The 2016 Honda HR-V is a stylish mini-SUV that doesn’t skimp on passenger space or cargo versatility, but numb steering and modest four-cylinder performance detract from its driving experience.

The Honda HR-V is part of the SUV boom that’s happening now, and the biggest battleground is the fast-growing subcompact SUV class.

The HR-V is loosely related to the Honda Fit hatchback and is built in the same Mexican assembly plant. It’s nearly as wide and tall as Honda’s CR-V compact SUV but about 10 inches shorter overall. Passenger volume is similar, but the shorter HR-V has less cargo room.

Offered with front- or all-wheel drive (AWD) and a six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmission, the HR-V comes in three trim levels: LX, EX and EX-L with navigation system. We drove a front-wheel-drive Honda HR-V EX-L with the CVT. The HR-V hits dealerships this spring.

Exterior & Styling


From the boxy Jeep Renegade to the stubby Chevrolet Trax to the sleek Mazda CX-3, there are all manners of design language in the subcompact SUV class. Honda’s approach is most similar to Mazda’s; Honda said it wanted to take the stylish lines of a coupe and bring them to an SUV. I wouldn’t call the Honda HR-V a coupe, but I like its athletic stance and eye-pleasing proportions.

Give Honda credit for not feeling compelled to create a single grille design and apply it, in varying sizes, across its SUV range. The HR-V’s plunging grille works well here, and the black bar above it does a good job tying the headlights into the design.

How It Drives


Ride quality is remarkably refined. In characteristic Honda fashion, suspension tuning is on the firm side, but the setup admirably damps bigger bumps. The Renegade and Trax have similarly well-tuned suspensions.

Electrically assisted power steering gives the steering wheel a light-to-moderate heft. The Honda HR-V feels very stable cruising on the highway, but the lack of midcorner steering feel is disappointing; there’s a numbness you don’t experience in Honda’s Civic compact sedan, for example.

All trim levels are powered by a 141-horsepower, 1.8-liter inline 4-cylinder that’s related to the Civic’s engine. Paired with the optional CVT, the engine provides decent power in city driving and comfortably maintains a highway cruising speed. Passing power, though, is limited; floor the gas pedal at 60 mph and you get more noise than acceleration. The drivetrain is mostly cooperative but sometimes resists raising engine rpm; you have to press the gas pedal quite a ways before it bends to your wishes. The CVT includes an S mode that lets the engine rev more, improving performance at the expense of gas mileage. The Trax’s turbocharged four-cylinder, however, feels stronger than the HR-V’s larger, non-turbocharged engine.

Front-wheel-drive models with the CVT get the best EPA-estimated gas mileage; they’re rated 28/35/31 mpg city/highway/combined. That’s ahead of the most efficient versions of the Trax (26/34/29 mpg), Renegade (24/31/27 mpg) and Nissan Juke (28/34/30 mpg). Estimated gas mileage falls to 27/32/29 mpg with AWD. The manual gearbox is offered only with front-wheel drive, and HR-Vs with this transmission are rated 25/34/28 mpg.

Interior


The Honda HR-V isn’t a tall-riding crossover SUV — it has just 6.7 inches of ground clearance — but you do sit higher than you would in a compact car. Still, like a car, you drop down into the driver’s seat as opposed to stepping up to it, which makes getting in and out of the HR-V very easy.

Visibility is also a high point. The sweeping exterior lines and short rear windows might look as if they’d limit driver sight lines, but forward, rear and over-shoulder views from the front seats are very good. The side mirrors are also large, giving you a good view of what’s happening around you.

Further improving visibility is Honda’s LaneWatch system. Included on the Honda HR-V EX and EX-L trims, LaneWatch adds a camera to the passenger-side mirror housing. When the turn signal is activated for a right-hand turn — or when the LaneWatch button at the end of the turn stalk is pressed — a wide-angle image of the area to the right of and behind the HR-V appears on the 7-inch dashboard touch-screen. Proper side mirror adjustment can usually eliminate most blind spots, but LaneWatch provides an extra measure of safety.

The Honda HR-V’s cabin is very nice in EX-L form, and some of the materials are richer than what’s in Honda’s larger and more expensive CR-V SUV. I was particularly impressed with the padded surfaces on the center console and doors — areas where hard plastic is more common in competitors.

The HR-V’s space efficiency and cargo versatility also separate it from competitors. Like the Fit, the HR-V’s gas tank is located under the front seats, which makes room for Honda’s 60/40-split second-row Magic Seat. The backrest folds down flat for extra cargo room, or the seat cushions can flip up — like in an extended-cab pickup truck — to create a tall cargo space suited to carrying a bike or flat-screen TV.

Sitting in the backseat further reveals the HR-V’s packaging prowess. While other subcompact SUVs, like the Juke and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, have tight backseats, and the Renegade’s and Trax’s rear-seat comfort is merely decent, the HR-V’s second row is extremely comfortable. There’s generous legroom, a comfortable seating position with a reclining backrest, decent headroom and good views out the side window. It’s roomy enough to rival the rear seats of some compact SUVs.

Ergonomics & Electronics


Honda has gone all-in on touch-sensitive controls on EX and EX-L trim levels. The approach gives the dashboard a clean, uncluttered appearance, but also sacrifices some usability.

EX and EX-L trims get a 7-inch touch-screen multimedia system, and the EX-L adds navigation. I like how the screen recognizes smartphone-style pinch and stretch gestures for map zooming, but the touch-sensitive volume control isn’t ideal. It’s just not as easy to use as a traditional knob. The standard steering wheel audio controls, however, are intuitive.

EX and EX-L models also have single-zone automatic climate control that’s operated by a sleek touch-sensitive panel. The interface worked well in warm and sunny Florida, where we drove the HR-V, but the true test will come during the cold winter months in Northern states; we’ve found it nearly impossible to wear gloves and operate similar controls in other cars.

Standard connectivity features include a USB port, Bluetooth streaming audio and an MP3 jack. EX and EX-L trims gain Pandora internet radio integration, another USB port and an HDMI port for watching video on the dashboard screen when the car is stationary.

Cargo & Storage


The Honda HR-V has 24.3 cubic feet of cargo room, and with the backseat folded there’s 58.8 cubic feet of maximum space. That’s more than the Renegade (18.5/50.8 cubic feet), Outlander Sport (21.7/49.5), Trax (18.7/48.4) and Juke (10.5/35.9) offer. The rear bumper is only about knee-high, which makes loading and unloading luggage easier.

Cabin storage includes small door pockets, a center bin at the base of the dashboard and a small cubby beneath the sliding front center armrest.

Safety


As of publication, the Honda HR-V hadn’t been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Active safety features like forward collision warning, blind spot warning and lane departure warning are becoming increasingly available on affordable models, the Renegade included, which is why it’s surprising that none of these features are offered on the Honda HR-V. In addition to the available LaneWatch camera, a backup and rear-view camera is standard.

Value in Its Class


Early subcompact SUVs like the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Nissan Juke required buyers to sacrifice interior roominess, but more recent additions like the Chevrolet Trax and Jeep Renegade are more accommodating. The HR-V’s innovative layout takes it a step further with a roomy, versatile cabin and large cargo area. Combined with a high-grade interior and good estimated gas mileage, the Honda HR-V enters the segment poised to strongly challenge established and all-new models alike.

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