Sometimes, it’s not enough to be the first in the segment. Time and time again we see the “next big thing” or “hip new product” fall flat on its face, leaving the door wide open for a better, more stylish or just plain cheaper competitor to swoop in and take the mantle.

The B-segment crossover is often touted as the solution to the urban commuter conundrum; a relatively affordable tall-riding small hatchback with tough SUV looks, a commanding driving position and unrivalled manoeuvrability.

Over here, however, the class just hasn’t taken off the way we were expecting – the first two models, the Peugeot 2008 and the Ford EcoSport (the modern progenitor of the segment, the Nissan Juke, isn’t offered here), seem to have failed to make inroads into buyers’ minds and wallets. Maybe this isn’t the panacea we were looking for after all. Or perhaps we’re just waiting for the right car to crack into the market.

That’s where the new 2015 Honda HR-V comes in. We’ve been truly surprised by the overwhelming interest in the new contender, and judging by the provisional specifications, equipment and price, it seems the company has done its homework in ascertaining what people want. But is it actually worth all this incredible hype? That’s why we headed to Chiang Mai, to find out.

You’re not wrong in thinking that the HR-V (Hi-Rider Revolutionary Vehicle) name sounds familiar. This is actually Honda’s second attempt at building a truly small SUV – its first, unveiled in 1999 and produced all the way until 2006, was a high-riding box built on the bones of the old Logo supermini. It was way ahead of its time, perhaps too far ahead – it remains a curious footnote in Honda’s history, a position probably not helped by the unorthodox space-age looks.

Certainly, the design of the new one, previewed by the 2013 Urban SUV Concept, is more in tune with mainstream tastes, but it’s still not exactly what you’d call a wallflower. The front end in particular is bound to polarise opinion – there’s a lot going on, from the chrome-embellished X-shaped “Solid Wing Face” graphic, to the deep lower grille integrating the number plate, to the optional twin-projector LED headlights.

It gets more agreeable as you move backwards – the relatively simple body side is broken up by a distinctive swage line, rising to meet the rear door handles, hidden in the trailing edge of the rear side windows. A chunky off-roader feel is conveyed through tough-looking plastic mouldings and a strong stance garnered from the wheels pushed right to the corners.

Curiously, the rear has a slightly Acura-ish feel to it, with a tall rump and L-shaped tail lights, connected by a character line that cuts across the tailgate under the number plate recess.

Unfortunately, our market won’t get the 17-inch wheels offered on the Thai-spec cars seen here, instead settling on 16-inch items as seen on the Japanese-market Vezel. We also won’t be seeing the fancier tube-style tail lights featured on Thailand’s range-topping EL – it’s individual LEDs for us.

Based on the latest Jazz and City, the new HR-V measures 4,294 mm long, which splits its two siblings (Jazz 3,955 mm, City 4,440 mm). It is, however, considerably wider and taller than either, at 1,772 mm and 1,605 mm respectively, while its 2,610 wheelbase shades the City by a minuscule 10 mm. The kerb weight of the top-spec model is quoted at 1,249 kg, over 100 kg heavier than either the Jazz and the City.

Next to the EcoSport, the HR-V is 21 mm longer and 7 mm wider, but 70 mm lower, while the wheelbase is some 91 mm longer. Against the 2008 the gulf is even greater still – 135 mm longer, 33 mm wider and 49 mm taller, with a 72 mm longer wheelbase.

Naturally, being larger than its rivals, you might expect the HR-V to feel more spacious than the other two. And indeed it is – there’s oodles of headroom, legroom and shoulder room to spare; the same could not be so easily said about the 2008 and the EcoSport in particular. It feels a step up from even the impressively capacious Jazz, if not quite boasting the City’s D-segment-beating legroom.

There’s acres of boot space, too – the HR-V features a class-leading figure of 437 litres, which trumps both the Ford and the Peugeot by over 70 litres. Folding down the rear seats boosts space to 1,032 litres, a massive 327 litres more than the EcoSport, but 162 litres less than the 2008. Loading items into that cavernous boot is a cinch, with a wide opening and a low load lip.

The Jazz’s novel rear Ultra Seats make a reappearance here – aside from folding down flat, the seat base can also tip up, providing plenty of space for tall items such as furniture or potted plants. Added to that, there are plenty of storage spaces to stow all your odds and ends, including a compartment that doubles as a pair of cupholders, residing in the space usually reserved for a mechanical handbrake (there’s an electronic parking brake instead).

While the cabin of the HR-V borrows quite a lot of elements from the Jazz and City – including the steering wheel, the seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system and touch panel auto air conditioning on higher-end models, as well as much of the switchgear – everything is presented in a more upscale and refined manner.

Like the Jazz and City, much of the dashboard is made from soft-touch plastic (with faux stitching), but the treatment also extends to the transmission tunnel and the armrests on the doors, while the top part of the door cards are lined with leather (fabric on lower-end models) and feature classy contrast stitching. There’s lots of chrome trim too, and the seats are upholstered in a nice semi-leather upholstery.

Overall, the HR-V’s interior has a much more premium feel than the EcoSport (the cabin in the latter is too reminiscent of the Fiesta on which it’s based, and is lined with hard plastics all over), if not quite as funky or as sophisticated as the 2008’s.

Some areas of the cabin do frustrate, however – the full-width air vents ahead of the front passenger seem little more than a gimmick, sometimes blowing too much cold air to the face (and not enough towards the rear occupants). The cubby hole underneath the tall transmission tunnel – incorporating the USB and HDMI ports – sounds like a great idea at first, but frequently used items can be hard to get to.

Unlike the 1.5 litre Jazz and City, the HR-V gets a larger 1.8 litre R18A i-VTEC four-cylinder engine – the same mill you’ll find on the Civic 1.8 – to move its considerable weight. Output figures for our market have yet to be released, but Thai models produce 141 PS at 6,500 rpm and 172 Nm of torque at 4,300 rpm, roughly the same as on the Civic. A G-Design Shift CVT sends power to the front wheels.

Gunning the throttle from a standstill, the HR-V feels brisk, sprightly, surging through the hustle and bustle of urban traffic with ease thanks to the engine’s strong low-end pull and the quick step-off response from the transmission’s torque converter. It can actually be a bit too fast to react to accelerator inputs, making smooth progress a little difficult, but there’s no arguing with the car’s swiftness off the line.

Once it actually gets going, however, it starts to struggle in gaining momentum. A number of factors work against the HR-V here – the CVT is slightly hesitant in moving to a lower ratio under hard acceleration, and its insistence of using taller ratios to save fuel can sometimes catch it out, putting the engine out of its power band when it is most needed, such as when powering through a corner.

The engine can also feel slightly out of breath at the higher reaches of the rev range – very uncharacteristic of a Honda mill – and it makes itself heard when pushed, a situation exacerbated by the CVT keeping the engine at near maximum revs under load.

Some of the powertrain’s reticence can be dialled out by nudging the gear lever into Sport, but even then you do get a sense that the car feels more at home in the concrete jungle than being wrung of every last horse.

Instead, hang back and settle down, because the HR-V does the highway cruise very, very well. The CVT’s aforementioned preference of taller ratios – a bugbear during spirited driving – is a boon here, keeping revs impressively low, at which point the i-VTEC mill becomes barely audible. There’s low levels of wind and tyre noise too; the latter is quite an achievement on the abrasive Thai tarmac we sampled.

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Docking points off is the ride, which can be rather nuggety over surface imperfections and undulations, enough to make us question its suitability for our pockmarked roads. To be fair, the test cars rode on larger 17-inch wheels (there was also a Modulo-equipped car with 18-inch wheels, the ride on which bordered on being unbearable) – we expect, and hope, that the 16-inch wheels we get will yield a calmer experience.

At least you can expect to achieve decent fuel economy – the Australian model, with the same 1.8 litre engine and CVT combination, is claimed to average 15.2 km per litre. We mustered a real-world figure of between 13-14 km per litre, still a respectable number for a relatively tubby car with a fairly large engine.

Hustling it through the corners revealed a chassis that is more than capable of handling the twisties. Turn-in is sharp, with a quick, direct and accurate – if not the most communicative – steering that weighs up nicely in the bends.

As you’d expect with such a tall vehicle, there is quite a bit of body roll, but the car remains stable and predictable, ultimately transitioning into mild understeer at the limit. It can, however, get unsettled through mid-corner bumps, perhaps a result of the torsion beam rear suspension.

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With disc brakes all around, the HR-V stops with conviction, tracking straight and true even under hard braking, with progressive pedal feel that makes it easy to modulate braking pressure. A quick aside – the Auto Brake Hold function works as advertised, holding the brakes at a standstill and releasing it as you move off the line. It will most definitely make traffic jams and long waits at the traffic lights a tiny bit more bearable.

Overall, the 2015 Honda HR-V is a fine package, uniquely suited to life in the city, where it is expected spend most of its time in. Having experienced it first hand, the level of thought Honda has put into designing such a car and the depth of its engineering shines through; while the EcoSport and 2008 feel very much like the superminis that spawned it, the HR-V is a markedly different animal from the Jazz and City.

Moreover, despite losing a few feel-good features from the Thai variants, Malaysian versions look to remain highly specced, both in terms of equipment (keyless entry, push button start, leather-wrapped steering wheel, reverse camera, cruise control) and safety (six airbags, standard-fit stability control, hill-hold assist).

Pricing of the Melaka-assembled HR-V should be competitive as well – the range-topping V variant is rumoured to be priced around RM120k, putting it right in contention with the 2008, which doesn’t have the Honda’s strong engine and smooth drivetrain. Handsome looks, practical interior, decent performance and engaging road manners – it might just be worth all that hype after all.

Malaysian-spec Honda HR-V on display

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