The Honda HR-V has never been a particularly sporty SUV to drive; practical, well packaged, and good value for money: yes, but the driving experience was never going to set your pants on fire. It is for this reason that despite its less than engaging experience behind the wheel, it is still the best selling compact SUV on sale today, even in the face of newer competition.
The updated 2017 HR-V remedied some of the slightly dull handling (especially at the front) with better tyres and swanky new wheels, and the 2019 facelift brought about the new RS and Hybrid, in addition to the perennial E and V variants. The previous entry-level S variant has since been dropped.
The RS variant – billed as the sporty one of the family – enlists a Variable Gear Ratio (VGR) steering system for sharper steering in the corners, a snazzy bodykit, and 18-inch wheels to set it apart from the V variant. But, mechanically, it remains unchanged, using the same 1.8-litre i-VTEC naturally aspirated petrol engine paired to a CVT-type automatic transmission.
Which leads us to the HR-V Hybrid. The Hybrid loses out on some equipment of the RS (it actually mirrors the E variant), but retains the 17-inch wheels and offers what is in my opinion, the best petrol-electric hybrid powertrain (with the discontinuation of the Toyota Camry Hybrid) on sale today.
So while it may not be the sportiest looking variant among the HR-V range, it sure as hell is the most high-tech, and the most powerful. Which as you might surmise, spices up proceedings quite a bit.
Can the Hybrid variant really put the Sports back in Sport Utility Vehicle for the HR-V? I’d say so…
First introduced at the beginning of the year, after massive delays in obtaining government pricing approvals, the HR-V Hybrid is the second most expensive variant after the RS variant. As mentioned, Hybrid variant buyers lose out on some features in exchange for the high-tech drivetrain and added fuel-efficiency.
In terms of equipment the HR-V Hybrid loses out on the Honda Lane Watch Camera system, automatic LED headlamps, power-adjusted front seats, and packs a slightly smaller infotainment touchscreen (at 6.8 inches versus the RS’s 7-inch unit). On the upside the Hybrid variant gets auto start/stop and the Variable Geometry Ratio (VGR) steering which was exclusive to the HR-V RS. That said, the turning radius of the Hybrid is actually slightly smaller, at 5.7 metres (versus the RS’s 5.8 meters).
Powering the HR-V Hybrid is a 1.5-litre petrol-electric full-hybrid engine paired to a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission driving the front wheels. The engine and transmission combo are almost identical to what is featured in the City/Jazz Hybrid save for one crucial difference: fuel is fed through a direct-injection system in the H-RV and the combustion cycle is a regular Otto cycle versus the City/Jazz Hybrid's Atkinson cycle, allowing the HR-V Hybrid to make more power.
Inside, the biggest differentiators of the hybrid variant are the hybrid-exclusive meter panel (with energy flow display), unique shift-by-wire gear knob, and a Sport mode button.
Specifications of the Honda HR-V 1.5L Sport Hybrid:
Nothing much has changed on the outside - most of the visual highlights, save the front and rear lights of the Hybrid variant, have been reserved for the V and RS variants. There’s little doubt that the stylistic elements of the RS variant (the 18-inch dual-tone alloy wheels, RS front grille, RS bumpers at the front and back, and Passion Red Pearl colour) would work wonderfully on the Hybrid too, but that would have increased the price substantially, perhaps even more so than anyone would likely pay for it.
Most importantly, Honda Malaysia has kept the 17-inch alloys, shod in 215/55/ R17 rubbers which gives the car a nice sweet spot between looks, handling, and ride comfort. Elsewhere badges on the front fenders and rear tailgate are the only visual differentiators between the Hybrid and E variant.
The key differences of the Hybrid variant are front and centre in the cockpit; the new shift-by-wire joystick, a Sport button positioned just above the parking brake lever and a different instrument panel that also displays, among other things, the energy flow/split between the wheels, petrol engine, and lithium-ion traction battery.
The energy flow display is mighty useful given the absolute silence of the drivetrain when the car is “switched on” in battery mode. I was caught out several times, restarting the car over and over, not realising it was primed and ready to go. That is until I made a habit of looking at the energy flow meter on the right of the instrument cluster.
Elsewhere, given there are no mechanical linkages required for the joystick-type shifter (which is super cool in my opinion), extra space is freed up in the compartment underneath.
That said, I would prefer to have an additional USB slot in the compartment underneath the gear shifter (2015 variants were offered with this) as the cubby bin itself is a convenient space for storage while charging devices. There’s an additional USB charger on the infotainment unit, which is good, but this connection is primarily for data connectivity.
And as with the 2017 model, I have my reservations with the infotainment head unit itself. Complicated menu sets, a low-resolution screen, and excessive screen glare during the day makes it feel like a step backward from what was offered in the pre-2017 models.
Having covered in excess of 1,000 km in the car – nicely split between highway and inner-city driving – I can vouch for the comfort levels of the HR-V Hybrid. The seats are nicely padded and supportive and are a nice place to be in even for extended periods of driving.
For the most part, Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (NVH) levels are good; there’s little road noise or tyre roar heard inside the cabin on a decent road. Hitting bigger bumps can sometimes introduce a ‘thud’ inside the cabin, but I suppose this is somewhat true with any car in this segment. That said, the Subaru XV and Toyota C-HR are better in this respect than the HR-V.
Elsewhere, the tactility of the steering wheel and switchgear are all up to par.
The suspension, though still softer sprung than a Mazda CX-3, straddles a good point between a poised and comfortable ride and decent dynamics in the corners. Yes, the Hybrid isn’t as sharp as the Mazda CX-3 nor as planted as the Subaru XV, but it offers a good balance between being a good grocery-getter and something decent to steer on a back road.
The HR-V Hybrid benefits from a slightly revised chassis and suspension, and improved weight balance given its high voltage battery rests underneath the boot floor. Where the updates are most noticeable is the front end, there’s much less buoyancy, and despite the stiffer setup, is better at soaking up irregularities. Previously, a big bump would normally send the absorbers bashing into their bump stops - now though, the car simply absorbs the bump and returns back to a neutral position in very quick order.
It’s worthy to note that the majority of HR-V Hybrid buyers are not going to blast along the backroads of Ulu Yam every weekend, and hence the benefits of the proven underpinnings, good body rigidity, and quick steering shine instead in terms of having a predictable, nimble, and safe SUV that feels and handles very much like a big hatchback.
The power delivery of the 1.5-litre petrol hybrid unit is sublime right from the get-go. The synthesis between the engine, electric motor, and gearbox stops just short of sheer witchcraft, delivering a seamless and a linear powerband throughout the rev range. With sufficient charge in the battery, a substantial part of the inner city crawling can be done purely in EV mode.
At low speeds, the electric motor allows for freakishly silent acceleration in traffic or when coming to a halt. As you build speed, the most instantly appreciable aspect is the meaty torque band; it feels effortless; especially between speeds of 40km/h – 90km/h, and accelerates almost as well as a 2.0-litre. Keep your foot down, and it will keep going strong up to speeds of 165 km/h. Engage ‘Sports’ mode and proceedings get even peppier.
Now, I’m not saying it is Volkswagen Tiguan quick, but it’s no slouch either. For further context, the specific power output of the HR-V Hybrid’s little 1.5-litre engine is 101.3 PS/litre (of displacement); by comparison, the (175 PS) Accord 2.4-litre punches out just 72.9 PS/litre, hence this power plant is the third most power-dense after the hallowed turbocharged 2.0-litre in the (FK8) Civic Type R, and the turbocharged 1.5-litre VTEC Turbo mill in the Honda CR-V.
The seven-speed transmission offers up a wide spread of ratios for the engine to work on and shifts, up and down, are despatched rather quickly. The HR-V Hybrid is offered with paddle shifters, which does spice things up a little during an enthusiastic drive, but for the most part, the gearbox is intuitive enough to shift up and down depending on the throttle application, such that I rarely found myself needing them.
Another notable mention is the brake-by-servo system, as there’s good predictability and fluidity when the system moves from a recharging phase into a traditional braking phase. This is somewhere even more expensive hybrid cars tend to fall short sometimes.
Elsewhere, the Auto Hold function is also quite possibly the best system on sale today – many other systems require a fair amount of throttle load before the Auto Hold is disengaged, and there’s nothing of that sort with the HR-V Hybrid; just tap the accelerator when you’re ready to go, and the brakes instinctively release the car without any judder or rearward movement.
Perhaps a drawback of the advanced drivetrain is that the engine is worked quite hard, between powering the car and its battery regeneration duties. Hence, despite additional soundproofing materials in the bulkhead, floorplan, and boot floor – it groans and bellows when worked hard. Especially in cases where the engine is required both recharge battery and drive the car up a steep hill.
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The HR-V traditionally competes against the Mazda CX-3, Subaru XV, Mitsubishi ASX, and Toyota C-HR but the biggest spanner in the works has been without a doubt, the Proton X70. Even though the Proton is a larger product that sits one class higher, comparisons with the Honda are inevitable due to the X70’s price, which ranges between RM99k and RM123k.
There’s no doubt the X70 offers superb value for money and generous space, but it still can’t match the HR-V in terms of outright packaging and usability. The chief argument is the HR-V’s innovative floorplan design and Ultra seats – the seats can be adjusted into a variety of configurations that make travel and hauling luggage a much easier operation.
But for the most part, practicality and packaging have always been the HR-V’s strong points. Handling, power, and comfort, on the other hand, is where it’s always paled in comparison to its competitors previously – which I am happy to report have been duly addressed with the HR-V Hybrid.
The sales figures will attest to the fact that Honda HR-V is the pick of the bunch when it comes to the current crop of compact SUVs.
I will attest that the HR-V Hybrid being the pick of the bunch when it comes to the HR-V range, simply because, the abbreviation for SUV first starts with Sport, and that, the HR-V Hybrid now offers in spades.