All about that base
Honda Cars Philippines has a knack for making impressive entry-grade variants of their vehicles. That alone sets the tone for the rest of this review.
As far as I can remember, they did that during the early EK Civic days, where they didn't remove much from the spec sheet so buyers don't feel shortchanged when they compared their LXi to the range-topping SiR - except for the engine, of course. The LXi at the time had power windows, power steering, and a fuel-injected engine, while other base variants from other manufacturers had to make do with carbureted engines and pawis (manual) steering.
They are still using the same formula today and they've done it specifically with the HR-V 1.5 S non-turbo and V turbo. After experiencing both earlier in the year, on a drive to Tagaytay and Anilao, I was honestly leaning towards the top-spec variant because of its engine.
But recently, I was handed the keys to the entry-level non-turbo variant to serve as my daily driver for a week. And simply put, my initial impression changed. Let me explain the reasons why.
From the outside, it's really hard to tell the difference between this and the V turbo. If anything, one has to even read a Honda brochure to know which is which. The HR-V S can even be mistaken as the top-of-the line model. Why? Because it's wearing two-toned 17-inch wheels unlike the single-tone, dark-colored alloys on the top-spec V. For its face, its horizontal grille even has a piano black finish which really doesn't speak base model at all.
Both are wearing the same LED headlights and taillights. Sans the gimmicky Amp Up line on the lower grille, the Turbo badge and twin-tip exhaust in the back, the difference between the S and the V outside only comes down to very small details, and those won't even let the S look basic.
Once you enter the HR-V S, the changes are likewise subtle. It's an entry-grade model so of course, Honda tried to “downgrade” things a little bit. The most obvious details are the fabric seats and the urethane-wrapped steering wheel - the former we don't really mind especially with our weather. When you're seated, your two elbows can rest on soft-padded leatherettes on the armrest and door panel, plus you're still seeing leather trims across the dashboard. None of those look and feel cheap.
The HR-V S has analog dials for the speedometer and tachometer unlike the fully-digital ones on the V turbo, but they are separated by a 4.2-inch digital multi-information display with crisp graphics. Call me old school, but I'm really digging the way Honda made it look like a luxury watch of sorts. They kept it simple, but classy.
Interestingly, Honda didn't even put in a smaller screen for the head unit; it's the same 8-inch touchscreen media system with Bluetooth, USB, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay that always worked without a hitch. Furthermore, it still has the automatic climate control and air diffusion system on either side of the dashboard like the V turbo. The rear A/C vents are also there, but it comes without the two USB charging ports, which is not really a deal-breaker.
When it comes to functionality, the ULT seats exploit the abilities of the HR-V S when it comes to swallowing cargo and maximizing space, something Honda has always done very well with their models.
Now we're down to where the V turbo (initially) made the PHP 348,000 difference on our first drive – the engine. Powering the HR-V S is a naturally-aspirated 1.5-liter, four-cylinder DOHC i-VTEC with 121 PS and 145 Nm of torque paired to a continuously variable transmission driving the front wheels.
I must admit, the non-turbo's power deficit was exposed when we were going through the twisties of Tagaytay and Anilao. On a drive event, we're usually driving at a heightened pace than normal. And with the HR-V S units surrounded by the turbo V, Accord and the diesel CR-V, it will indeed struggle.
Now free from its turbocharged brothers, the HR-V S does not actually perform bad at all. It won't give you the sudden rush of power when you mash the throttle, but it will still do so, albeit linearly. On city speeds, it drives smooth and will cruise along nicely. Body composure is kept in check on bumps and other road imperfections, and performs in a manner where it feels more like an SUV rather than a hatchback. If I had a word for it, it would be comfortable-ish.
On expressways where you're close (or doing) triple-digit speeds, it doesn't struggle to keep its momentum up. It just takes longer to get there of course, compared to the turbo V. It's quiet, and road noise is kept to a minimum. I've said it before and will say it again, the third-generation HR-V has such a positive feel when it comes to its brakes, and it's easily the best ones I've currently tested for a crossover.
With the HR-V S equipped with Honda Sensing, the lane keep assist system (LKAS) and adaptive cruise control (ACC) meant every expressway drive past 70 km/h (where LKAS activates) becomes an effortless one, plus it's not too intrusive. Kudos to Honda for dialing in its advanced driving assist system on point.
If there's any aspect where the non-turbo shines over the V turbo, it has to be fuel economy. During my time with the HR-V S, I was able to do 9.1 km/l at a 16 km/h average during my daily trip in the metro, while I did 23.8 km/l on an 84 km/h average on the expressways. On a short province trip with combined driving conditions (30% city, 70% highway), I was able to achieve 15.8 km/l with a 48 km/h average speed.
At PHP 1.25 million, Honda has made the most out of packaging the HR-V S where it can be competitive. It's a good-looking crossover offering a level of equipment that easily goes past the industry standards for entry-grade models.
But since it is going against a lot of more powerful and cheaper Chinese-made contenders in a hotly contested crossover segment, it will still fall short in matching the value proposition that models like the MG ZS, Changan CS35 Plus and the Ford Territory are offering.
What the HR-V S makes up for is the refinement and level of precision that its Chinese rivals haven't achieved yet when it comes to driving dynamics except for the Coolray, so I've been told. Still there's the prestige that comes with wearing a Honda badge. Let's face it, some are still badge-centric; now whether or not that's enough to sway buyers will be down to how many we see on the road everyday.