2015 Honda Vezel First Drive
CrossFit: The JDM Crossover Signals Good Things to Come From the 2016 HR-V
With automotive forecasters predicting an 80-percent growth rate for the small SUV segment in the US by 2016, ballooning to some 2 million units per annum globally by around 2020, it's no surprise that automakers are bolstering their portfolios with B-segment crossovers. Honda, whose updated CR-V won our 2015 SUV of the Year award as well as the crown for best-selling SUV in America, wasn't about to let a golden sales opportunity like this pass by, one that gives it a compelling 1-2 crossover punch. Enter the HR-V, a compact sport/utility that blends the "coupe" styling of the dearly departed Acura ZDX, the power of the benchmark Civic, and the versatility of an oversized Fit, all at a starting price estimated to come in under $20,000.
Debuted at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show, America's HR-V measures about 9 inches longer than a Fit and 3 inches wider and taller. Although the American HR-V won't be available for us to drive until early next year, I had the chance to sample its Japanese domestic market counterpart, the Vezel, which has been a hot-seller since December 2013.
While there are notable differences between the two -- the Vezel gets a version of the Fit's direct-injected 1.5-liter DOHC I-4 making 129 hp at 6,600 rpm and 114 lb-ft at 4,600, whereas the HR-V will receive a variant of the Civic's 1.8-liter SOHC I-4 good for 138 hp at 6500 rpm and 127 lb-ft at 4300 -- they share most everything else, including suspension setup (front struts, rear torsion beam), CVT automatic, center-mounted fuel tank, fold-flat/fold-up second-row "Magic Seat," available Real Time AWD, and Honda's next-gen Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure. The Vezel can also be had as a Hybrid that pairs a 1.5-liter gas engine with a 30-hp, 118-lb-ft electric battery and a seven-speed DCT, but don't expect a pricey HR-V like that (though one with an Acura badge makes a compelling argument).
For my test drive, Honda loaned me a front-drive Vezel S, whose standard paddle shifters and 17-inch alloys shod with 215/55 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050 summer tires make it the sportiest non-hybrid variant. Initial observation: Despite weighing a hundred or so pounds more than the Fit, the similarly powered Vezel didn't seem any slower. Zipping around the busy streets of Tokyo and merging into expressway traffic presented no problems at all for this 129-hp crossover. In fact, it never felt wanting for more power, a tribute to the nicely sorted CVT. Further, it's much quieter than a Fit, even with the 1.5L pegged at redline. Honda notes that the Vezel utilizes "high-performance soundproofing," and it shows. The gutsier, less-buzzy 1.8L HR-V should prove even quicker and quieter. In terms of fuel economy, expect the HR-V to return numbers slightly thirstier than the Civic's 30/39 mpg city/highway.
The cityscape can only reveal so much, so I took the Vezel to the twisty mountain roads of Mt. Takao. With lively, organic steering and ample grip from the summer Dunlops, the Vezel consumed the curves with ease, delivering an enjoyable, satisfying drive. The ride is firm, which helps the Vezel stay flat during aggressive cornering, but never offensively so. Still, a slightly softer setup for the HR-V would be welcome, as the Vezel was sometimes choppy on the highway. Braking power felt reassuring, thanks to four-wheel discs all around -- no rear drum brakes as on the Fit -- and a well-calibrated pedal. Overall, the Vezel comes across sprightly, agile, and fun -- all traits Honda built its reputation on -- much like the engaging behind-the-wheel experience of the Fit, just with better brakes and a quieter, nicer cabin.
Speaking of the cabin, it really is a step above the Fit's. Think more soft-touch materials, an elegant center console, stitching on the dash, LED lighting, and automatic air conditioning with touchscreen controls. For the segment and price point, the interior is decidedly premium. An electronic parking brake and Hill Start Assist will come standard on the HR-V, with the Vezel upping the ante with Automatic Brake Hold (allows for releasing the brake when stopped in traffic). Rear-seat room is plentiful, certainly if it's kids that will occupy the row, and cargo space is deceivingly big. Indeed, there's 24.3 cubic feet of volume with the second-row seats up and 58.8 with them folded flat. For comparison, a Fit provides 16.6 and 52.7, and a CR-V 35.2 and 70.9, respectively.
The HR-V will be built alongside the Fit at Honda's new factory in Ceyala, Mexico, and will go on sale sometime in spring 2015. Based on my experience in the Vezel, with its blend of engaging dynamics, ingenious packaging, and upscale design inside and out, it's hard to imagine the HR-V not being a huge hit in America. Home Run Vehicle? Yeah, you could say that.
The U.S.-spec 2016 Honda HR-V and JDM 2015 Honda Vezel are shown in the gallery below.