Honda HR-V: bubblewrap, ashtrays and joy

The new Honda HR-V demonstrates that a great deal has changed since Honda launched the original hot hatch-estate-SUV thingy in 1999. Back then, the Honda HR-V seemed fresh, innovative and a tad exciting. A brave new approach in the days when a crossover was simply a means of getting from one side of the road to the other.

Of course, the new HR-V will almost certainly be a good car and early reports suggest just that. Much like it did with the Jazz, Honda has chosen to size the HR-V to slot between two sectors, in this case the full-size and compact crossover segments. But this isn’t a review of the new Honda HR-V. Instead, it’s an affectionate look at a car that has always appealed to PetrolBlog. The original three-door HR-V, painted – of course – in that yellow.


Honda HR-V and happy couple

Honda hopes the new HR-V will appeal to ‘young singles and pre-family couples who value their lifestyles and are design conscious.’ Marketing twaddle aside, Honda was targeting the same people in 1999. DINKYs and SINKYs – otherwise known as Dual Income No Kids Yet and Single Income No Kids Yet.

Back in 1999, I was probably within Honda’s sights. They never got in touch with me, but that’s probably because I was a NINKY – a No Income No Kids Yet. Fast forward 16 years and one part of that is no longer true.

This was new territory for Honda. Even taking into account a stellar model range, which included the likes of the NSX, Accord Type-R, Integra Type-R and S2000, Honda wasn’t all that good at appealing to the younger demographic. In fact, it was pretty terrible at it. Not much has changed, then? And we’re still left wondering if the cool young dudes can actually afford to buy a new car.

Honda HR-V: a pitch won using bubblewrap

1999 Honda HR-V

The advertising campaign to support the Honda HR-V was as eye-catching as the car itself. In an attempt to win the hearts of the young and trendies, Honda decided to christen the three-door HR-V the ‘Joy Machine’. Cringeworthy stuff, but at least it got people talking.

And let’s not forget, the market wasn’t so crowded back then. Today, the HR-V has to compete with the Juke, the 500X, the Cactus, the Captur, the CX-3, the Tivoli, the Mokka, the TrendiWotsit and the HappeninScorcher. Back then, it only had the RAV4, Vitara and Multispace to contend with, none of which could offer the HR-V’s blend of dynamics, styling and interior packaging.

The story of how the Leith Agency won the creative pitch for the Honda HR-V is the stuff of ad agency legend. Picturing an ad man frantically handing out bubblewrap to a group of sleepy Japanese execs brings a smile to your face. Which is rather apt, because the HR-V had a sunny disposition, too.

Note Gerry Farrell’s comment about how BMW ‘stole’ the ‘Joy’ strategy for its own marketing campaign. The Z4’s ‘paint’ ad was rather similar to the HRV’s, too.

Simpler tastes at the turn of the millennium

Honda HR-V interior

Young car buyers today. Tsk. They’ve never had it so good. Back in 1999, a set of blue dials, two-tone blue seats, a cassette player and a removable ashtray were enough to tempt people into a Honda showroom. Today, the HR-V has to rely on climate control, cruise control, smartphone integration, Bluetooth connectivity, parking sensors and an infotainment screen.

A word about that removable ashtray. I could be wrong, but wasn’t the Honda HR-V the first car to offer such a feature? I seem to recall the company making a big thing about the fact it could be stored in five different cupholders.

FIVE CUPHOLDERS? That’s properly generous. The new Citroën C4 Cactus has just the one cupholder. Progress?

And storage was never a problem in the original (and best?) HR-V. If you had a mobile phone in 1999 – which wasn’t guaranteed – it could be stored in a little pocket on the side of the seat. There were two gloveboxes and numerous storage bins throughout the cabin. You could also fold the rear seats flat, providing enough space for whatever young and trendies get up to at the weekend.

Breadvan meets hot hatch meets shooting brake

Honda HR-V and lady

I’m going to stick my neck out here and claim the first generation Honda HR-V looks more European than it does Japanese. Maybe it’s the two-door breadvan-esque styling. Or the way in which the roof bars become a roof spoiler at the rear. Or perhaps I’ve simply been seduced by the photography.

Whatever, the Honda HR-V looked fantastic in 1999 and remains so today. Like so many other things, it became frumpier with age and the five-door version – whilst more practical – is far less alluring. The facelift model of 2002 just looks heavy and cumbersome. Stick with the original. In that yellow.

Honda HR-V: Dual Pump four-wheel drive

Rear of Honda HR-V

Today, intelligent four-wheel drive systems are commonplace and we tend to take them for granted. But when the HR-V was launched, they were still something of a novelty. The Honda HR-V featured a so-called ‘Dual Pump’ four-wheel drive system, which it took from the CR-V. Most of the time, the HR-V would trundle along in front-wheel drive mode, but the system would send drive to the rear wheels if required.

The 1.6-litre engine was taken from the Civic, but everything else was brand new. So not only did the HR-V look new, it was genuinely new. It also drove in a manner which was alien to owners of SUVs. It wouldn’t trouble a hot hatch, but Honda did demonstrate that driving an SUV needn’t be akin to controlling a hippo at an ice rink.

Today, you’ll need to spend at least £18,000 to get your hands on a new HR-V, but back in 1999 you could drive away in a Joy Division for less than £14k. Which – with the benefit of hindsight – looks like a bargain today. The HR-V was a Honda in the truest sense, being both innovative and stylish. Plus you could order it in that yellow. Which is something you can’t do with the new HR-V.

The new HR-V does its best to disguise its five-door body by hiding the door handles in the C-pillars. The original HR-V didn’t need such nonsense – it was a good old-fashioned three-door crossover with a huge side windows, massive rear lights and a terrific roof spoiler. On looks alone, the new car simply can’t compete. There’s also no option of four-wheel drive on the new HR-V.

…Baby One More Time

The first HR-V is a car that’s so of its period. This was the year in which we said goodbye to the last millennium and in-car radio-cassette players were booming to the sound of Britney Spears, the Vengaboys, Adam Rickitt, Steps and S Club 7.

Turns out some things are best left in the past. Not the Honda HR-V, though. Just make sure it’s painted that yellow.

The HR-V: bring it all back, I want it that way.

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Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.


  1. July 9, 2015

    Always quite liked the HR-V, and I’ve considered one as a cheap runaround more than once.

    Not sure on the ashtray thing. I recall reading a James May test of the HR-V at one point, and his remark that, “don’t all cars have removable ash trays? That’s how you empty them…”

    • July 9, 2015
      Gavin Big-Surname


      Well I guess Honda’s point was that the ashtray could be passed around the cabin. Like a game of pass the parcel. With some fag ash as the ultimate prize.

  2. July 9, 2015
    David Milloy

    The original HR-V commercial (in the UK, at least) was memorable for reasons that I’m sure were unintentional. How so? Well, for a car marketed as the ‘Joy Machine’, the young blade at the wheel of it in the commercial seemed to me to be utterly joyless. And I really don’t think they were going for irony…

    • July 9, 2015
      Gavin Big-Surname

      Indeed. And with a rather joyless chap shouting “Joy Machine” towards the end.

      Quite clearly the young blade and voiceover chap weren’t given enough bubblewrap.

  3. August 11, 2015

    Another excellent find! Love these oddballs you dig up! In a similar vein, I’m a fan of the original Suzuki Ignis, I’m assuming it existed in the UK? Actually, I’m sure you’ve featured it on this site, so I’ll snoop around a bit…

  4. October 16, 2015
    Kenny Carwash

    I’ve considered buying an HR-V as a cheap runaround a couple of times. They can be had for very little, have a usefully large load bay and still look kind of funky. The interior has dated pretty badly, like a lot of 90s cars. I was tempted by a Peugeot 306 TD a few years ago, but was scared off by the hideous upholstery and the HR-V is not much better.

    When we were last changing the second car we looked at a couple of HR-Vs, but my wife opted for an ’07 Megane instead which, while airy and French and wafty (not to mention cheaper to run) has been beset with expensive electrical gremlins from the outset. If something terrible happened to one of the cars and we needed a replacement on the cheap, an HR-V would be one of the first things I’d look at. One thing I would point out though is that the 2002+ cars have a stronger and more economical engine and that, in my view, would be worth putting up with the unnecessarily muscular body kit for.

  5. April 16, 2018

    Best car I ever owned. Living on Exmoor it got me through snow, black ice and floods without a single problem. Had the CVT Auto, and it would fly off at the lights, so nippy! I gave it away to a friend when I upgraded to a Land Rover. After two years with the Landy, I’m thinking of going back to the good old Honda.


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