Motoring: Road Test: There's a terrific daft in here

Is Honda's much-hyped new `Joy Machine' a toy? Or a toybox?

Do I feel daft in it? Should I? Why don't I? Who am I? That's what happens when you drive the Joy Machine, especially if you have seen the adverts or surfed the waves of www.joy machine.com. It's a world inhabited by scruffy but happy and articulate young things who fill their Joy Machine's interior with crisp packets and empty Coke cans. They must be students.

I know of few students here able to afford a new Joy Machine, so they must be American students in the ads. Very relevant, I'm sure. Honda talks of clubbing at night and surfing by day so, to reassure their parents, maybe we should make that American students on vacation.

The Joy Machine's other name is Honda HR-V. This means High- Riding Vehicle, if you talk to a Honda person from Japan, or Hybrid Recreational Vehicle (purpose, you see, rather than mere description) as Honda UK tells it. Fits in with the bigger CR-V (Compact Recreational Vehicle, though less compact than the HR-V), you see.

A lifestyle seems to be on sale here, centred around the car as both toy and toybox, though Honda knows the bulk of the HR-V's buyers will be older than the serving suggestions in the ads. The idea, unlikely as it sounds, is to combine the attributes of an off-roader with those of a sports coupe, with some hatchback to bridge the gap. So we have roof rails (very surfboard) which become an air-spoiler at the back (very GTI). There's lots of ground clearance and, of course, a high seating position, yet the handling is taut and quick-witted and the engine is eager.

Toyota's RAV4 is the only other car to date which has been seriously conceived as a sporty semi-off- roader in driving qualities as well as in visuals (Suzuki's Vitara fails on the driving count), but it's bigger and more expensive. Which means that the chunky, square-backed HR-V, with vertical tail-lights like a Volvo V70's, is unique in its micro-niche.

The 1.6-litre engine comes from the Honda Civic, but everything else is new apart from the "Dual Pump" four-wheel drive system, borrowed from the CR-V. Normally the HR-V is pulled along by its front wheels alone, but if these start to slither at all, some of the engine's output is diverted to the rear wheels instead.

It's a neat system: each axle drives its own hydraulic pump, and if the pressure in the front pump exceeds that in the rear pump, a valve opens and a multi-plate clutch engages to take drive to the back wheels. The greater the pressure difference, the more firmly the clutch bites, so the system is self-regulating.

Many HR-V buyers will never discover this, I suspect, but they might like to know it's there. If not, a front-drive-only version will be available from September, and the only people who will spot the difference will be those prepared to crawl underneath in search of rear driveshafts.

Inside, all is textured grey - apart from a speckly blue for the dials, the seats and various pieces of adornment - and there's what looks like a cup made of fireproof granite - in fact a removable ashtray tailored to fit into a cup-holder.

But the surprise is how good the HR-V feels to drive. The engine's 105bhp gives plenty of zip for overtaking, and has fair pull at low revs so you don't have to work it too hard. This is just as well, because it gets buzzy at high revs -which is a good reason not to buy the optional continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

The CVT works well of its type, letting the Joy Machine move off smoothly and allowing relaxed cruising once the system has settled into its ultimately very long-legged highest ratio. But as soon as you accelerate with more than modest intent, up go the revs and up goes the racket. It's technically intriguing, especially the way you can get the rev-counter needle to drop while the speedometer is still rising, but for me the novelty soon wears off on the open road. Traffic-jamming is the CVT's best role.

Now, this sporty handling business. How can a car so tall not lean in corners? Stiff suspension is the the more usual answer, but not here, because the HR-V is smooth and supple. Clever suspension design and a lower-than-it-looks centre of gravity are the keys. The Machine really is a Joy on a twisty road, with precise steering and none of the typical off-roader sensation of being about to trip over a front wheel.

Back to the questions posed at the beginning. Other people may think you daft to be driving something called Joy Machine, but that's their problem because this is a car which really does what it promises. I don't think we'll see many in Britain's college car-parks, though. Not unless the student loan system is radically revised, anyway.

Specifications

Make and model:

Honda HR-V "Joy Machine"

Price: pounds 13,995

Engine: 1,590cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 105bhp at 6,200rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive

Performance: 101mph, 0-60 in 11.7sec, 28-33mpg

Citroen Berlingo Multispace: from pounds 12,020. Based on the Berlingo van, so ugly but cheerful. Lively, too, with 1.8 litres, but no four-wheel drive.

Suzuki Vitara 1.6 JX 4U: from pounds 11,995. More HRT than HR-V, this is a fashion model past its best. But the new version comes out fairly soon, and may prove more competition.

Toyota RAV4 2.0 EX: from pounds 14,995. First of the "soft roaders", fast and fun, but bigger than the Honda.

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