Honda is touting the 2011 CR-Z as the first vehicle to bridge the not-insubstantial gulf between a fuel-efficient hybrid and a fun-to-drive sports car. Imagine it as a crossbreed of an Insight with an S2000, and you’re thinking like Honda. But you’re also thinking crazy, as performance and parsimony remain diametrically opposed. No amount of quixotic engineering can overcome the limitations of physics, so the CR-Z remains a compromise, just like every other car. And in this case that means it’s a pretty good hybrid but not much of a sports car.
This is not so surprising, given Honda’s last attempt at something similar, the unpopular Accord Hybrid that lasted just three model years, from 2005-2007. Its promise was murky at best: The hybrid Accord had only marginally improved fuel economy compared to the standard sedan, but it was more powerful and, of course, more expensive. And if that car was a puzzler, Honda is going to have an even greater challenge explaining its latest impossible dream even if it seems to have erred in the opposite direction this time around. That’s because the CR-Z is available only as an impractical two-seat coupe, making it an absolute nonstarter with the vast majority of car buyers. The rest will likely be nonplussed by its meager 122 horsepower – which would only be impressive if the CR-Z were a motorcycle.
Fuel economy is the CR-Z’s strongest suit, as its combined 37 miles per gallon rating is better than any non-hybrid on the market. Though not as miserly as the Toyota Prius’ 50, or even Honda’s own Insight, which is rated at 41, the CR-Z is indeed sportier than either of those hybrids. But that’s not saying a whole lot now, is it?
The CR-Z’s greatest asset is its design, as the short, squat, and aggressively styled little coupe looks like it’s going fast even while parked. Multiple character lines sweep back from a wide front grille opening, up and back to the high rear hatchback. The hatch features a tinted vertical glass panel for rearward visibility, while the larger window is nearly parallel to the ground, almost as an extension of the roof. If there is a fault to the exterior design, it would be in the standard 16-inch wheels, which appear too small, especially in the back.
Inside, the CR-Z doesn’t deviate too far from standard Honda fare, which is a good thing. A three-spoke steering wheel protruding from a driver-centered instrument panel is the highlight. Honda has incorporated its Eco-Assist fuel economy information system from the Insight into the CR-Z’s instrument panel, and we are particularly fond of the green-blue-red glow of the center-positioned tachometer, which surrounds the digital speedometer display, and changes colors depending on how the car is being driven. It all looks racy, and complements the sporty, high-backed bucket seats, which are snug, well bolstered and comfortable. The rest of the interior is fairly standard soft-touch plastic, save for the door handles and some other small pieces on the center console that are coated in a unique and attractive metal film.
For as slick as the CR-Z’s interior is, what’s most notable is what’s missing: The back seat. In other markets, this two-seater will be sold as a “2+2,” but in North America we get two odd storage cubbies and a fold-down “cargo cover” (the vestigial seatback) instead of the kid-size seating. While Honda’s product planners probably see this as part of the car’s sportiness, it seems more likely to relegate the CR-Z to performing the same sort of commuter car duty as most first generation Insight two-seaters.
Under the skin, the CR-Z most closely resembles its sibling, the Honda Insight, from which is borrows its hybrid parts, including Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system and a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. But the CR-Z employs a larger, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which, once you add in the additional power provided by the electric motor, is rated at 122 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. The other major difference from the Insight is that a close ratio, six-speed manual transmission is standard in the CR-Z, giving the car at least the pretense of sporting potential. (While a continuously variable transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle “shifters” is available for an additional $650, it will cost you five lb-ft of torque as well.)
Behind the wheel, the CR-Z offers three distinct driving modes: economy, normal and sport. Economy is designed to maximize fuel efficiency by curtailing throttle response, limiting the air conditioning system, and aggressively cutting the engine at idle. When compared to normal mode, the effect on driving is as subtle as sport is dramatic. It’s this mode that gives the CR-Z what bona fides it can claim. Sport mode makes the electric assist feel sort of like a supercharger, providing extra power at even slight throttle angles, and ramping up that power as rapidly as you can depress the accelerator.
Sport mode also firms up the electric power steering, giving it a more precise feel, though the CR-Z provides more feedback to the driver through its low-slung seat than through the steering wheel. The car leans quite a bit under heavy cornering and is prone to front-wheel-drive understeer, but overall the CR-Z actually handles pretty well. It brakes better than any other hybrid we’ve driven, with no noticeable transition between the regenerative braking system and the friction brakes.
While our initial impressions of the CR-Z were positive, the longer and harder we drove it, the less we liked it. Just trundling along, the effect of pressing the sport button is an immediate rush of electric motor assist that certainly makes it seem like you’re behind the wheel of a performance machine. This boost is short-lived, however, as once the Integrated Motor Assist is providing its full torque output, you realize that the CR-Z can be woefully slow. Climbing hills or pulling out to pass requires downshifting a gear or two and really flogging the little four-cylinder. There is fun to be had in the CR-Z, but only in small doses.
Now let’s put this commentary in its proper perspective: The CR-Z is plenty powerful enough for everyday driving, and compared to most inexpensive compact cars it’s actually got enough juice under the hood and delivers it in such a way to put a smile on your face. But hop out of this “sporty” hybrid and into a car with even a modicum of performance -- like, say, the base Hyundai Genesis Coupe -- and that grin will be elevated to uncontrollable laughter. Even compared to Honda’s other models, the performance of the CR-Z is questionable. Do some quick back-of-the-envelope math and you’ll find that the 2,637-pound CR-Z’s power-to-weight ratio trails both the Fit and the Civic coupe, both of which undercut the CR-Z by thousands of dollars.
This is the point in the conversation -- and we had this same one quite a few times during the press preview -- where someone will mention how the CR-Z is meant to evoke the much-beloved (though thoroughly overrated) Honda CRX of the late 1980s. While that’s a nice thought and one Honda particularly likes, it’s nothing more than a red herring, distracting us from the fundamental question: Who is this car for?
Let’s start by taking a look at the CR-Z opportunity cost: What else you can buy for the kind of money Honda is asking? The base price of the CR-Z is $19,200, ranging up to $23,210 if you opt for the EX trim with navigation and a continuously variable transmission. In that price range, there are certainly better hybrids to be had, like the aforementioned Insight and Prius, both of which have back seats.
Taking a look at sporty cars in the low $20k range is even more unflattering to the CR-Z. The Mazda Miata starts in that ballpark and it’s a true sports car, weighing in a few hundred pounds under Honda’s hybrid pretender and boasting all of 167 horsepower. A few sporty coupes in that price range embarrass the CR-Z both in terms of performance, but also utility. Take your pick of the base model Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro and you can have well over twice the horsepower, plus a back seat. When similarly equipped, the CR-Z may undercut the pair of pony cars on price, but not by much.
There’s also the reigning champion of sporty, sub-$20k hatchbacks, the Mazda3, and the new Ford Fiesta and forthcoming Ford Focus to contend with. And we might as well throw all those Mini Coopers into the mix, while we’re at it. What this goulash of makes and models says is that no matter how you slice, dice, or julienne your desire to own a CR-Z, there’s probably something else on the market for you, should you decide you want your sporty looking new car to actually have the power to go with its looks.
So it’s pretty clear that the CR-Z doesn’t cut it as a sports car, even if it has a lot of the trappings: The looks, the interior, the transmission, the chassis. It’s enough to make us wonder why Honda doesn’t just stick its high-revving four-cylinder from the Civic Si underhood and forget about the hybrid business altogether?
But considering the car as a hybrid, the CR-Z is much harder to evaluate. Is the point of a hybrid to maximize fuel economy, while maintaining the standard five-passenger utility of most cars? That’s the modus operandi of the hybrid standard-bearer Prius, but the CR-Z isn’t written to those rules. What Honda has produced here is actually the first vehicle to bridge the gap between the first decade of hybrids and the second, in which carmakers become more willing to hybridize anything and everything in their lineups in order to achieve the greater fuel efficiency demanded of them by more stringent federal regulations.