HONDA is fast winning new fans, not so much due to Formula One exploits, but more to high scores in quality and service ratings, arguably the best way of increasing sales. If one needs proof that this is a winning formula, just ask Toyota! So, with the likes of Jazz, Civic, CR-V and Accord, not to mention the large selection of motorcycles, most models from the Honda stable are automatically treated with some respect. But does that mean that all are outstanding vehicles? Well, on trial here is the latest venture from Japan, an MPV offering a six-pack of seats, á là Fiat Multipla. Firstly, though, note that this is a pre-launch test and these vehicles will only be available from October onwards.

The outward appearance is successful if not spectacular, with typically Honda smiley grille and airdam, large angular headlights, and sprinklings of chrome on grille, door handles and rear hatch. A wide stance adds a sporty edge to the usual square-box style of an MPV. The roofline, in particular, is kept lowish, sloping gently towards the rear. In fact, the general appearance is like that of an enlarged hatchback. Better than looking like a small bus! Due to appropriate spatial design of the floor, (something that Honda has already proved competent at with the Jazz and Civic), headroom remains outstanding. Other notable features are side mirrors that incorporate indicator lights, a radically curved rear screen (unfortunately leading to distortion in rearward vision) with a large, ugly wiper that rests in the vertical position instead of parking horizontally. The alloy wheels have an unusual, etched appearance instead of a smooth gloss finish, an effect that is repeated on the rear-mounted chrome strip. For puncture emergencies, a steel space-saver is fitted.

Seat packaging is somewhat of a gamble, we feel, since all drivers need to be comfortable, and with three abreast, elbow-room will be restricted. What Honda has done to address this is to give the three individual front seats separate adjustment, making it possible for everyone’s shoulders not to be in line, and thus increase comfort levels. Additionally, the outer seats are moved closer to the door than usual, restricting the size of the door pockets. To help free-up more space, the electric window controls are located on the facia, to the right of the steering wheel, with the smaller controls for the mirror on the door. Only one (large) tester complained that the door felt too close to him, and another complained that he could not find a comfortable driving position due to the seat cushion only being adjustable for tilt at the back.

The seats are cloth covered, well padded but with only basic support. Legroom is good all round, although the left-most front seat passenger has restricted leg space due to the under-glovebox plastic panels. The centre front seat has a couple of options: the front half of the cushion can be raised to reveal a storage bin, or the backrest can be folded forwards to form a large double armrest with a shallow tray between the padding. All three seats have their own seatbelts and sun visors. An interesting option for families with toddlers is that a baby car seat can be placed in the centre front seat with parents on either side. This seat can be slid back to keep the youngster’s feet away from the controls and gearshift and, if this encroaches on the centre-rear seat occupant’s leg space, that seat, too, can be moved backwards. Legroom in the rear is more than ample, and each seat has a retractable headrest. Below the centre facia is a tab that, if pulled, reveals an elaborate triple drinkholder, unfolding like flower petals. All in all, a well executed design layout.

Facia design is a mix of conflicting images, a dark top with audio system display, below which is a full-width wood finish insert including audio controls, and a silver-coloured section housing the air-con and ventilation controls. Instruments are clear and well lit, and the overall ambience is classy. The gear lever, a futuristic-looking silver design, has been placed in the facia directly to the left of the steering wheel, so as not to encroach on legroom. The hand-brake, too, is mounted under-facia and is operated by tugging with the left hand, palm-up, with a thumb activated release button. Cruise control and satellite audio system buttons are fitted to the steering wheel. A trip meter with fuel consumption or estimated remaining range display can be observed in the instrument binnacle, which is operated by pushing a knob between the dials that doubles as the instrument backlighting rheostat.

That strange looking gearshift is actually a delight to use, being both close to the steering wheel and offering a short throw, well within reach of the driver’s left hand. This proves especially relaxing when the centre seat is folded forwards to form a large armrest with the gearlever just ahead of your hand.

The engine may only be a 2,0-litre, but with the aid of variable valve timing a healthy 110 kW is available, with 192 N.m of torque on tap at a highish 4 000 r/min. With a test mass of just under 1,5 tons, the performance is pretty decent. Top speed is 194 km/h attained in fifth gear, with sixth very much an overdrive, The sprint to 100 km/h took 10,94 seconds. Using this vehicle as a robot dicer is not recommended, as the synchromesh from first to second is easily beaten and would not survive regular punishment Don’t be misled by the high revs at which maximum torque is produced, since useable acceleration is available from low down the rev range thanks to flexible engine characteristics. Fuel consumption worked out at 10,33 litres/100 km, which is fair for the FR-V’s size, and a range of approximately 561 km can be achieved.

The sunroof, as fitted to our test car, was noise-free up to 100 km/h, but Honda SA tells us that this will not be offered on imported production models. If that is a problem, Webasto should be able to help out.

Steering, with its hydraulic assistance, is accurate and light, and the overall driving experience, from lightness of controls to ride comfort, powertrain characteristics and handling, impressed us all. For added safety, a complement of six airbags is fitted as well as traction and stability control.

Test summary

The nicest aspect of this car is its laid-back ease of driving. All very smooth and quiet. With short, near-to-hand gear shifting, a light clutch and well-natured powerplant, it makes for comfortable commuting. When one thinks of MPVs and mom’s taxis, one usually thinks of haste and traffic jams, so a relaxed, easy-going vehicle such as this should help reduce the stress levels. The seat arrangement is down to individual taste and family needs, but is well worth consideration.