2023 Honda HR-V First Drive: The Gateway Of Honda Dreams

America may only have had seven years to experience the Honda HR-V — and missed out on the first-generation subcompact crossover altogether — but it's fair to say the second-gen model has been a success since its US debut in 2015. Slotted under the CR-V and based on the bones of the Honda Fit, nearly 700,000 copies of the 2016 – 2022 HR-V found homes around the U.S., particularly among first-time vehicle buyers looking for an affordable mini-SUV, and specifically those under 25 years of age. The HR-V also drew in the highest percentage of first-time and multicultural buyers of any model or manufacturer dealing in light trucks.

Honda's mission with the second-gen HR-V was to position the subcompact crossover as the gateway into the greater Honda (and, eventually, perhaps, Acura) universe, bridging the gap between sporty offerings like the Civic Si and Type R, and more rugged visions like those presented by the Passport TrailSport and Ridgeline RTL-E.

It is this mission Honda not only aims to continue, but to also expand, with the all-new, third-generation, 2023 Honda HR-V.

Bigger, wider, better?

What better way to experience this expanded goal, then, than to fly to Portland, Oregon, and ride over the Columbia River to Stevenson, Washington to meet the 2023 Honda HR-V under the evergreen-covered shadow of the Cascades. The bulk of the new subcompacts on hand for driving impressions were of the top-tier EX-L model with all-wheel drive, each wearing an appropriate-for-the-setting Nordic Forest Pearl (one of two $395 paint options for the EX-L trim).

No matter which trim level is chosen – EX-L, Sport or the base LX – there is only one engine available for the new HR-V: a 16-valve DOHC VTEC 2.0-liter inline-four with dual variable timing control making 158 horsepower and 138 lb.-ft. of torque. All that power goes to the front wheels or all four (via Honda's Real Time AWD system) through a CVT.

The big difference between the second- and third-gen HR-Vs is the size. The last HR-V rode upon the same platform as the third-generation Fit, a model whose fourth generation skipped the U.S. due to declining sales of the third-gen hatchback. Now, the HR-V fills the void, and how. The new subcompact is built upon the bones of the 11th-generation Civic, giving the HR-V a longer and wider footprint upon the road. Wheelbase is 104.5 inches vs. the 102.8 inches of the previous HR-V. Overall width is 72.4 inches (vs. 69.8 inches), and overall length comes to 179.8 inches, a massive jump from the last generation's 170.4 inches.

Over the mountain and through the forest

To best demonstrate the new HR-V's mission as the bridge connecting Honda's sporty side to its outdoorsy side, our fleet of Nordic Forest Pearl EX-Ls spent the morning climbing up the mountain roads near the Skamania Lodge. That put the focus upon the HR-V's driving prowess more than the sights along the way to the meeting point at Sno-Park on Oldman Pass, 31 miles away in Carson, Washington.

Though it had been raining for quite some time prior to the morning drive — causing the Columbia River to rise above the flood stage — the day of the drive itself offered a mix of clouds and sun along the route, as well as temps around the low to mid-50s. Not to mention the drive itself being breathtaking, passing through small towns on the way into the forested mountain roads.

It was to be a common trend. Sticking with the keys to the HR-V EX-L, I pointed the subcompact up the mountain for an afternoon loop along WA-14 and I-84 West, covering a distance of 98 miles between Skamania Lodge and Horsethief Lake. This route not only featured a couple of stops for photo-ops, but the opportunity to demonstrate its highway abilities.

Plenty of tech even at the base of the HR-V mountain

No matter the trim level chosen, the 2023 HR-V offers plenty of tech. The LX and Sport grades include a seven-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus a SiriusXM trial subscription. Those who pick the EX-L get an upgrade to a nine-inch touchscreen, plus Qi-compatible wireless charging. Speaking of cutting cords, wireless Apple CarPlay is available even at the LX level, which means iPhone owners can leave their USB-to-Lightning cables in their pockets.

Next to the touchscreen is a seven-inch color TFT display with an analog speedometer on the right side, an information panel in the tachometer on the left, and a digital speedometer in the center. The information panel displays everything from compass direction to safety support. There's also a Multi Information zone presenting various alerts and info, including Honda's Sensing function.

While more and more vehicles are transferring all controls for all functions onto ever bigger and wilder touchscreen displays, the HR-V offers plenty of knobs and push buttons to handle important functions like the heat and A/C. In fact, Honda emphasizes the fact that the audio controls are now through physical knobs and buttons, specifically a knob for volume and power on the left side of the touchscreen, plus two buttons to go back and forth through tracks. Both seven- and nine-inch touchscreens have the physical controls.

More comfy than cozy

As a result of its new, larger platform, the 2023 HR-V boasts more room than ever. While parked at Horsethief Lake, I decided to experience the rear seats for myself to see if someone of my height (5 ft. 6 ins.) would be comfortable with the front passenger seat pushed all the way back.

Yes. Yes, they would. The longer overall length and wheelbase certainly contribute to greater knee and legroom behind the front seats. The subcompact crossover can seat up to five occupants, so that rear seat may still remain cozy for some. Yet, four adults of average height and size will be plenty comfy on those long road trips, especially with the new body-stabilizing front seats Honda has for the driver and lucky front passenger, which include a unique lumbar and side support system designed to minimize fatigue. The EX-L comes with either black or gray perforated leather seating, heated front seats and, for the driver, eight ways to maximize comfort.

The HR-V Sport, meanwhile, offers unique black cloth seating with orange stitching repeated on the doors, dash and center console. Lastly, the base LX can be had with black or gray cloth seating with embossed patterns and a mélange fabric insert.

Carry everything in the HR-V, my wayward son

A bigger and wider HR-V means more room to carry everything for a week-long camping trip with hiking, biking, perhaps even some river rafting. With the rear seats up, 24.4 cu. ft. can hold plenty of groceries or camping gear. Drop the 60/40 seats down, though, and the cargo room grows to an astounding 55.1 cu. ft. Honda says that makes for one of the largest in the subcompact class, and with a low lift-over height of 27 inches, it's really easy to get the tent, sleeping bags, and all the rest for the trek into the woods.

Of course, not everything can fit in the HR-V. Sometimes, it has to go on the roof. For all trim levels of the 2023 HR-V, there are plenty of roof-mounting options available, from a $169 surfboard attachment and a $269 kayak attachment (as seen in photos above), to a $394 roof basket and $555 midsize roof box; the roof rack itself is a $395 option. And if you need a tent, that's a $408 option that will turn the HR-V into the ultimate camper. Sleeping up to six in its 10-ft. by 10-ft. confines, the tent attaches to the rear tailgate, offering access to the cargo area from inside. 

Have your cake and eat it, too

Though all trim levels of the 2023 Honda HR-V have one engine/transmission combo, it's a big jump compared to the outgoing second-gen HR-V's unit. Gone is the old 1.8-liter inline-four with its 141 horsepower and 127 lb.-ft.; in its place, a new 2.0-liter unit with 158 horsepower and 138 lb.-ft. of torque. The bump in power allows the subcompact to get up to highway speeds in no time, though zero to 60 speed has yet to be announced as of writing.

While the uptick in grunt is nice, nicer still is the catalytic converter at the end of it, which uses a minimum of rare metals while reducing emissions to federal SULEV30 (super ultra-low emission vehicle – 30 milligrams of hydrocarbons per mile) standards. Combined with Honda's first Idle Stop system, along with a combustion chamber design aimed at making the most of the fuel entering into it, the new HR-V is one of the cleanest new, non-hybrid vehicles on the market, all on basic 87 octane.

To manage the power, an updated CVT guides the herd of ponies along through a series of steps mimicking that of an automatic transmission. Additionally, dropping the transmission from Drive to Sport increases throttle response and engine braking while going downhill, something I got to experience going back down the mountain to the lodge.

At home on the highway and mountain roads everywhere

There's a difference, you'll be unsurprised to hear, between the 2023 Honda HR-V and, for example, Acura's NSX Type S when it comes to driving dynamics. One's meant for the everyday, of course, plus some trips into the great outdoors. The other is also meant for the everyday while also turning up the heat on the track. Honda's performance DNA is everywhere, however, from the NSX and Integra of yesteryear, to its successes on the track in IndyCar and IMSA. It's not unfair to hope that some of that DNA finds its way to Honda's subcompact crossover, then.

Helping the cause is a new independent multi-link rear and equally new MacPherson strut system, the latter mounted on a lightweight aluminum subframe whose efficient truss-and-rib structure buffs up body rigidity and stability. Combined with more responsive steering and improved braking, the 2023 HR-V drives like a dream.

Along the way up the mountain and back, the HR-V handled the damp and wet roads with no trouble, floating through the curves near the top of the route. Meanwhile, it can cruise along straight roads and accelerate past traffic as if it were a Civic Si, though the CVT doesn't sound too happy about the acceleration. Then again, most CVTs sound angry when the loud pedal is pushed.

I appreciated how low the HR-V rides, too, bringing me down from the clouds other crossovers and SUVs occupy. Overall, it's akin to the experience behind the wheel of a Civic or an Accord, which means a lot in this gateway to Honda ownership.

Third time's the charm

Though the U.S. market may not have received the first generation of the HR-V, the second-generation from the New '10s found its place with young adults looking for their first new car. The third-gen HR-V looks to build on that success, especially in light of growing competition from the likes of the Hyundai Kona, Chevrolet Trailblazer and the new Toyota Corolla Cross. Pricing between $23,650 for the base LX and $27,450 for the base EX-L should help draw in more new Honda fans and first-time new-car buyers, too.

What all consumers will receive in return, though, is a subcompact crossover that lives up to its main mission: to drive those consumers towards the rest of Honda's offerings as much as it drives them to school, work, and the great outdoors. Some may, eventually, move over to Acura (and the alluring new Integra) on their journey of dreams. The 2023 HR-V is a great first step towards that journey.