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The 2021 Honda HR-V.

Photos by Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Do you think that if more of us had always driven subcompact cars, the planet wouldn’t now be staring down the barrel of the sixth Great Extinction? Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but still, it’s hard to miss the irony that gas-sipping, carbon-benign subcompact cars themselves are on the endangered-species list – at least in North America.

There never were many of them to begin with, and as of this writing, more than half of them haven’t survived past 2020: R.I.P. the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Micra and Toyota Yaris. The only “econobox” hatchbacks left are the subcompact Kia Rio, and the Chevrolet Spark (still about $10,000 if you can live without A/C and automatic) and Mitsubishi Mirage microcompacts.

You can still find some of the discontinued 2020 subcompacts lingering on automakers’ websites, including the Honda Fit, which starts at $16,390. But once those last Fits are gone, the most affordable Honda hatchback option will be a next-size-up Civic starting at $24,190 or this, the HR-V crossover, which starts at $25,200 – or $27,500 if you want all-wheel drive.

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Apples-to-apples, a Fit with automatic and A/C (items that are standard on the base FWD HR-V) lists for $21,090 – $4,110 less than a comparable HR-V. The Fit also consumes about 16-per-cent less gasoline than the HR-V and has about a 25-cm shorter footprint. If all you want is affordable automobility with the smallest possible footprint – both literally and carbon-figuratively – a subcompact crossover isn’t really in the same class.

Of course, if you actually want your practical, city-sized runabout to come in the shape of a crossover, there’s lots to choose from, including front-drive-only tiddlers such as the Hyundai Venue and Nissan Kicks, which start below $20,000. Add all-wheel drive to the must-haves list, and every mainstream brand has at least one candidate. None of them, however, can match the affordability or fuel economy of the disappearing subcompact cars.

This is probably the last year for the current HR-V, which dates back to 2016. The HR-V traditionally shares its architecture with the Fit, and since there’s now a new Fit (also knows as the Jazz) on sale in the rest of the world, we expect a next-generation HR-V is not far off. The new Fit itself won’t be making the trip.

The HR-V's styling is fairly dreary, aside from the test model's Aegean Blue paint and 17-inch wheels.

Three trim levels of HR-V are offered in Canada – LX, Sport and Touring – with AWD optional on the LX and standard on the others. The Sport is a purely cosmetic package, and they all ride on the same rubber, so although our test sample was a Touring, expect the others to be basically the same to drive.

Which is to say, tepid. The HR-V has many virtues, but the driving experience is not one of them. It’s light and easy to handle, which is fine if you view your car as just another appliance, but if you’re an engaged driver who values the eager-puppy peppiness and quick-on-its-feet scamper of the best small cars, you won’t find it here.

The HR-V’s virtues are all of the left-brain variety. It’s the most fuel-efficient AWD crossover in its segment and is remarkably roomy inside relative to its outside size. Its all-wheel-drive system is seamlessly effective. And being a Honda, it should continue to provide safe and sensible transportation for a very long time.

Or you could wait for the next generation and hope it adds some driver appeal to the formula.

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Looks

Yes, it looks like a small crossover. But to our eyes it’s a pretty dreary one, brightened only somewhat by the test Touring’s 17-inch aluminum wheels and Aegean Blue metallic paint.

Interior

The HR-V still boasts an impressively roomy interior.

When it was new, the HR-V was the roomiest crossover in its class. Since then, a couple of newer, larger alternatives have pipped it on some measures, but it’s still tops for rear-seat legroom and tied for most passenger volume, despite having one of the smallest footprints in its segment. Like in most rivals, the driver gets only six-way manual seat adjustment, but there are no visibility issues. The gauges are clear, and the secondary controls are well laid-out and simple to use. The cockpit is dated most by the small screen and lack of hard-button alternatives to using the touch screen for audio (though at least there’s a real twirly-knob for on/off and volume). A large tray below the “hollow” centre console compensates for minuscule door pockets.

Performance

The HR-V’s 1.8-litre engine is paired with one of the industry’s less subtle continuously-variable transmissions; it doesn’t do pretend stepped shifts (except tiny little ones on flat-out acceleration), and since the engine is not exactly silken, you notice the random surges and sags of revs typical of older CVTs. It’s best to keep it in Eco mode, which keeps the rpm down in gentle driving and, in the right conditions, can serve up 120-km/h on the freeway at a very calm 2,200 rpm. Light-footed driving will also help make the most of its class-leading AWD fuel consumption; conversely, booting it evokes a frenetic high-rpm wail under the hood, all for a 0-100 km/h time still on the wrong side of in 10 seconds – hardly worth the effort.

Technology

The cockpit is dated by its small screen and lack of hard-button audio controls.

Key driver-assist features include adaptive cruise, automatic emergency braking, active lane-keeping assist and auto high-beams on all models, plus Honda’s LaneWatch blind-spot display on upper trims, but not blind-spot monitoring or rear cross-traffic alert. Communitainment assets include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and HondaLink across the board plus, on the Touring, navigation, SiriusXM and HD Radio. No wireless charging, though, or WiFi hot spot.

Cargo

The HR-V is the most versatile cargo-carrier in its class.

On paper, a couple of rivals claim more cargo volume than the HR-V’s seats-up 688 litres and seats-folded 1,665 (on the 2WD model; 657 and 1,631 with AWD). But even the allegedly roomier peers can’t beat the usability of the HR-V or its versatility. The deck is unusually low to the ground, and the seatbacks fold completely flat and flush. Alternatively, the seat bottoms can flip up to let that four-foot pot plant stand tall on the ride back from the garden centre.

Tech specs

2021 Honda HR-V Touring
  • Price: $33,700
  • Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: CVT automatic/AWD
  • Fuel consumption (L/100 km): 9.1 city/7.7 highway
  • Alternatives: Buick Encore, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Fiat 500X, Ford EcoSport, Hyundai Kona, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, Nissan Qashqai, Toyota C-HR

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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