Russ Smith

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Often overlooked, the Honda FR-V could be the hidden gem you're looking for when deciding what tow car to buy, says Practical Caravan's expert Russ Smith

In case you were wondering, FR-V stands for Family Recreational Vehicle – in Honda’s case, a cleverly packaged six-seater, with two rows of three seats and a large boot. Think of it as a Fiat Multipla that wasn’t poked with the ugly stick, feels upmarket inside, and promises Honda’s renowned build quality. Now you might wonder why this little-known gem wasn’t a bigger sales success – it has a lot to offer. But what tow car potential does this model, built between 2004 and 2009, have?

‘Versatile’ describes the Honda FR-V. The rear seats fold flat (using one hand) to provide a vast load space, the centre front seat can be slid back almost a foot to create more elbow room, and is recommended when a child is travelling in it, plus the squab can be flipped to turn the seat into a tray with cupholders. All seats are fitted with three-point belts. Its short overhang means towing stability is good and it rides well.

The FR-V went on sale in the UK late in 2004. Two four-cylinder petrol engines were offered – a 123bhp 1.7 and a 147bhp 2.0. The latter came with a six-speed manual gearbox, while the smaller engine had a five-speed. There was no automatic option at that stage. They were joined a year later by a six-speed manual, 2.2-litre turbodiesel four-pot that kicked out 138bhp accompanied by 251lb ft of torque and offered 44mpg.

There were two trim levels: SE and Sport. In addition to the expected stuff, the SE boasted climate control, heated electric mirrors, remote audio controls and optional alloys. Sport added traction control, standard alloys, front fogs and cruise control.

The range got a mid-term facelift in January 2007, comprising updated head- and tail-lights and new doorhandles. Seats and door panels were covered in a soft-touch fabric, enhancing the Honda FR-V’s quality feel. The petrol engines were dropped and replaced by a single chain-cam i-VTEC 1.8 unit used in the Civic. It had 138bhp and, at an achievable 37mpg, better economy than the old 1.7 engine.

Most still came with a six-speed manual, but the 1.8 could also be ordered with a five-speed, slow-shifting automatic gearbox.

The diesel went on unchanged, and without an auto option, but the ‘Sport’ trim was replaced by ES. Above that, the new range-topping EX added essentials such as heated leather seats and roof rails. Both the ES and EX got parking sensors as standard.

Trouble spots

There is a small issue with the diesel engine: it can drink oil at a rate of up to a litre every 600 miles. That’s considered normal, but you don’t want to buy one that’s been routinely allowed to run low on oil. We’d be happier buying privately and questioning the owner. Anyone boasting of not having to open the bonnet between services wouldn’t get our vote (or cash).

The brakes on the Honda FR-V are good, but the discs are small for the weight of the car and tend to wear quickly. Replacement every 20,000 to 30,000 miles is not unusual, and will probably be at the lower end of that if you do much towing, so check the discs for pitting and scoring. The need for new discs is not a reason to reject a car, but it would be worth haggling the price over.

As with some other Hondas, the electro-magnetic clutch in the air-conditioning pumps can fail at quite low mileages – as little as 30,000. Problems are indicated by a noisy pump: check it by opening the bonnet and listening, then switch on the air-con and listen again for any untoward noises that weren’t there before. Having a new pump fitted by a dealer can cost £1700.

Feel for any vibration through the steering. It only affects some FR-Vs. Honda dealers are aware of the issue and it’s hard to cure completely because the steering design on these cars is particularly sensitive.

Verdict

The Honda FR-V is so off the radar that you perhaps wouldn’t think of trying one. But you really should. It’s a good, stable towing vehicle up to its limits, aided by a notably short rear overhang. It’s not cheap, but good stuff rarely is.

Our pick of the range? Of course, it’s the diesel, the Honda FR-V 2.2 i-CTDi EX. It’s worth paying out a bit extra for the EX, and not just for those handy roof rails, but also because it’s cold out and we’re totally sold on the joy of heated seats.

However, the FR-V 1.7 SE is a real non-starter for towing, so one for caravanners to avoid. It is so underpowered that it actually uses as much fuel as the 2.0, just to keep out of everyone’s way, and only has a five-speed ’box.

What you need to know

In the used market, you'll see Honda FR-Vs for sale in the £2400-£10,500 price range. Think in terms of £3200 for a two-owner 05-plate petrol car with around 70-80k on the clock. Roughly the same money will bag you a leggy early diesel – there seem to be plenty on offer with 130-150k showing – but better specimens will cost you at least £1000 more and it’s worth paying it.

Late, low-mileage diesels with high specs can still command in excess of £10,000, and a car only losing half its value over five years is showing strong residuals, which is good come selling time. Autos are rare, so expect to pay a premium for them.

Here are some useful figures (for a 2007 FR-V 2.2 i-CTDI ES):

  • Kerbweight 1573kg
  • 85% match 1337kg
  • Towing limit 1500kg
  • Nose weight limit 90kg

How much is a towball? Speaking to PF Jones, a Witter flange towbar will be £116.98 and a Westfalia detachable towbar will be £252.72, fitting extra. And when it comes to servicing, we were quoted £130 for an interim service and £205 for a full service by Servicing Stop.

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