Almost 40 years ago, Honda was on its third generation Civic small car. Sensing American taste for all things larger, with more people and parcel space, brand managers created a five-door wagon version of the diminutive sedan/coupe. In 1985, they added a button on the dash to activate a part-time 4WD system — Real Time 4WD in Honda parlance. Honda was off to the races (sales wise) as the Civic wagon became a popular seller in the Snowbelt.

A few years later, the CR-V compact crossover debuted, illustrating the lessons from the Civic wagon. Currently, the CR-V is Honda’s top-selling vehicle in America.

Today, we get the second generation of the sub-compact HR-V. Formerly based on the tiny Fit, a model since discontinued, this new HR-V is a “WOW” improvement over its original version. Now based on the revised Civic’s Global Architecture, buyers should think of the new HR-V as a 7/8th’s scale CR-V — it’s that much different. And better.

The Civic foundation improves many aspects of the HR-V. The chassis, fully independent pieces at each corner, stretches out to 104.7 inches — a two-inch gain that improves rear seat passenger space. Overall length increases a whopping 9.4 inches, which adds more cargo room and a more comfortable front cabin. And, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 17 horsepower more, up to 158 hp now, running through a CVT automatic transmission on all models — LX, Sport, and EX-L.

Even the Real Time AWD works faster and apportions more power to the rear wheels when necessary as slippage occurs. While the CVT delivers three driving mode choices — Normal, Snow, Econ — there is no locking switch to keep AWD engaged as some rivals offer.

Descent control is new, for better off-pavement control. Plus the latest HR-V adds a plethora of Honda’s electronic safety gear, systems like collision mitigation braking front and rear, blind-spot detection, parking sensors, cross traffic alerts, auto hi-beams, and driver attention monitoring — all standard. With wider camera views, including an optional front camera on EX-L, the HR-V is nicely appointed.

Honda HR-V, EX-L interior. Photo by Tim Plouff

This emphasis is clearly evident inside, where conventional controls compliment modern instruments and functions. Yes you get Apple/Android compatibility. Yes, you can have push-button start. Yes, there is a 9-inch function screen with apps. And yes, there are USB ports and wireless phone charging.

There is a normal shifter sticking up from the console. The upscale honeycomb grille from the Civic is included, but you get things not found in the Civic, like more sound insulation for a quieter cabin, plus seating that feels better.

Out back, you can lower the rear seatbacks from the cargo area — always a convenience under-appreciated — while the cargo hold swallows 24 cubes of gear, substantially more than a Civic’s trunk. Fold the rear seats, for a two-tier, almost flat load deck, and the HR-V can hold up to 55-cubic feet of traveling stuff.

From the helm, the HR-V experience is closer to the Civic and driving bliss than the former rendition could even dream about. Ride comfort and handling comportment are top-notch. The steering wheel feels just right, plus the visibility is very good. The quieter cabin cannot be overstated. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder won’t pin you in your seat when exercising the right pedal, yet our week together rendered 33-miles per gallon, which is better than the EPA estimates of 25/30 mpg, two mpg less than front-drive only models.

HR-V pricing starts at $24,895 for front-drive LX trim; add $1,500 for AWD. Sport begins at $26,895, while our EX-L AWD lists for $30,195 with Nordic Frost Pearl paint. Competitors include Jeep Compass, Kia Seltos, Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota Corolla Cross, and the VW Taos.

The original HR-V was a solid performer — reliable, tough, and very versatile but lacking in refinement. The second edition is a much more well-rounded machine.

Honda calls the new HR-V aspirational. The leap over the previous model — which actually had its best sales year ever, last year — is impressive on all counts. It would be good to see an optional power liftgate offered, while Honda has not indicated if there will be a hybrid version soon.

Honda operates 18 manufacturing facilities in North America and is the largest engine manufacturer in the world. With the highest corporate average fuel economy rating of all US automakers (EPA) and the lowest CO2 emissions, buyers can look at this affordable, efficient, comfortable HR-V and feel good about their automotive choice.