The current Honda HR-V, which is about to be replaced, is pretty forgettable even among forgettable crossovers. I know a few folks who have either purchased or test driven one, and none of them had particularly enthusiastic things to say. One told me she comforts her HR-V with words of encouragement while merging onto the highway, because the CVT whine makes the thing sound like it’s dying an agonizing death.
However, I’ve just been reminded that there was actually an HR-V before that HR-V. It was sold in Asia and Europe, from 1998 to 2006, and shared its platform with the Honda Logo, a subcompact from the late ’90s that wasn’t sold here either. And after studying some images of the three-door version, I quite like it. I think my life could be improved with the original HR-V.
Evidently, I’m not the only Jalop who feels this way, as a Google search has just revealed to me that Jason already wrote about the car seven years ago. The nerve of that guy. Leave some of the good cars for your future coworkers, why don’t you?
That’s not coincidental though, because there’s much about the original HR-V to like. Honda called it the Joy Machine in ads, which pretty much makes its purpose in life immediately clear. Notice how the modern HR-V does not share its predecessor’s nickname. Sort of tells you everything you need to know right there, doesn’t it?
The HR-V began life as a three-door, though a five-door model was later offered. There was one engine — a 1.6-liter inline-four producing 104 horsepower — though a VTEC option raised output to 124 HP. You could choose either a five-speed manual or CVT, and front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, though all VTEC cars were paired with all-wheel drive. They also rode nice and high and came in fun colors, like burnt orange and greenish-yellow, which added to the joy.
Honda marketed the HR-V to young people, hoping they’d flock to it to bolster their “active” lifestyles. The car was viewed as a quirky, low-emissions and lightweight alternative to bigger SUVs, as the review above from 1999 makes clear. At just shy of 2,800 pounds, however, the weight savings were nominal compared with the current model, which tips the scales at 2,900 pounds or more but carries 17 more horsepower.
So, no, the old HR-V still wasn’t fast; in fact, it was probably slower than its successor. But, it also didn’t force you to stick with the CVT, and — in my opinion — it looked far better.
I still consider the late ’90s the peak of Honda design, and this car is absolutely a product of it, with a look that is clean and utilitarian but also weirdly cute. The way the headlight housings encircle the lamps is very Y2K appropriate, and I love how the rear side windows go on forever on the three-door model. I look at the face, and yeah, I see joy. Determination and joy. On the inside, the HR-V was clad in cool-tone cloth, but the over-the-top fabric pattern warms my heart.
The more I look at the HR-V’s proportions, the more I’m encouraged that crossovers can actually be very charming when approached with the right attitude. There is a simplicity and honesty here that’s missing from the body style today, and I think if more manufacturers could channel that, along with the original HR-V’s youthful, go-anywhere ambition, there’s a real potential for a smash hit.