Long before the Evoque, there was the Honda HR-V.
If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Rover Group should have been mightily chuffed when Honda launched the CR-V in October 1995. The new soft-roader was uncannily similar to the Land Rover Freelander in conception, dimensions and even appearance. Those of you with a better memory than I will be quick to point out that the Freelander was not launched until October 1997, so how can the former possibly be an imitation of the latter?
Well, the story goes that during the characteristically tortuous and protracted development of the Land-Rover, which began in the late 1980s following the launch of the Discovery, Honda, as a 20% shareholder in Rover Group, had access to the company’s future model programme and immediately saw the potential of what would eventually become the Freelander(1). Because Honda was so much better focused and swifter in its development activities, the Japanese ‘Freelander’ beat its British counterpart to market by a full two years.
However, we are not here today to discuss either of the above vehicles, but instead Honda’s HR-V(2), the CR-V’s slick and stylish urban cousin, which was unveiled in concept form as the J-WJ at the Tokyo motor show in October 1997. Reaction to the concept was remarkably positive so it reached production in February 1999 with minimal changes, first in three-door form, with a five-door variant following a year later.
In modern-day parlance, the HR-V was a B-segment or subcompact crossover and was based on the platform of the Honda Logo supermini(3). The five-door variant featured a 100mm (4”) increase in wheelbase to 2,460mm (96¾”) and a 110mm (4¼”) stretch in overall length to 4,110mm (161¾”). The HR-V was offered in both FWD and 4WD variants. It was powered by a 1,590cc inline four-cylinder engine installed transversely. This was available in either 103bhp (77kW) or 123bhp (92kW) power outputs, the more powerful unit featuring Honda’s patented VTEC(4) system. Transmission was either via a five-speed manual gearbox or a CVT unit. Suspension was by MacPherson struts up front and a five-link De Dion type rear axle.
So far, so conventional, but what set the HR-V apart was its distinctive styling. Although it featured the high(er) ground clearance expected on a ‘soft-roader’, the overall height was reduced by virtue of an unusually shallow DLO for such a vehicle. Blacked-out B and C-pillars(5) gave the HR-V a smooth and rakish look, enhanced by the swept-back front-end and absence of a traditional grille. Prominent grooves along the flanks, the lower one at sill level and upper one intersecting the tops of the wheel arches, exaggerated the length of the HR-V. One interesting and unusual option was a combined rear spoiler and roof rails, the latter flowing smoothly rearward into the former.
Honda had identified young, fashionable urbanites as its target market for the HR-V, but the vehicle found favour with older buyers, attracted by its higher H-point(6) when compared with conventional cars, making for easier entry and egress. This explains the slightly snarky nickname applied to the vehicle by one UK automotive journal(7) which provides the title for this piece.
The HR-V was well regarded in Europe for its style and sharp handling. What Car magazine described it thus: “more of a jacked-up family hatchback, and quite a good one at that. Its steering is sharp, angling the car keenly into corners, and the car takes bends with confidence. The ride is good, too, although a touch firm at slower speeds, and the HR-V performs well, as you’d expect from Honda, with both versions of the HR-V’s 1.6-litre engine pulling smoothly to the top of the rev range.” The only real criticisms were that the interior was “functional rather than fun” and the shorter-wheelbase three-door was “a bit of a squeeze to get into the back.”
Sadly, and somewhat curiously, the HR-V died in 2006 without a direct replacement. It was instead nominally replaced by the Honda Crossroad. This was a larger and more conventional looking crossover that was not exported either to Europe or the US and remained on the Japanese domestic market for just three years. Incidentally, this wasn’t the first Honda to bear the Crossroad name: the company had previously marketed Land-Rover’s original Discovery as a Honda bearing this name from 1993 to 1998.
When Honda finally got around to launching a second-generation HR-V in 2013 it had, like many contemporary Hondas, been given a sound thrashing with the ugly stick and had none of the purity of the original design. Thankfully, the latest HR-V, launched in 2021, marks a welcome return to a more restrained and tasteful style.
In another curious and possibly karmic twist of fate, it is possible to see overtones of the original HR-V in Range Rover’s LRX concept, unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January 2008. The LRX would, like the HR-V, make production barely changed as the Evoque. It featured similar proportions (albeit more exaggerated) to the HR-V, with its shallow DLO, blacked-out pillars and strong horizontal feature-lines along the flanks. Perhaps Gerry McGovern, designer of the Evoque, decided it was payback time for Honda?
In any event, given what transpired since with the explosion of road-biased crossovers, one cannot help but conclude that Honda missed an open goal by not immediately replacing the original HR-V with an evolution of the concept.
(1) There is also a delicious but unverified story that, in the early 1990’s, someone in Rover’s design department inadvertently sent a full set of drawings and specifications for the Freelander to their opposite number at Honda.
(2) ‘Hi-rider Revolutionary Vehicle’, apparently.
(3) The Logo was the predecessor to the Jazz and was an ultra-conventional and conservative supermini, featuring none of the Jazz’s seating and storage innovations. It was sold briefly in Europe and is now long forgotten.
(4) VTEC is a system whereby two different camshaft profiles are used to optimise power and economy at both low and high engine revolutions.
(5) And D-pillars on the five-door.
(6) The ‘H-point’ is the height at which the occupants’ hips are placed when sitting in the vehicle.
(7) Car Magazine, if my memory serves me correctly.
40 thoughts on “Hormone Replacement Vehicle”
Some really great bits of design work get lost in categories not known for great design work. The H-RV remains an excellent shape, at once composed of few elements yet with a strong identity. You won´t mistake one for anything else. There is a sense of inevitability about such a form. Of course, it´s not the result of the laws of physics but it bears the apparent correctness of a result decided by a few but stringent rules. One might compare this to Ford´s Fusion, another stringently designed and still-fresh vehicle whose only sin was also to end up in a class of cars where people mostly don´t notice ingrained quality of design.
I quite like the H-RV, but I’m not a fan of the rear spoiler as it accentuates the height of the vehicle. I’ve seen a few examples without it and to my eyes it looks better.
It’s a reasonably fresh- and interesting-looking thing, especially the front end and those roof rails integrated with the spoiler.
However, the completely boxed-out rear end (at very nearly a 90-deg angle!), coupled with the length-accentuating grooves mentioned in the piece, ultimately leave it just looking like a jacked-up conventional estate car. No mystery to me why it ended up as a ‘pensioner’s favourite’.
Funnily, I was about 27 at the time it appeared in showrooms and it didn´t look like a pensioner car to me. I thought it looked very appealing (but then again, I am a bad representative as I was doing a car design degree at the time and design-y people can like wierd things just like the kinds of whisky afficionadoes drink is usually not that palatable to the Whyte & Mackay/Dewars/Cutty Sark crowd.
Well, three years ago I was looking for a cheap runabout for my (75 year old) father and the HR-V was on my short list, next to the Fusion!
I quickly discarded the HR-V as most of them seemed badly neglected (typical urban (ab)use) and I had the impression that in the end it would be noisy and not very economical. Finally he bought a very well kept 307 SW HDI which has been faultless, apart from needing an oil cooler and three wheel bearings and…oh dear
Thank you Daniel for an interesting article on an unusual car. In both its concept and its clean design the HR-V feels like a lost remnant from Honda’s mid-80s to early-90s “imperial phase” of very clean, confident designs (I’d say the 2002 Accord Station Wagon could be too). The HR-V perhaps could be seen as a spiritual successor to the 1985-89 Accord Aerodeck in a way.
The HR-V’s rear corner treatment always felt particularly clean. Whenever I spotted those vertical lights in a car park my first thought was often “Volvo 850 Estate” but it is more modernist than that, doing away with the D-pillar between the glass and the light cluster. There are also similarities with the original Fiat Punto’s rear light treatment, although that is curvier and less rigorous.
A shame the original target market was somewhat missed. I’m trying to think of another car designed with a trendy audience in mind which somehow ended up becoming a conservative choice for older buyers but can’t currently think of any.
Ford pitched the Fusion (EU) as a lifestyle vehicle for young urbanites. Again, the high H-point and modest price attracted senior buyers.
On cars that had a younger target audience that ended up with older buyers: I seem to remember this was true for the Toyota RAV 4 and Honda Element as well.
That’s a good point, Ceri: possibly one of the last of the “rigorous” Honda designs (rigorous in the best way). Slightly unusually, I think the production version turned out better than the concept, which to me emphasized the height even more. The more defined wheel arches and “reversed” headlights work better for me as well. Like Freerk, I’ve seen ones without the roof rails and it’s quite a difference (although I haven’t given it enough thought, frankly, to have a favourite).
Honda has a bit of form when it comes to being early to a trend, and then giving up just before it explodes. The Evoque does share some traits with the HR-V, I suppose, but to me the LR a very cleverly cartoonish design (huge wheels and wheel arches, pinched DLO) that turned out to be quite attractive. Not an easy thread to needle. I feel the current Peugeot 208 does something similar: big wheels and wheel arches, headlights, hints to the 205 in DLO shape and c-pillar ornament. Taken individually, the elements are cartoonish and exaggerated, but overall, it hangs together nicely.
I think quite a few “sporty” or “youthful” crossovers are actually more popular with older buyers. Partly demographics, no doubt (and concomitant economics: older people tend to be the only ones with the money to actually buy a car), but also ergonomics. Something like the Renault Captur springs to mind, as do several Audis. Having those spring to mind is a bit of a torture these days.
Hi Tom. I really want to like the current 208 but I can’t get past the too-narrow rear door, and the door handle, which is placed about 25mm too low to align properly with the handle on the front door. Once seen, it’s impossible to unsee.
Richard and Freerk: Thank you, I was scratching around for some examples! I suppose one difference with the Fusion is that while that car repurposed the majority of the Fiesta’s styling features into a taller package (as VW attempted to do with the later Golf Plus), the HR-V was much more avant-garde than say, the contemporary CR-V or Civic. It feels like more focus was put into creating a unique car, and aiming it at a young fashionable audience, which makes it all the more surprising that it became more popular with a completely different group. I guess the HR-V is similar to the original RAV-4 in that regard.
Tom V: Great point regarding Honda getting into trends early, and then giving up just before they take off. There is an interesting parallel in Honda’s Formula 1 escapades over the years; twice they have taken the decision to quit just as they are on the cusp of winning.
After years of struggling, they quit at the end of 2008, the year before Ross Brawn, having bought the team to save it, won the championship with a car that had been paid for by and developed under Honda (albeit now with a Mercedes engine).
Then in 2020 they announced that they would quit as Red Bull’s engine supplier at the end of the 2021 season. Which they duly won, followed by Red Bull dominating 2022 with a debadged Honda engine…
They have taken the sensible decision get their badge back onto the car this year.
Good morning Ceri. You’re right: Honda (and the other Japanese marques) enjoyed a fantastic period of producing really excellent designs in the late 1980s and 1990s. The HR-V is just one example of many
The original W168 Benz A class was targeted at young families and ended as pensioners’ transport.
The plan: “young, cool, trendy urbanites”
The reality: pensioners
That should be the nightmare of a marketing department.
That’s actually pretty dire, not lining up the doorhandles. I sort of like the 208 overall, but it steers very, very close to being too cartoonish (apparently including Picasso-esque (the painter) doorhandles). Maybe that’s why the Opel Corsa is such a hit: it has the same proportions, but looks a little less controversial. Still: overall the 208 veers closer to cute than hyperaggressive (even with those fangs), which gives it a pass in my book.
Hi Tom. The current Corsa reveals its 208 origins with exactly the same issues; the too-short rear doors and misaligned door handles:
Daniel, regarding the 208/Corsa, Stellantis only recorded a cover version of an earlier British mega-hit: “These Doors”.
I hadn’t noticed that about the door handles until now because I always saw them in relation to the rising crease above them and fell for the optical illusion.
Now I can’t see past it, thank you for that.
Oh man, the first-generation HR-V… To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on it at launch, as I found it pretentious: a “commanding” driving position that, like all other SUVs and “crossovers”, gave its drivers an undeserved ego boost and an “excuse” to behave like hooligans. Of course, these days its wheels have been shod in this task by the likes of the Audi Q-series and their VW counterparts, the BMW X-series, the Nissan Qashqai (the middle class hooligan’s favorite), and all other “macho” and “prestige” SUV/Crossovers, esp. Porsches and Range Rovers.
PS: I have a rather funny story about the first-gen HR-V to share; time permitting, I’ll share it later.
C’mon Konstantinos, don’t keep us in suspense! 😁
My dad’s cardiologist had an Alfa 164 2.0 V6 turbo, whose engine he managed to cause to seize. To replace her, hr bought an early HR-V. So, the time came for him to travel from Larissa to Athens to catch his flight to Israel, where he would attend a conference. Used as he was to his Alfa’s performance and highway manners, he left Larissa a bit too late, so he very nearly missed the plane.
I think it’s fair to assume that the cardiologist wasn’t a fastidious observer of speed limits then!😉
(in my best Cutthroat Bill impersonation) Nope.
The original car was fresh, well proportioned and cleanly styled, and underlined Honda’s reputation at that time for doing things slightly differently. I always quietly liked it.
The second gen car looked awful. The current car is one I rather like (with the disclaimer that I am not keen on any SUV/ Cross-over bar the Yeti). It is again neat and quietly styled, without over ornamentation. Honda do it in a red that is suspiciously like Mazda’s Soul Red Crystal, and it looks rather attractive in that hue.
Your emphasis on HR-V’s British connection is even more pertinent than you might imagine, Daniel. For the Honda’s exterior was basically designed at and for Rover, as an alternative proposal to the McGovern shape eventually chosen for production.
This Don Wyatt-penned design clearly left enough of an impression on Honda management to have them ask for its IP rights to be included in the ‘severance package’ agreed on when BMW-owned Rover Group couldn’t & wouldn’t honour its partnership contracts with the Japanese any longer.
Good morning Christopher and thank you for that interesting information about the design history of the HR-V. It’s a shame it was overlooked in favour of McGovern’s design for the original Freelander, which is, I think, far from his best work . (The second generation Freelander was a much better design.)
It’s nice to see the use of a De Dion rear suspension. Is this the last car marketed with one other than the Smart? It’s a nice reference back to the Rover P6, P7, & P8.
Are you sure it was the HR-V and not the CR-V which in its first iteration looks so similar to the Freelander Mk1 that it hurts and also is much closer to it in size than the much smaller HR-V?
I wasn’t there myself, but people who were told me this version.
The IP rights to the design we know today as the HR-V’s were available, as Rover management had rejected the Wyatt proposal. The McGovern design’s weren’t. Whether Honda simply came to similar design conclusions with the original CR-V or were ‘inspired’ by the Freelander I couldn’t speculate on.
Would that be similar to this one I found on AROnline and that seems to be attributed to Wyatt?
As I understand it, the Freelander development process started out for two cars: a more rugged one to be sold under the Land Rover badge and a more street-oriented one under the Rover badge. After a typically convoluted (and cash strapped) development process, what began as the first proposal resulted in the Freelander. The pictured “Oden” proposal seems to have been meant to become the Rover, and was abandoned someway through the process. That (and Rover’s financial situation) would make it likely that the rights to the design were for sale. I think that tallies with Christopher’s take.
Mind you, I’ve only picked this up from AROnline. I have zero insider knowledge and certainly don’t want to claim any. I greatly appreciate Christopher’s inside snippets.
There we go again on muddy waters… my favourite, I must confess 🙂
I fully understand those who see the HR-V as a proto-crossover, for all the reasons hitherto expressed.
But I have doubts as follows: It is too rational in concept and looks, it is simple in presentation and interior design and equipment, it shows no obvious off-road pretention (awd was almost a confidential variant), etc.
It seems to me more like a jacked-up supermini, not a crossover.
It, with the Iety, belongs to an evolutionary dead-end: the higher riding interpretation of a convencional car.
We can almost put the Forester in the same league, a higher riding version of the Legacy SW.
Then, to my eyes, the Qashqai arrived – and it felt like a completely different thing.
Semiothycs again, I’m affraid 🤣
Surely a car with a ‘pensioner’ image that was originally intended to be more youthful comes from Honda itself: the Jazz, which was considerably more successful than the Logo.
I recently happened to see elsewhere that the HR-V was based on the Logo, and found it hard to believe. Yet the 3-door and the Logo do have an identical wheelbase of 2360mm.
The USA went a different route for their third-generation HR-V: theirs is based on the Civic platform, rather than Fit/Jazz, and will be sold in Europe as the ZR-V “[Generation] Z Runabout Vehicle”. If the origin of the name is correct, it’s a bold choice that suggests Honda is once again targeting the younger market – particularly as the younger members of “generation Z” are some years off being allowed to drive! Perhaps I should register MR-V (Millennial Runabout Vehicle) just in case…
Regarding Honda’s design (I don’t know if the topic has already been dealt with on DTW), it strangely borders the schyzofrenic: It balances between the ‘Imperial phase’, as it was called above, and the bland/incomprehensible/ugly.
And the two design schools can succeed on the same range, as their timelines sometimes overlap.
The Imperial / confident/ innovative design school was interrupted more than once, only to surface again later.
First time conservatism won was in the bug-eyed era: logo, civic, accord, CR-V all had that treatment – eyes wide open and too many creases on the flanks. But not the Prelude… why?
Then they became confident and bold again: Next gen Civic and Accord (specially said SW), S2000, HR-V… ditto the Jazz.
Boldness atains its zenith again with Jazz II and civic VIII (I’m not aware of the rest of the range), and then…
…it falls on senseless creases and details with Jazz III (not quite so with civic IX)…
…only to revert again with cleanliness with Jazz IV…
…but not with Civic X, closer aesthetically with Jazz III!
I have not much time to structure my thougths as I ought, and my domain of the english language is not what it should be in order to express fully express myself the way I wish…
…but can you broadly follow my point of view?
Hi Gustavo. I think I get where you’re coming from with this. Honda’s design history has been more volatile than most and it’s not at all obvious that the company has being trying to follow trends in automotive styling. I’m afraid that most/all of their 21st Century output to date has left me cold.
How about the 2003 Honda Accord? That is a quite neatly styled car and properly sized.
Hi Richard. Indeed it is (the Euro/JDM one, anyway. The US version not so much). I should have been more precise about dates: the rot set in from around 2005.
Hi Gustavo, I can see what you mean, and I wonder if it is symptomatic of the Honda management often lacking the courage of its convictions, something that was discussed above. In the same way that Honda sometimes doesn’t have the confidence to keep running with new trends and gets out just before they explode, or decides to quit F1 just before it’s about the start winning, maybe the management feels a pressure to follow trends and add incongruous styling lines halfway through a car’s development, ending up with mishmashes like the 10th-gen Civic you mention.
Regarding the term “imperial phase”, it was apparently coined by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, looking back and describing the short period when it seemed they could do no wrong and had hit after hit. I’m not a huge fan but I can appreciate their best stuff, most of which came out of this period from about 1986-88 (actually coinciding quite closely with Honda’s own imperial phase).
Richard, I agree on the 2003 Accord (I think I referred to it as 2002 above but it was indeed for the 2003 model year), especially in station wagon/”Tourer” form. Also the star of my favourite ever car advert, “Cog” from 2003. Worth a look on Youtube if anyone hasn’t seen it. No CGI involved!
I think Honda lacking the courage of their convictions is one part of it (their F1 history is indeed quite something), but another might be that Honda seems to be an engineering-led company and design simply isn’t the highest priority. Although, as Gustavo points out, they do have their phases where apparently it is higher up the priority list.
Probably some brave soul occasionally manages to convince the highest ups of the value of good design, but in my experience (I studied at a technical university), many engineers don’t care enough about design to distinguish it from mere styling and thus conflate the two, leading them to dismiss both.
Gustavo, I understand. It’s like there has been a kind of a civil war going on in Honda’s design department for the past two decades. At times one side gets their product through to production, at times the others win, no? Or is it more like a soccer match? 🙂
If it wasn’t for my daughter’s Jazz I and II, I’d have little interest in this century’s Hondas. Since Soichiro left us, the company has seemed to lack direction.
Hip Hip Hip replacement – nothing to do with hormones. A work colleague ( maybe thirty-something lady) bought an early one and gave me the keys when I expressed an interest ( it was the first one I’d seen). I thought it was great fun, outside and in, and I particularly liked the cup-shaped ashtray, which could be removed and replaced by a takeaway coffee. Sadly most of them disappeared quite quickly by Honda standards, and I fear some folk tried cornering too quickly for a hi-ride vehicle.
The second gen HR-V ( aka Vezel ) always looked rather attractive to me, so I didn’t make too much fuss when my better-half asked me to find her one. The only drawback is that the clever “magic” seats aren’t particularly comfortable.
The third gen model has yet to appear on the roads of Kerry…
It’s a while since I’ve seen an HR-V, so I can’t recall how big they are – I think I imagine them to be bigger than they are. A colleague had a CR-V which I thought looked good and has proved to be very durable.
I’m surprised that the Logo was used as a basis. Even more surprisingly, Logos still come up for sale occasionally in the UK, often in immaculate condition, as the owners tend to be older.
Prior to the J-WJ, there was the J-MJ from 1997 – that was much squarer in design.