition, intent applied to the Logo. Honda didn’t want to dominate the mid-’90s supermini sector, but they felt the need to be there.

    The wheelbase of the 3 door HR-V is exactly the same as the Logo, but was stretched 100mm for the 5 door – I’d guess it wouldn’t have ‘worked’ otherwise. It’s unusually muddled thinking for Honda in that era.

    The lack of a diesel wouldn’t have been a major concern twenty years ago, except possibly in France or Italy. UK Honda-ists of the time were typically elderly, well-off and drove small mileages. Regrettably for Honda UK, they are now typically dead, and the generation which followed have different, mainly German and Korean, allegiances.

    The HR-V only had four official, belt-fitted seats (this may vary between markets). This was something of a hindrance to the archetypal constituency when ferrying grandchildren, or fellow Rotarians with drink taken. The easy remedy, widely taken, was to buy a CR-V instead. Perhaps the neatly styled, temptingly priced HR-V was showroom bait for the hugely successful larger SUV.

    Finally, does anyone else see the stamp of Pininfarina in the HR-V’s styling?

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