There are plenty of boring cars in the world today, but the one that I’ve personally believed stands tall above the rest — the Honda HR-V — will soon be replaced. Not with the new HR-V teased more than a year ago, because that’s the one the rest of the world is getting. The North American HR-V will be different in ways that I can only presume make it less appealing, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Honda will pull the covers off the U.S.-bound HR-V on April 4. When it does I will be watching closely, because I find the HR-V absolutely mystifying. Mostly due to its total lack of mystery, and continued success in spite of it. I mean, Honda sold some 137,000 examples of the entry-level SUV in these parts last year, beating its previous best year on record — 2019 — by about 38,000 units. And it’s managed to do this despite the aging crossover’s reputation for being one of the least charismatic cars money can buy.
I say this not because I’ve driven an HR-V, but because I know a few people who own them. I even rode in the back seat of one as a car-shopping friend test drove it. They didn’t leave the dealership in an HR-V or indeed any Honda that day, and I promise you that wasn’t totally my fault.
Listen: nobody has anything positive to say about this car. When I ask owners what they think of their HR-Vs, the response is always the same: the face of listless disappointment, mouthing the faintest praise — “it’s reliable,” or something of that nature — belied by the unmistakable tone of passive-aggression. And then they give up the ruse and complain about how loud the CVT whines during highway merges.
Even if you don’t like cars, your car should do something for you. If it’s not fun to drive or comfortable, or it doesn’t provide a mild sense of pride when you look at it, maybe it offers some financial peace of mind or enables you to do the things you like or need to do. The Toyota C-HR, for example, might be generally scorned by its owners, but at least it looks fucking weird, so it’s got that going for it. Every time I see an HR-V on the road, I wonder what it does for the person behind the wheel.
The ironic thing about the HR-V is it very much didn’t start out this way. Before it landed on our shores, there was an earlier iteration of the crossover sold between 1998 and 2006. Honda nicknamed it the “joy machine” in print ads; when you study some of the manufacturer’s press images, you indeed find people immersed in unbridled joy, usually with an HR-V randomly placed in the middle of the scene.
You could get the original HR-V with two or four doors, in an assortment of funky colors and interior upholstery patterns and even with a manual, if you so desired. Every HR-V came standard with a plucky, adorable face. At some point though, the little Honda strayed from its mission statement to be the fun subcompact SUV and became the poster child for the ennui people associate with subcompact SUVs.
Nevertheless, the HR-V has proven a winning formula and so there’s little incentive for Honda to change it. I don’t expect the 2023 model to subvert my expectations, but a little joie de vivre would at least allow the HR-V to pass on the unenviable title I’ve given it to the next small crossover. That said, I’m sure I’ve annoyed a few content HR-V owners all too ready to tell me to touch grass, so if you happen to drive one I’d love to know what you think of it in the comments.