Automakers around the world use their large luxury sedans as test-beds for bleeding-edge tech — a lot of it is ridiculous, but a lot of it becomes practical (think heated seats) or even required by law (think anti-lock brakes or stability control). Over time, the theory goes, some of those technologies filter down to the more plebeian models in the range.
This all came to mind this past week as I made my commute to the very special launch of the new Honda HV-R in Cape Town. Think big.. Wait, think urban, modern and practical. Those were my first impressions of the HR-V press pictures as I browsed while on flight.
But I arrived in Cape Town fully expecting to hate this modern marvel of a Japanese car. I was raised in the Free State, the son of a woman who has worked at a farm driving a Ford for nearly half a century. Honda’s emergence was, perhaps, a little uncomfortable for someone who’d grown up surrounded by the infallible blue oval. Honda has been around since then, the Ballade that is. I felt a little bit like former BlackBerry CEO in his infamous (and ill-fated) takedown of the iPhone: “they’re not just going to walk in,” I thought. The regulatory and financial hurdles are enormous just to make a single terrible car, let alone a good one that people will actually want to buy. And we’ve been proven otherwise with the Jazz, Honda’s marvel (I must admit) its one of those underrated bad boys meet soccer mom cars that you just fall in love with at first sight.
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It’s here (at the launch) that I meet Graham Eagle, Honda Motor SA’s chief director of operations and an auto industry veteran who has had stints at Nissan – just to name one – under his belt.
“I think that’s one of the things that sets us apart a little bit, we’re very much designing with not only production in mind,” he tells me. “We’re designing with a vision of getting this product to the road and into people’s hands as fast as possible. Making sure the user gets the full Honda engineering experience.”
Eventually, Eagle bids us – a bunch of motoring journos – a pleasant trip, and we get down to the nitty gritty of strategising a cross-cape stint in a vehicle that’s as intriguing to the eye as our drive ahead. Our plan was, as prescribed by the trip book, to meander up east from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, stopping to recharge our bodies at Waterblommetjie, a sleepy roadside kafee known for its yummy konfyt.
Once you’re rolling, the HR-V quickly seduces you. It’s the accelerator: it responds sluggishly but manages to pick up once you set in Sport mode, smoothly, and effortlessly, as if you have nearly limitless power at your disposal. For those of us who’ve driven cars powered by manually controlled explosions of fossil fuel their whole lives, though, mashing the pedal of the HR-V is an eye-opening sensation that takes some getting used to. Before long, I was rocketing down passthe Kuils Rivier with no real sense of speed, only astonishment.
As the curb weight suggests, this is not a small car. At 4306 mm long, the HR-V is only 24mm shorter than Nissan’s stately Qashqai (in standard wheelbase trim). It’s deeply handsome from every angle but doesn’t stand out in a crowd; if you squint your eyes, it could look like anything from the R300 000 Juke to a R650 000 Range Rover Evoque. Even Honda’s relatively muted color choices for the car — there are no fluorescent yellows or oranges available like other brands or youthful models — tell the story that it wanted to make something that regular people would feel okay buying.
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Settling in for the 150km drive to Cavalli Estate, I realized that I finally had to contend with the HV-R’s unprecedented driver controls. Or rather, driver control, singular: in place of an average car’s array of buttons, knobs, and small displays, the HR-V has a rather enormous 7-inch capacitive touchscreen mounted horizontally in the middle of the dashboard, angled slightly toward the driver for viewability and ease of reach. So are the temperature controls at slightly the bottom.
Nothing worried me more about the HR-V — nothing brought out more of the curmudgeonly “get off my lawn” mentality — than this touchscreen and touch sensitive controls. Nearly every component in a modern car is designed to enhance safety and keep drivers better focused on the task of driving; traditional knobs and buttons help drivers keep their eyes on the road because they instinctively come to know where things are. They can feel out a volume control here, a temperature control there without having to look down.
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The gadget nerd in me wanted to love this glowing square in the dash, obviously, but the driver in me wanted it gone and replaced with more traditional controls. To be fair, the display is undeniably cool: Honda clearly put a good deal of thought into this user interface, which includes a strip of functions along its home screen.
Cruising along the Western Cape’s beautiful stretch of Highway is incredible in any car, much less an urbanised one capable of doing fairly stupid things on long stretches of straight, empty, flawless asphalt. It was here that I really felt that I’d become one with the HR-V’s suspension and drivetrain: the motor all but defies the car, which weighs nearly a ton. My co-driver for the day begged to differ. He wanted speed and agility. He wanted to feel its power.
We made it to Cavalli Estate within about 2 hours. I was surprised to discover that two 1.5 Comfort Models we left at the departure point of this trip were already here. My co-driver whispered that there’s actually a shorter, less scenic route to this very same estate, so the models must’ve taken it. The lunch here was just beautiful.
But after an hour and a half I was back on the road – alone this time – with about 30km of range back to Hotel Verde; it’s remarkable how much shorter my route back to the city was. My trip back to Cape Town was bittersweet, knowing that I was just a couple of minutes away from relinquishing a very special car that I can’t afford — okay, maybe its 1.5 Comfort model.
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No road trip to Cape Town would be complete without a ceremonial drive with the Table-mountain as backdrop, and that’s where I wrapped my shoot: on the scenic turnout, taking in the magnificent mountain view. The HR-V isn’t perfect. Far from it — and I think that the engineers at Honda themselves would be the first to admit it. But for a company to produce an automobile good enough to convince a Free State native that this might be the future of urban crossovers? Well, that’s pretty amazing.
The HR-V 1.5 Comfort CVT retails for R299 900 while our test drive model, the HR-V 1.8 Elegance CVT goes for R354 900
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