FROM certain angles, the front of the new Honda ZR-V looks a little grumpy. Maybe it is the weight of expectation – after all, it is going up against the titanic duo of the Kia Sportage and Nissan Qashqai.
However, I suspect it’s just a bold reflection of Honda’s intentions for the ZR-V in this very competitive segment. It’s determined to be the best-driving mid-sized SUVs out there and that doesn’t mean it has to have a pretty, smiley face.
I think it looks good. Based on the even better looking Honda Civic, the ZR-V isn’t as sharp-creased and angular as some rivals. It’s more rounded – especially in the rear quarters. The relatively small “puckered’ front grill looks smart in gloss black.
And speaking of smart, the new Honda ZR-V is very smart when it comes to tech too. Especially the hybrid drivetrain that is so clever it’s difficult to explain. I tried explaining to a couple of friends, but as they started to glaze over I opted for the get-out statement “But all you need to know is that it has both a 2.0-litre petrol engine and a couple of electric motors. So, it’s a full hybrid that you don’t need to plug in.”
That seemed to do the trick but the reality is that the Honda e:HEV powertrain is way more sophisticated than most other full-hybrid setups.
The powertrain combines a battery and two electric motors with a newly developed 2.0-litre direct-injection Atkinson-cycle petrol engine, shifting stealthily between EV, Hybrid and Engine Drive with no input from the driver (c’mon now, stay awake).
In town, the vehicle mostly runs in EV Drive, but when the driver requires stronger acceleration, the car will switch to Hybrid Drive to propel the wheels via the powerful electric motor, with the internal combustion engine generating the required electric power.
At constant high speeds, such as on the motorway, the system will shift to Engine Drive and is directly powered by the petrol engine, assisted by the electric motor when necessary.
But does it work? Yes, and very well too. The ZR-V benefits from EV-like, seamless acceleration, thanks to the power being delivered mostly from an electric motor.
It’s noticeably more urgent than other full hybrids like the Toyota Corolla. And, unlike the Corolla, you don’t have to endure a screaming CVT gearbox when you floor the loud pedal. Honda’s clever Linear-shift control introduces a momentary drop in revs as you accelerate, simulating a conventional gearbox which saves your ears and delivers a more satisfying driving experience.
It all works very well and is one of the reasons I was reluctant to hand the Honda back after a week’s driving. It genuinely was enjoyable to drive and felt like it had more than the 184 PS on offer. I also found that I was handing it back with the 57-litre fuel tank more than half full. From a full tank, you can expect a range of over 600 miles.
The ZR-V can be described as a “driver’s” SUV. It may not be up there with the likes of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio but it is way ahead of its closest rivals when it comes to sharpness of handling and driver satisfaction.
The damping setup is spot-on, with just enough stiffness in the suspension to get the most out of twisting B roads but still managing to deal with pot-holes and speed humps with hardly any jarring at all.
There are 4 drive modes: Normal, Sport, Eco and Snow. I found Normal to be more than quick enough around town. It’s certainly nippy for such a large(ish) car and, of course, it’ll be running mostly in EV mode as you negotiate the High Street.
Sport mode noticeably sharpens things up with the steering taking on more feel and the responsiveness being even more satisfying. It’s official 0-62mph figure of 8 seconds feels realistic.
It can get caught out in some circumstances though – like trying to power up a steepish hill if the car has been running in EV mode. The sudden demand on the engine sometimes causes a bit of a fuss and the engine can get a bit shouty for a couple of seconds before it works out the best combination of electric/ICE to use. It doesn’t happen very often though.
I didn’t get the opportunity to drive the Honda ZR-V on the motorway, but I did manage a couple of stints on the local 70mph dual-carriageways. At speed, the car drives beautifully. It feels solid, sure-footed and changes direction to overtake admirably. But it was a little noisy. It wasn’t the engine but the tyres that were making themselves heard in the cabin. It certainly wasn’t a deal-breaker but it was a bit louder than I was expecting. Maybe a change of tyres would help?
Anyway, after all this positivity you may be thinking “Where is the downside to this magical drivetrain? It must be fuel economy, right?” Well, no, because I managed a healthy 49.3 mpg in my week with the ZR-V, which I thought was pretty good considering I spent half that time in Sport mode. On a long motorway trip, in Eco mode, I’d expect somewhere in the mid to high 50s.
And you get all this from even the entry-level ZR-V because all models share the same sophisticated drivetrain.
Prices start at £39,495 for the Elegance, rising to £41,095 for the Sport and then finishing at £42,895 for the Advance – the model I have been testing.
So, less than £3k between the lot of them, with the Sport being the obvious sweet spot, although even the Elegance comes with a lot of kit as standard: Wireless Apple CarPlay, Adaptive Cruise Control, Honda Connect with Navigation, Front & Rear parking sensors, LED lights, Digital dash, Rear-view camera, Heated front seats, keyless Entry & Start and 18in alloys.
The Advance gets the full package, adding the likes of full genuine Leather Upholstery, Panoramic Roof, Heated Steering Wheel, Adaptive Driving Beam, Privacy Glass, Premium 12 speaker Bose Audio, Power Tailgate and Wireless Charger.
The interior feels spacious with more than enough for a family of four, plus luggage. It’s very well finished too with soft-feel materials all-round and classy-looking part-leather upholstery, stitched in a contrasting silver.
The new 9-inch infotainment screen dominates the dash and I’m glad to say it’s leagues ahead of the previous offering, with large, clear icons and a responsive screen. Sensibly, there is a physical volume button in one corner. Wireless Apple CarPlay is a bonus, although the built-in apps were easy to navigate and setting up my phone was a doddle.
Thankfully, climate control gets its own bank of large, tactile rotary dials just below the central air vents. You’ll also find switches for the heated front seats here too.
The split-layer centre console is unique to the ZR-V and I found it to be refreshingly chunky with Plenty of stuffed leather surrounding the gear-shifter buttons, the electronic handbrake and the Hill-Decent button. Yes, it has one of those too, although I can only imagine it being used in snowy conditions by those who live at the top of a particularly steep road. The Honda ZR-V is very much more a Crossover than an out-and-out SUV, so I can’t imagine many tackling off-road challenges.
The 3-spoke, heated steering wheel is also of the chunky variety and feels very good in the hands with a smooth leather finish and gloss black accents. Metal flappy paddles are fitted to all grades and give full control over the e:HEV’s regenerative braking force, although, sadly, one-pedal driving isn’t achievable. Shame.
Visibility is excellent all-round and you’ll find getting comfy very easy thanks to loads of adjustment in the steering wheel and an 8-way electric driver’s seat with memory function.
I found the 10in digital dash a little fussy with too much information being displayed in almost any configuration, although the important parts are nice and clear. However, the head-up display means you don’t need to look at the dash too much as it displays everything you need, including navigation prompts.
Rear passengers get plenty of head and leg room. 6-footers can easily get comfortable and there is sufficient space beneath the front seats for rear passengers to tuck their feet under. There are even a couple of USB charging ports at the back of the centre console, so kids (and big kids) get to plug in their smartphone devices.
Boot space is good at 380-litres, although not class-leading. Drop the rear seats and you’ll get 1,291 litres though – and the parcel shelf can be folded and stowed away easily beneath the boot floor. More clever stuff from Honda.
And that’s one of the words that sums up the new Honda ZR-V; “Clever”. But not clever for the sake of it, but clever with a very defined purpose – to make the ZR-V a family SUV that you might want to just drive for the sake of it. SUV practicality with hatchback-like driving dynamics is what the Honda delivers more than any of its peers.
So, if driving enjoyment is a priority and you’re ready to jump onto the family SUV bandwagon, then the Honda ZR-V has to be a contender. If you’re after an uncompromising hybrid system that won’t leave you feeling a little flat, then it becomes a no-brainer.
AT A GLANCE:
Honda ZR-V Advance
OTR Price: £42,895
Engine: 2.0Petrol, Electric Motors
Power: 184 PS
Transmission: e-CVT Auto
0-62mph: 8.0 secs
Top Speed: 108 mph
WLTP Combined Economy: 48.7 mpg
WLTP Medium C02: 104 g/km