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2023 Honda HR-V.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

For a moment, we thought there’d been a mix-up. I’d booked a new 2023 Honda HR-V, but for a fleeting instant I thought I was seeing an Acura MDX.

Of course it wasn’t, but the momentary brain tic made one thing immediately obvious: The all-new 2023 rendition of Honda’s smallest crossover is not only bigger than its predecessor, but also an order of magnitude better looking. (We called the styling of the last HR-V “dreary.”)

But the new HR-V is much more than just an exterior makeover. The 2023 edition is based on the architecture of the latest Civic and CR-V, abandoning the previous Honda Fit-based underpinnings. And although it’s not really as big as the three-row MDX, it has grown in every dimension, including a 22-centimetre stretch in overall length that now makes it the largest player in its segment.

Add in fully independent rear suspension, plus a wider track and longer wheelbase, and the new architecture promises much more engaging chassis dynamics. (We called the previous model’s driving experience “tepid.”) Engine displacement is up to 2.0 litres from 1.8, boosting power and torque respectively by 12 per cent (to 158 horsepower) and 9 per cent (to 138 lb-ft). Those gains are offset by a significant weight increase, however, and fuel consumption in government testing is slightly worse. The sole transmission remains a continuously variable automatic.

Other enhancements announced by Honda include a more upscale interior finish, a standard digital gauge cluster, larger touch screens (7 or 9 inches, depending on the model), improved active and passive safety performance, a retuned all-wheel-drive system that sends more torque to the rear when traction is compromised, and a Hill Descent Control function.

The 2023 edition is based on the architecture of the latest Civic and CR-V, abandoning the previous Honda Fit-based underpinnings.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

The “grade walk” is short and simple – LX, Sport and EX-L Navi trim levels, with all-wheel drive optional on the LX and standard on the others. The Honda Sensing suite of assisted-drive technologies has been expanded and is standard across the board. Moving up to the Sport adds minor cosmetic touches plus a moon roof, dual-zone climate control and an audio upgrade; the EX-L Navi further upgrades the audio and adds leather seating, wireless charging and the nine-inch screen with Navigation.

Anyone familiar with the previous HR-V or its Honda Fit relative will be aware of their exceptional space efficiency and versatility, enabled by an ingenious architecture that placed the gas tank under the front seats, thus freeing up space for an exceptionally low floor at the rear. The new model only reinforces the clever design of its predecessor, because for all its increased exterior size, the new interior is a mixed bag of gains and losses: In particular, seats-up cargo volume expands to 691 litres from 657, but seats-folded volume shrinks to 1,559 litres from 1,630. And while rear-seat shoulder room grows slightly, rear legroom drops.

While overall passenger volume dips to 2,795 litres from 2,834, that still positions the HR-V among the roomier members of its peer group. As well, its new shape and size do seem to validate Honda’s goal of “aspirational qualities beyond its segment.” And the same could be said of the chassis; there’s a certain upscale maturity to its cushioned, well-snubbed ride motions and composed, confident cornering.

That said, it still lacks the eager-puppy agility that would make it actually fun to drive. Nor is there much excitement to be found on straight roads; as before, the powertrain elicits no more than an emphatic “meh.”

Tech specs

2023 Honda HR-V

  • Base price/as tested: $28,730/$37,130
  • Engine: Two-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: Continuously-variable automatic/front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive
  • Fuel consumption (litres per 100 kilometres): 9.1 city/7.4 highway for the front-wheel drive; 9.4 city/7.7 highway for the all-wheel drive
  • Alternatives: Buick Encore, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Fiat 500X, Hyundai Kona, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, Nissan Qashqai, Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota Corolla Cross, Volkswagen Taos

Looks

The new grille doesn’t establish much of a unique Honda identity, but the baby-MDX shape helps it stand out from the small-crossover herd.

Interior

Up front, the driver benefits from excellent sightlines, clear no-nonsense white-on-black gauges, and just the right combination of screen controls and traditional twist-or-push buttons.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

We’ve already addressed the rear seat. Up front, the driver benefits from excellent sightlines, clear no-nonsense white-on-black gauges, and just the right combination of screen controls and traditional twist-or-push buttons. Like on the latest Civic, an unusual honeycomb mesh stretches right across the dashboard. Even the top trim, however, has only six-way manual seat adjustment, which may limit your ability (as it did for me) to tailor an optimal position at the wheel.

Performance

Despite the bigger engine, little has changed from what we wrote of the 2021 model, in which we said the continuously variable transmission left a lot to be desired, with “random surges and sags typical of older CVTs.” Booting it, we found, evoked a “frenetic high-rpm wail” under the hood, and even then, the car didn’t reach 100 kilometres an hour for more than 10 seconds. “Hardly worth the effort,” we concluded.

Technology

The 2023 Honda HR-V includes traffic-sign recognition, driver-attention monitoring, blind-spot information and traffic jam assist; the latter essentially provides automatic lane following at low speeds in traffic.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

What’s striking here is not just the extent of the HR-V’s assisted-drive capabilities, but that so much is standard on all trims. Beyond adaptive cruise with low-speed follow, automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist, the list now includes traffic-sign recognition, driver-attention monitoring, blind-spot information and traffic jam assist; the latter essentially provides automatic lane following at low speeds in traffic. Standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now wireless on the EX-L Navi.

Cargo

The seat backs still fold commendably flat, but the resulting hold is less deep than before, and you can no longer flip up the seat bottoms to stash tall objects behind the front seats.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

In essence, the HR-V regressed from providing exceptional cargo space and versatility to being “merely” better than average. The seat backs still fold commendably flat, but the resulting hold is less deep than before, and you can no longer flip up the seat bottoms to stash tall objects behind the front seats. Also absent is the two-level rear deck found on some competitors.

The verdict

When Honda completely redesigns a vehicle, it’s usually a slam dunk. This one isn’t. The HR-V has redressed some of its previous right-brain deficits, but taken a step back on some of its previous left-brain virtues. As a package it’s competitive, but less than compelling.

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