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Crossovers

2016 Honda HR-V successfully splits the difference

Honda is currently lacking in the little SUV market, but that's about to change with the new HR-V. It's small, efficient, comes with AWD and slots in perfectly between the Fit and CR-V.

It's as true in the auto industry as it is in our waistlines: as things get older, they tend to get bigger. So it is for Honda's CR-V. The company's little SUV, which helped to craft the crossover market back in 1996, has grown up quite a bit in the successive 19 years. When introduced it was 178 inches (4.5 meters) long and weighed less than 3,000 pounds (1,355kg). Since then, it's grown almost two inches in length and, crucially, has gained almost 500 pounds -- up to 3,479 pounds in AWD configuration.

With the sad passing of the Element, and the somewhat less unfortunate departure of the Crosstour, Honda fans wanting a smaller SUV were left that way -- wanting. Maybe it's a Fit owner looking for something a bit more friendly for the snowy seasons, or legacy CR-V owners looking for something newer but not necessarily bigger. This year they have an option, thanks to the North American introduction of the HR-V.

Available in Japan for years now under the Vezel nameplate, the TLA HR-V is the rebirth of an earlier Honda mini 'ute, 1998's "Hi-rider Revolutionary Vehicle", which never made it to the US and was discontinued internationally a decade ago. However, other than three letters and a hyphen, there's little to compare between the two cars.

2016hr-v105-small.jpg
The 2016 HR-V slots perfectly in between the Fit and CR-V. Honda

At its essence, the new HR-V is a taller, stretched Fit. (In fact, the two cars will roll out, side by side, from the same production facility in Celaya, Mexico.) At 169 inches (4.3 meters) in length, the HR-V is about 10 inches shorter than the CR-V, and nine inches longer than the Fit. That's what I'd call splitting the difference.

Crucially, though, the HR-V will be available with optional AWD, which sets it apart from Honda's quite popular and, frankly, quite good subcompact. There are other differentiators, however, starting with the interior. Honda's designers told me they wanted to give the dash a futuristic look, and they certainly succeeded -- but at the sad expense of tactility.

It's an almost button-free experience inside the HR-V. Honda

Look across the entire HVAC system and radio and you'll find not a single knob or physical dial. In fact you'll only find a couple of buttons, one to turn the whole system off and another to eject the CD. A power button makes sense, but if you only have one extra button to give, it seems a shame to waste it on ejecting the CD.

Changing fan speed, for example, is done with a pair of on-screen arrows. Tap up to raise the speed, down to lower it. Or, you can swipe your finger up and down. It's workable, and certainly easier to keep clean than a traditional knob-filled HVAC system, but I'm not inclined to think buyers of the HR-V will fall in love with it.

The main interface is a 5-inch capacitive touch display on the $19,115-base LX model, 7-inches for the $21,165 EX and $24,590 EX-L models. (International release information and pricing for the HR-V is not available.) This will optionally include navigation, of course, along with AM/FM, SiriusXM, Bluetooth A2DP, USB playback and the aforementioned in-dash CD player for those still representing physical media. There's even an HDMI input (disabled when the car is in motion) and MirrorLink support, should your phone be suitably capable. Sadly, neither Android Auto nor Apple's CarPlay are on offer.

The "high-deck console" makes room for your gadgets. Honda

Moving beyond the touch interface, the interior looks nice and works well. A "high deck console" between the front seats creates a cubby beneath with dual USB ports, perfect for charging your phone on the go. This positioning is designed to make you feel lower than you are, partly enabled by the electronic parking brake. Sorry, would-be drifters.

Front seats are wide, plush and adjustable for height, but they may not go as low as you like. This is because they actually sit above the fuel tank, which enables a lower floor in the back. I found myself having to recline the seat to keep my hair from brushing the head-liner, and I'm only six feet tall. The moon roof also contributes to the lack of headroom, standard on the EX and EX-L models, though it does at least produce minimal buffeting when open, even at highway speeds.

That fuel tank may limit headroom in the front a bit, but it means the HR-V gets the Fit's aptly named Magic Seats. They can fold flat, of course, but also flip up, providing an open floor for dogs who had a little too much fun in the mud. The layout isn't quite as open as the rear of the Element, but as any Fit owner can attest, it's a boon for carrying things of all shapes and sizes.

The Fit's Magic Seats make a welcomed appearance here. Honda

The HR-V benefits from its extra length over the Fit with plenty of legroom in the back. Even with the driver's seat moved all the way rearward, I fit comfortably behind. That's not always possible in a crossover like this.

Nor, it must be said, is it always possible to get yourself a proper manual transmission. It is here -- though sadly, only on the base, FWD EX model. Alas, that six-speed manual is not available in any AWD HR-V. Indeed, Honda expects that most cars will come with its latest CVT, which continually adapts gearing to theoretically provide the best mix of fuel efficiency and performance.

Most serious drivers hate CVTs, thanks to their sluggish nature and the endless droning engine note they create, but I'm here to say that this one isn't that bad. In normal mode it's far smoother and more responsive than your average automatic, and in sport mode it gets even better. Here, it holds the revs higher and is quicker to let them rise as your right foot lowers. For those desperately longing for more control, petite paddles on the back of the steering wheel let you manually select from seven virtual ratios.

Power comes from a 1.8-liter, 141-horsepower engine. This is a small step up over the 130-horsepower motor in the Fit, a necessary one given the HR-V's extra girth. Performance is good enough to make the HR-V mildly entertaining, though far short of thrilling. With the CVT, the FWD model manages 28 mpg city, 35 highway and 31 combined. Opt for the manual transmission and you'll lose three miles per gallon, while the AWD with CVT does 27 in the city, 32 on the highway and 29 combined.

I unfortunately got very little time in the car, and that time was largely spent in various degrees of road traffic on the tedious roads that surround Miami. It was enough to know that the HR-V retains much of the Fit's feel, including direct steering and reasonably firm suspension that enables sensibly spirited cornering.

The HR-V isn't the most exciting SUV on the market, but it should do well. Honda

Visually, the car hints at dramatic lines and cues, but you have to look for them. Those creases and visual statements are subtle and generally lost in a generic shape terminating in an unfortunately frumpy rear-end that not even a curvaceous spoiler can liven up.

Again, the base-model, FWD HR-V starts at $19,115, roughly $3,500 more than a comparable base Fit and about $4,500 less than a CR-V. Again, splitting the difference. Go with the top-shelf EX-L Navi with AWD and the CVT transmission and you're looking at $25,840, about $2,500 less than a similarly equipped CR-V. (International release information and pricing for the HR-V is not available.)

Given the success of the Fit and of the CR-V, it's hard to imagine the HR-V being anything but a blockbuster for Honda. Indeed, it is a great little package offering plenty of genuinely usable space, reasonable performance and a driving feel that is far more engaging than your average SUV.

Editors' note: CNET accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All fuel and vehicle insurance costs are covered by CNET. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid content.

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