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Payne: New Honda HR-V is stylish, roomy and fun. Until you put your foot into it


Summit Point, W.Va. — Powered by a 1.5-liter Honda Fit engine, the F1600 class is one of my favorite open-wheel, so-called “Formula” racing classes. It’s a showcase for relentless wheel-to-wheel driving, some of the country’s best up-and-coming teenage drivers on the Road to Indy — and for Honda’s reliable engine technology.

Honda also makes a stylish small SUV that will get you to the track.

I picked up the Japanese brand’s newest entry-level, Mexican-built HR-V sport ute at Dulles Airport this summer to take my family to an F1600 race at Summit Point Raceway, one of the country’s most challenging regional racing circuits. I would also be racing my own Lola sports racer (powered by a Ford, not Honda, engine) in the Sports2000 series, which shared box office billing with the F1600s.

Ford was once synonymous with entry-level racing with its iconic Formula Ford series. But Honda recently replaced Ford engines in the F1600 series. The Dearborn maker is more focused on off-road and electrified vehicles these days with its dirt-kicking Bronco and a full pickup lineup that includes the entry-level, hybrid-powered Maverick.

Needless to say, pickups and open-wheel racing are opposite ends of auto culture — but not for Honda, whose entry-level Civic sedan and CR-V ute are whip-quick compacts that appeal to the young folks hanging around F1600 races and Summit Point.

So my family was surprised to find the 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine in my HR-V was the least interesting part of the vehicle. RRRRRRRRRR! Mated to a droning CVT transmission, the HR-V huffed and puffed up the hills of winding West Virginia roads leading to Summit Point.

The F1600’s 1.5-liter Honda engine only makes 130 horses. But since the cars weigh just 1,110 pounds, that’s enough ponies for the job. The 2.0-liter, 158-horse unit in my HR-V, on the other hand, has to push around 3,350 pounds. Oof.

No doubt, the HR-V is as bulletproof as the F1600 mills, which have to endure constant punishment from their drivers. Still, the HR-V’s engine puts it at a comparative disadvantage in its ferociously competitive segment that includes the 186-horse Mazda CX-30 (my favorite driver’s SUV in the subcompact class) or the 184-torque (compared to the HR-V’s 138) turbocharged, 4-cylinder-powered Volkswagen Taos.

At least the HR-V upgraded its engine from the 141-horse hamster wheel in the first-generation model — part of an overhaul for the entry-level ute. As readers of this column know, I’ve got the need for speed, but for most customers in this class, it’s the HR-V’s other upgrades that will really turn heads.

Begin with the fact that the new HR-V is built on the same bones as the excellent Civic sedan.

That means one of the best interiors in class surrounded me as I jumped into the HR-V’s driver's seat. A cool honeycomb dash stretched from A-pillar to A-pillar, featuring a high-mounted touchscreen for good driver visibility complemented by meaty climate-control dials. The interior fit like a glove. That utility extended throughout the roomy cabin.

I loaded three suitcases, a computer bag and a backpack into the rear hatch with ease, then climbed into the roomy backseat with leg and headroom to spare. My 6’3” son Sam sat comfortably in front of me. The current owner of a 2012 VW Golf GTI, he is the HR-V’s target audience should he and his wife, say, want to buy a second car.

After a weekend in the Honda, he said it would be on his shopping list along with the Taos, since Volkswagen has impressed him with the GTI. The Honda and V-dub are very similar, with bold, roomy interiors and distinctive looks — another big improvement for this HR-V over last year’s appliance.

I mean, it actually looked more like a kitchen appliance than a car. For this gen, the HR-V has adopted a more anthropomorphic face with bright eyes (headlights) and a cute mouth. Think the 2020 Kia Sportage or Ford Focus.

My other son, Henry, was a tougher sell. The owner of a 250-horse, all-wheel-drive hatchback Mazda3, he has understandably high expectations for modern subcompact SUVs.

Charging along between corn fields on Route 632 south of Summit, he gripped the fat leather steering wheel and seemed to enjoy the HR-Vs’s nimble Civic chassis. The engine, not so much. He reached for the DRIVE mode selector and got only ECO, SNOW and NORMAL. No SPORT mode. “Pretty boring,” he said. How about the interior? “Compared to the red interior in my Mazda3? Pretty boring.”

Like I said, tough class.

Mazda CX-30 has set a ridiculously high bar in this class in features, too, with standard adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, automatic braking, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and coffee machine (kidding about the latter). Honda keeps up with standard adaptive cruise and auto braking, but load the two vehicles to the teeth and the Mazda wins on price.

Honda’s strengths are in its boxy utility and ergonomic excellence. The Mazda has its quirks — like a cramped, coupe-like roof and remote-dial controlled information screen. Typically, Honda has obsessively tested its SUV to make sure everything is easy. For example:—Tab on top of the rear seats to help them collapse? Check.—Console storage? Check.—Sub-rear cargo storage for small items? Check.—Wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto? Check (on models like my tester with 9-inch screens).—Front warning lights to let me know that I’m within inches of a stack of race tires in the crowded Summit paddock? Check.

Still, there are reminders this is an entry-level vehicle, even in my loaded $31K EX-L model. There are no ceiling grab handles (for passengers to seize when we motorheads choose to throw the Civic chassis around a bit) or climate controls in the rear (honey, could you please turn up the AC in front?).

But on the whole, this is a stylish, roomy vehicle that punches above its price point. Sitting in Summit’s paddock next to the Honda, a friend pointed at the HR-V’s clay-blue wardrobe.

“I like that color,” he said. “Very fashionable.”

In the middle of a sea of race cars sporting all kinds of entertaining paint jobs, it’s no small feat for a small SUV to get noticed. Just a few yards away, a trio of red, yellow and blue F1600s flashed by — nose to tail — down the pit straight.

If a little more of that sportiness rubs off on the HR-V’s engine bay, the Honda will be complete.

2023 Honda HR-V

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger subcompact SUV

Price: $24,895, including $1,245 destination fee ($30,590 as tested) 

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 158 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (Car and Driver). Top speed, 135 mph 

Weight: 3,350 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA, 25 mpg city/30 highway/27 combined

Report card

Highs: Excellent, roomy interior; fun Civic platform

Lows: Engine lacks punch; oh, that CVT

Overall: 3 stars 

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.