- The first-gen HR-V was a gamechanger
- The 3-door variants were among the most cars sold in the 1990s
- It paved the way for compact crossovers
The is one of the most recognisable and popular crossovers in Malaysia and the next-generation model is possibly one of the most hotly anticipated cars of 2022. Still, before the explosion of crossovers, both compact and large, the original HR-V was a truly unique model.
In fact, the first-generation HR-V was so different that it might as well belong in its own unique category. However, as you might see in our dive into the original HR-V, the similarities are beyond more than just in name.
1. It was originally one of a series of concepts
That concept looks familiar…
Even though the mid-1990s saw the Japanese Bubble Economy bursting, there were some wild ideas being tossed around by Japanese carmakers. Compared to the 1980s, these ideas were a bit more sedated. Rather than simply throwing every dart on the board, carmakers were only focusing on one segment at a time.
Collectively, the trio (and the S-MX) were under Honda's Creative Mover series
For Honda, it wanted to introduce a few funky models in the next few years for the growing youth market. The Big H was also undergoing a revitalising shift of sorts with fresh models from its “Creative Mover” series that consisted of the , Stepwgn, and .
25 years ago, Honda probably thought this is what we would be dressed up in 2022
Those models emphasised practicality in a unique way as they shared the same platform with a regular passenger car. Honda’s next plan to reinvigorate itself was through the J-Mover concept cars at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show.
Clockwise from top left: J-VX, J-MW, J-MJ, and J-WJ
The “J” stood for “Joyful” and four concepts were shown – the J-VX (Value X) light sports car, the J-MW (Multi Wagon) tall hatchback, the J-MJ (Multi Joyful) sport activity vehicle, and the J-WJ (Wild & Joyful) wagon.
Clockwise from top left: Insight, Capa, Element, HR-V
Out of the four concepts, only the J-MW and J-WJ would enter production largely unchanged as the Capa and HR-V respectively. Meanwhile, the J-VX would be the basis for the first Honda Insight while some elements of the J-MJ would be seen on the Honda…Element.
2. Revolution is literally its middle name
Out of the four concepts, the J-WJ was a favourite among the development team because it was completely unique but the J-MW-derived Capa would enter production first. The HR-V would be launched on September 1998.
In the HR-V’s Japanese launch press release, Honda’s aim was to create a “new genre of cars that match the city, people, and sensibilities of the future”. A combination of exciting driving pleasure, expansive practical features, a high level of safety, and environmentally friendly technology, the HR-V was touted by Honda as a revolution for the next generation.
The Big H took that “R” word very literally as HR-V stands for “Hi-rider Revolutionary Vehicle”. The high-riding part was considered the biggest selling point for the SUV, or should we call it an early crossover?
Another term that Honda has used to promote its “hi-rider” is “jet feel” to drill into the point that occupants will feel like they are multiple metres above ground. You can’t literally feel like flying in one but the styling is definitely radical and in the 1990s lingo, supa dupa fly.
3. Its marketing is a time capsule to the 1990s
Speaking of the 1990s, the HR-V’s first brochures and advertising were a huge throwback to the 1990s when bubblegum pop went commercial with spicy girls and colourful themes. Yes, there were moody grunge and gangster rap in the mix but you can’t deny the guilty pleasure that are boy bands and Britney Spears, right?
The HR-V debuted in 1998 and was originally only offered with 3-door variants. Its commercials featured American ska-pop band, Save Ferris and looked very bright and poppy with band members jumping over and around the crossover.
The brochures were equally poppy and playful with plenty of mentions of the word ‘play’ scattered inside. Despite that, the variants have a very simple naming scheme – J, J4, and JS4. Once again, the joyful theme from the concepts was carried over onto the HR-V.
4. You can only get the HR-V at specific dealers that also sold the S2000 and NSX in Japan
Just like Toyota and Nissan, Honda had separate dealer networks that catered to different models and buyers. There were three networks namely Honda Primo (Kei cars and basic models), Honda Verno (performance and specialty models), and Honda Clio (high-end and luxury models).
As the HR-V was a unique model, it was only sold at Honda Verno dealers which were recognisable by the green colour scheme. The Verno dealers were also the place for buyers who wanted to get Honda’s legendary performance models like the NSX, the S2000, and the Integra Type R.
The entire Civic line-up is only sold at Honda Primo dealers including the Type R
Interestingly, the was only sold at the Honda Primo store alongside the regular Civic despite being a performance model. Honda would eventually merge the three dealers into one under the Honda Cars dealership in 2006.
5. The HR-V wasn’t exclusive to Japan
The original HR-V wasn’t a JDM even though it had the quirky highlights that made it seem more suited to be confined to Japan. Rather, the HR-V was also sold in Europe, Australia, and a few Asian markets. In Malaysia, the hi-rider was only sold through recond dealers and we found a few for sale online from under RM 30k.
The HR-V was a minor hit in Europe with the tall height and compact size being an advantage for buyers. Younger European buyers were keen on a very unique-looking car and this was at a time when the crossover market was in its infancy.
Unfortunately, its success in Europe wouldn’t be repeated in the domestic market as we will explain later.
6. It was one of the first Honda models designed to pass Japan’s crash tests
In 1995, the New Car Assessment Program in Japan (JNCAP) was launched to improve car safety performance of models sold in the Land of the Rising Sun. Safety wasn’t much of a priority for most Japanese carmakers but that quickly changed when the country’s safety standards were revised to make frontal crash tests a requirement for new models.
Following that, carmakers began to promote safety by coining up their own terms for their crumple zone technology. For Honda, it was called G-CON which stands for G-Force Control and the HR-V was one of the first models to feature this technology.
Honda didn’t just focus on protecting its passenger when it came to the HR-V’s safety, it also put its safety priority to those outside. The HR-V’s front incorporated various features to reduce head injuries to pedestrians through the design of its front hood, fenders, and hinges.
7. It shared a chassis with the Jazz’s predecessor
Despite its high-riding look, the HR-V’s dimension puts it in the same category as a compact car in Japan. That was due to the HR-V being built on the same chassis as the Honda Logo which was the predecessor to the dearly missed .
The tall design belied its compact dimensions and even with the lack of rear doors, the first-gen HR-V was very practical. The rear seats can be folded flat with a 50-50 split and even with the seats up, cargo space was generous.
|HR-V dimension comparison|
|Generation||Gen 1 (5-door)||Gen 2|
Despite the HR-V being on hiatus for a few years between the first and second generations, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the latter is larger even when compared with the 5-door variants that were introduced later.
8. The VTEC engine was only available with 4WD
The HR-V was offered with two 1.6-litre engines, the D16W1 4-cylinder (105 PS/135 Nm) and the D16W5 VTEC (124 PS/138 Nm). The engines were paired with either a Multimatic S CVT or a 5-speed manual transmission but only the VTEC came with 4-wheel drive (4WD).
The non-VTEC powerplant was only offered with front-wheel drive (FWD) but the 4WD system on the HR-V was still mostly front-biased. The Real Time 4WD system was carried over from the CR-V which was launched a few years ago.
The system was also used on other models before the launch of Honda's first proper SUV like the Acty and the Civic. It uses a dual hydraulic pump rear differential and is activated almost instantly when over rough or slippery terrain that requires more traction.
9. The updated HR-V was shorter in height
In July 1999, less than a year after it was introduced, the HR-V was given an update which saw the launch of the 5-door model that was 100 mm longer compared to the 3-door variants.
Besides adding more rear legroom for rear passengers while retaining the generous cargo space, the updated HR-V also saw another improvement to get in and out of the SUV – it became shorter. Ground clearance for the HR-V was reduced from 190 mm to 175 mm.
Another departure from the pre-updated models was the funky two-tone interior colour scheme which has been reduced to the generic combination of grey and grey. It was the beginning of the downfall of the HR-V.
10. It sold very poorly in Japan
Not even the Mugen version was enough to stir buyers
To paraphrase Marie Kondo, the HR-V did not spark joy for most Japanese buyers or maybe it was simply too ahead of its time. Initially, Honda aimed to sell 3,500 units a month for its daring crossover but by the end of the first HR-V’s production in 2005, it was averaging 300 units a month.
The original HR-V might be launched with a 3-door variant which looked funky in retrospect but having fewer doors is pretty much a death sentence in the Japanese car market, even for something niche.
Hence, the introduction of the 5-door variants but that was still not enough to push the HR-V’s sales in Japan. As mentioned before, it was more popular in Europe and gained a cult following in the markets where it wasn’t officially sold.
After a 7-year hiatus, the second-generation HR-V made its debut but due to the model’s poor reception in Japan, it was called the Vezel there which was a combination of the words “vehicle” and “bezel”.
Unlike the original HR-V, the Vezel turned out to be a major success in Japan with both generations being among the country’s best-selling crossovers.
Outside of Japan, the HR-V is fondly remembered for the eccentric first generation even though its presence was limited to a few markets. The current iterations of the HR-V are more popular but they ran because their joyful predecessor was merely walking into an unknown boundary.