Review: 2011 Honda CR-Z

Take off your rose-colored glasses, CRX fans

2011 Honda CR-Z – Click above for high-res image gallery

Okay, so the 2011 Honda CR-Z isn't exactly the modern-day CRX redux that we were all hoping for. Mildly upsetting, yes, but perhaps this disappointment tarnished our initial impression of this newest hybrid offering from Honda. We still have many questions about its form and function, but need to accept the fact that times have changed, Honda's product strategies have been realigned to the times and the CRX shall remain a modern classic – especially the Si. Besides, this little two-seat hybrid isn't really all that bad. Really.

What we have here is an inherently good vehicle that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It only has two seats and its EPA fuel economy numbers are underwhelming. A Ford Fiesta, for example, is more functional, less expensive and gets nearly the same combined fuel economy – at least compared to a manual-equipped CR-Z like our tester.

But don't write off the CR-Z completely. It may be a tough sell when looked at from a big picture perspective, but on its own, it's a pretty good little whip. Follow the jump to find out why.

Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

After spending a week with our North Shore Blue EX test car, we grew to rather like the CR-Z's design, though it is a bit awkward at first take. The oversized front maw doesn't really match up with the short, wedgy proportions of the rest of the car. What's more, the side profile highlights the fact that the front overhang is noticeably longer than the rear, and from most front three-quarter views, the CR-Z looks rather nose-heavy.

Out back, however, things are a little more put together. The split glass rear hatch and triangular taillamps are reminiscent of the original CRX, but we can see a bit of its larger brother, the Insight (both the original and new one), as well. Interestingly, though, the rear view seems to be the most polarizing among the general public. Within the span of 30 minutes, we had one passer-by make mention of the CR-Z's "butt-ugly butt" and another commented on how modern and high-tech it looked. To each their own, but we're quite fond of the rear design, even though the split in the glass cuts right through the middle of your rear-view mirror sight-lines. Even so, it's no worse than trying to look out the back of a properly winged Subaru STI.

Visually, the only difference between our loaded-up EX tester and the base CR-Z are the addition of front foglamps. All models get the same set of 16-inch alloy wheels you see here, though Honda does offer an attractive set of 17-inchers as a dealer-installed accessory. The larger wheels would better fill out the relatively large wheel wells, not to mention add an extra dose of sportiness, since Honda is, after all, trying to convince us that the CR-Z is a sports car... of a kind.

Looking inside, the whole "hybrid sports car" theme is nicely presented. The futuristic dash display speaks to the eco-mindedness of the CR-Z, and the nicely bolstered, supportive seats and short, nubby six-speed manual shifter are sporty visual cues. Furthermore, all of the car's controls are canted toward the driver, and we're big fans of the smaller-diameter steering wheel. Especially with the navigation screen in place, the interior looks great when lit up at night, though Honda is long overdue for an upgrade to its infotainment display technology – things are starting to look a bit pixelated onscreen.

The CR-Z's hatchback design would lead you to believe that it's relatively functional, and we don't have any complaints about the 25.1 cubic feet of cargo space. Instead of fitting a second row of seats, Honda has opted for clever storage compartments and a divider that can be folded flat to accommodate larger haulables. Would we prefer a two-plus-two seating arrangement? No. We can't imagine that those rear seats would be used for anything except shopping bags and the original CRX didn't have rear seats, anyway.

But while the phrase "hybrid sports car" works for the interior design, it's not as well played out when it comes to the CR-Z's on-road manners. Power comes from Honda's Integrated Motor Assist technology, pairing a 1.5-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder engine with a small electric motor. The gas-powered mill is good for 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque and the electric motor churns out 13 hp and 58 lb-ft, though unlike most parallel hybrids, the CR-Z is a mild hybrid and can't be powered by its electric motor alone. Honda says that maximum torque thrust is available as low as 1,750 rpm, but these i-VTEC four-pots aren't known for their low-end twist – it's all about the high-revving power here, which goes against the point of a hybrid powertrain.

Because of this, fuel economy is meager for a hybrid – our six-speed manual-equipped tester is only rated at 31/37 miles per gallon city/highway (CVT-equipped models hit a more respectable 35/39 mpg). A larger Ford Fusion Hybrid will net you 41 mpg in the city, and even a standard gas-sipping Hyundai Sonata will get you 35 mpg. This proves to be the CR-Z's biggest selling hurdle, as consumers expect cars with a hybrid badge to be substantially more fuel efficient than similarly equipped cars powered solely by an internal combustion engine, and mild hybrids like the CR-Z don't meet that expectation. We wish we could report that real-world fuel economy is better than expected, but we only averaged about 33 mpg during our test.

We drove the CR-Z in all three of its driving modes (Eco, Normal and Sport), though left the car in Normal mode for the majority of the week. Sport mode is nice, as it tightens the steering and improves throttle response, but fuel economy will suffer under these conditions. Eco mode isn't a total bore, though – Honda's light, involving steering rack still keeps things interesting, though the reduction in power delivery makes the CR-Z feel extremely sluggish off the line. There's really no perfect blend of sport and efficiency, though the CR-Z still has enough moves to keep things entertaining on the road.

The CR-Z isn't quite a canyon carver, but its firm suspension and adequate steering feedback are enough to provide an engaging experience for the driver. It's certainly more engaging than your run-of-the-mill Prius, but a Volkswagen Golf TDI will is more enthusiastic, not to mention more fuel efficient. The do-it-yourself gearbox is super smooth, allowing you to fire off quick, slick shifts while still keeping the revs planted in the CR-Z's powerband. Honda's start-stop system works well with this application, with the engine firing up instantaneously when you click the shifter into first gear. Having six cogs to work with means plenty of shifting is required to keep the car hustling, but good throttle feedback and a linear clutch action make for happy cogswapping all day long. As mentioned earlier, the CR-Z can be had with a continuously variable transmission, though we've yet to find a CVT that's preferable to a manual if given the choice. If you just want the CR-Z with the best fuel economy, however, the CVT is the clear winner.

Overall, the CR-Z isn't worthy of a sports car badge, but it is by far the best-driving low-cost compact hybrid we've come across. It feels less like an appliance (Prius) and more like a focused driver's car, even though you won't have much to show for in terms of sheer performance or mileage numbers. And this is where the CR-Z starts to lose its appeal. As soon as you consider the larger scope of what the Honda hybrid is trying to accomplish, your disappointment will start to outweigh any of the good vibes felt from behind the wheel.

It's a tough sell, this CR-Z, but with prices starting below $20,000 and topping out just above $23,000 with a CVT and navigation, Honda will attract a few buyers who are sold on the car's appearance and unique positioning within the marketplace. It's a relatively pleasant car to drive, the interior looks and feels great and its forward-facing design should easily stand the test of time, but we'd be fools not to consider a raft of other options before deciding upon a CR-Z. Your $20-23K may be better spent on a base Mini Cooper, Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit – all three cars are just as good if not better to drive as the CR-Z, and their similar fuel economy and far more practical shapes far outweigh our desire to break the mold of the traditional subcompact set. So take off your rose-colored glasses, CRX fans. This is the future, though it really isn't so bad.

Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

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