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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: 2011 Honda CR-Z

It’s now way past bedtime, and I’m driving the new Honda CR-Z in one of those neighborhoods you wouldn’t be making your evening stroll in. Heads turn, necks stretch, fingers point. Blacked out windows of blacked out SUVs are rolled down. Everybody on the street seems to approve Honda’s new creation, but no one knows it’s a hybrid.
Context, as you know, is everything. Honda says the CR-Z is a sporty hybrid, and while the world of automotive marketing is often cynical, marketing a hybrid sports car is like attempting to sell water powder. Are we expected to hold our breaths towards the 45th mpg or for the last hairpin? Let’s find out.
The CR-Z is based off the Insight, which isn’t exactly a promising start as far as sportiness is concerned. Honda assures us this wasn’t just a copy-cut-paste job: the wheelbase is 4.5 inches shorter than the bread and butter hybrid, and the car itself is shorter by some 8 inches and also considerably wider and lower.
As with most of Honda’s modern designs, the CR-Z is very much a take it or leave it affair, and yes – compared to the concept the front end looks somewhat toned down. That’s not what matters, though. When you look at the CR-Z, you get the distinct notion that the designers had a clear image of the car they wanted from the get-go: this car simply looks like nothing else on the road. From the raked rear window inspired by the CR-X, to the pointy rear lights and bulges distributed in key areas – you’ll have no trouble finding this car in a Walmart parking lot.
The first thing you notice when you sit down in the CR-Z is how close your behind is to the ground. You sit very low in here. Properly low. Female companions are thus advised to avoid wearing skirts if riding shotgun. There are even more prices to be paid for the wowing exterior design: space. Front passengers will feel pretty intimate (if not claustrophobic), storage spaces are scarce, and my European-spec tester’s rear seats will make even grocery complain about headroom. Fortunately, American car journalists will be spared this rant: US-spec cars will come with the rear bench deleted in favor of extra storage space.
Having said that, when you don’t have to consider the rear passenger’s well-being, front legroom is sufficient for a plus sized adult. The trunk isn’t especially commodious – it’s 8.2 cubic feet in size with the seats in place – and the loading bay is high due to the batteries and full-size spare wheel laying underneath.
In best hybrid fashion, the instrument panel is designed with the ultimate control freak in mind. The 3D mishmash of gauges and indicators boldly hosts the rev counter and digital speedometer in an isolated central tunnel (so your wife can’t peek). The rest of the IP is cluttered with digital gauges: a battery charge meter, a fuel consumption indicator, a gearshift indicator and a bar showing whether the battery is being charged or assists the gas motor – along with the usual array of warning lights and standard gauges. Like with the Insight, the rev counter will light up in blue shades if you’re ruining the environment and lights up in cheery green if the mammals of the rain forest are happy with your driving. The central display will also be growing flowers over time if you keep it up.
Environmentalism aside, I found the entire setup a little overwhelming and distracting, especially at night when the entire car is gleaming with bright blue, red and green lights. Unfortunately, the flashy interior doesn’t manage to conceal the mediocre quality it shares with the Insight, and while all of the surfaces feel like they’ll last long after the last iceberg melts, they’re too cheap for a far of this breed.
See that? That’s a clutch pedal in a hybrid car. They’ve existed before (in the first-generation Insight, and Civic Hybrid), but rarely has as much been made of a manual-transmission option. American consumers will also be able to choose an optional CVT gearbox – but you really shouldn’t. This manual box is a magnificent unit by any measure, with nice, short and slick shifts and a buttery clutch. When you press the third pedal, the engine comes silently into life. Together with a 1.5 four cylinder unit lifted from the Fit, Honda’s IMA hybrid system generates a modest 124 horsepower on a weight figure of 2,568 pounds – not that far off from mother Insight, and all in all, not a very convincing figure.
Initial forward movement is surprisingly swift for the pedestrian near-10 second sprint-to-sixty figure, thanks to the assistance from the electric motor. In fact, the electric engine feels more like a small turbocharger rather than a fuel saver – especially in Sport mode, where the electric spinner provides more torque to the front wheels and throttle response is sharpened. The CR-Z’s engine is a short breather compared to traditional Honda performance motors – redlining at around 6,500 rpm – but there’s been a lot of effort to make it sound the part, so there is a considerable amount of not unpleasant engine noise penetrating the cabin in higher rpms.
The problem lies outside the first two short gears, where the CR-Z runs out of breath. There’s simply not enough midrange grunt to label this car a performance coupe, and under determined driving the battery runs out, rendering the CR-Z a little more than an overweight Fit (pun unintended. Honestly).
And it’s a real shame. No, the CR-Z handles nothing like the CR-X, and it shouldn’t – the CR-X was a different car for a different generation, and expecting the 2010 car to have the 1990 driving dynamics is like expecting to get satnav in a Hyundai Excel. But the truth is that when you get it up to speed, the CR-Z can bring a naughty smile on your face.
While the steering lacks feel, it’s fairly accurate and well-weighted, and due to the low ride height and relatively short suspension travel, body roll is also relatively modest. The CR-Z responds well to steering inputs, and feels agile and capable in the corners. Gather enough speed and leave the throttle, and you’ll even manage to induce some old school back slips. Unfortunately, CR-Z doesn’t manage to shake off the braking syndromes associated with hybrids. Thanks to its variable-pressure pedal, there’s not enough feel from the pedal hampering performance braking. The captain’s and navigator’s seats also don’t provide side bolstering for key areas such as the torso and shoulders.
But these are all small niggles compared to the major design flaw. The CR-Z’s biggest problem is that there is not enough straight-line performance to let you easily discover its positive characteristics, and you can really feel the chassis aching for more power.
So the CR-Z is not really a sporty car. But is it a good hybrid? After an intensive driving session, I averaged about 25 mpg. While this, if I’m blunt, sucks – remember that this was a pedal-to-the-metal drive along some mountainous roads in Sport mode, so the CR-Z shouldn’t have much problems hitting the 31/37 city/highway EPA cycle if can hold off the child in you. That’s not bad for a pretentious sporty coupe, but not really ground breaking as far as hybrids or diesels are concerned. When you’re into economy, you can switch to Eco or Normal modes. Both make the car feel more sluggish thanks to a blunter pedal response and less assistance from the electric motor – you’d be hard pressed (ha!) to switch back into one of these modes after driving in Sport.
Honda’s IMA system is what’s referred to as a mild hybrid, which means the electric motor can’t propel the car on its own. On stops, the gas engine powers down and resumes work when the clutch is engaged. There’s no noticeable shudder as the engine coughs into life, but unfortunately for those living in warm climates – like this humble author – with the engine, gone is the air conditioning compressor until the traffic light turns green.
The CR-Z’s livability is a curious mix of good and bad. On one hand, the ride is impressive both in town and on the freeway, and – dare I say it – even better than the Insight’s. It’s also easy to drive thanks to the smooth gearbox and precise clutch, and refinement is good – you feel like you’re going around 15 mph slower than you actually are.
On the other hand, that raked rear window totally ruins rear visibility (while greatly increasing the sky view), to the extent that even the simplest parking maneuvers require an additional pair of helping hands or a good set of parking sensors, and the low ride height makes entering and exiting the CR-Z a thoroughly inelegant affair. I also hope Honda have a better answer than ‘airbags’ to the complete abundance of grip handles front and back.
Is the Honda CR-Z a sporty coupe? Not really. Is it an exceptionally good hybrid? Afraid not. After driving Honda’s newest hybrid and only real sporty car in its lineup, I returned with more questions than strict answers and criticism.
In many ways, the CR-Z is a disappointment. Aside from its exterior design, it seems to be doing all its tasks halfheartedly, and the resulting feeling is that this car has a lot of unfulfilled potential. Fifty more horses could have made it a true enthusiast’s choice in a segment rarely represented in the US. Ten more MPGs would have made it a just ambassador in the hybrid club.
But in a different sense, the CR-Z is one of those ‘first’ cars, like the first Caravan or the original Grand Cherokee. While Honda surely was not the first to toss ‘hybrid’ and ‘sport’ into the same sentence, they were the first to massively produce and market such a car. It does fall between the chairs, and in many ways is inferior to its more traditional rivals – like the VW Scirocco TDI in Europe – but it represents a future. And if that’s the future of hybrids, color me green with envy.
Honda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
This review courtesy of

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