Honda's Putting the Band Back Together With Its New Two-Seater
Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Maybe you've heard the whispers. "Honda's lost its edge," the car enthusiasts say. They complain that the company's cars have gotten too big; its technological advances are matched by the competition; its cars are no longer sporty or fun enough. The mojo is gone. Or is it? The 2011 Honda CR-Z has arrived.
Small? The CR-Z is Honda's smallest car on sale in North America. Sporty? It's been specifically tuned to provide nimble handling. Technology? This one happens to be a hybrid, thank you very much. Obviously, Honda wants to demonstrate it still has game. Even the CR-Z's name is a reference to the iconic CRX, the diminutive two-seater from the late 1980s and early 1990s that crystallized the company's reputation for building fun and efficient cars.
So has Honda truly gotten some Blues Brothers inspiration and put its band back together? After testing the CR-Z, our answer is "sort of." In terms of performance, the CR-Z — at least in its present form — is handily outpaced by many hopped-up two-doors, including Honda's own Civic Si. Most likely, Honda enthusiasts will continue to grumble.
But thanks to sharper reflexes, quicker acceleration, some stylish sheet metal, a two-seat layout and a Technicolor gauge cluster, the 2011 Honda CR-Z is still a noticeable step up in excitement from its workaday Honda siblings, the Fit and Insight. True, there are some caveats. The two-seat layout isn't very practical. It's hard to see out the back. Fuel economy, though very good, might not meet your expectations for a hybrid. And, at $23,000 and change for the EX with Navigation, it's significantly more expensive than cars like the Fit and Ford Fiesta.
Usually a "pay more for less" formula isn't a great path to sales success. But we think consumers just wanting a sporty and efficient urban runabout — which was likely the vast majority of CRX buyers back in the day — will be pleased with the CR-Z. Some faith, if only fractional, has been restored in the big H.
"Performance" isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you start up the 2011 Honda CR-Z. Turn the key and the engine starts up with nothing more than a mild "brrmmmm," evoking all the aural authority of a household Honda generator. But a generator is an apt metaphor; under the hood is Honda's familiar Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system.
The total combined output from the 1.5-liter engine and electric motor is 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. For our test car, which came equipped with the quick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, this was good for a 0-60-mph sprint of 8.8 seconds. Warp-speed acceleration it's not, but the CR-Z's pace is more than half-a-second quicker than a Fit's and about equal to that of a Mini Cooper.
As for fuel economy, the CR-Z checks in with an EPA-estimated 31 city/37 highway mpg and 34 mpg combined rating (35/39/37 mpg with the optional CVT). This is well off the pace set by mileage kings like the Insight and Toyota Prius, but it's still very good, and a few mpg more than any gas-powered rival. In our time with the car, we averaged 30.2 mpg.
Around town, the CR-Z feels spry and nimble, with credit going to the car's quick steering, small size and relatively light 2,635-pound curb weight. This aptitude translates well to a curvy road, too, with the car's responses making it fun to drive — up to a point.
When pushed to its limit, the 2011 Honda CR-Z reminds you why it's "sporty" with a "y." Grip from the 195/55R17 tires is modest, with the CR-Z pulling 0.83g on the skid pad and snaking through the slalom at 61.4 mph. Discouragingly, these numbers are pretty much the same as those posted by the last Fit Sport we tested. It's also worth noting that the CR-Z exhibited some oversteer (an uncommon handling trait for a front-drive car) in the slalom test with the stability control turned off. We've noticed similar dynamics, though to a lesser extent, from the Fit and Insight.
Although it only seats two people, the CR-Z does well in terms of accommodations. There's a respectable amount of legroom and headroom for the driver, which is further helped out by a standard height-adjustable driver seat and tilt-telescoping steering wheel. The seats are supportive enough for long drives, though one of our editors expressed his desire for additional legroom while seated in the passenger seat.
On the move, the CR-Z exhibits more high-speed stability and confidence than the Fit or Insight. Its firmer ride quality and average amounts of wind and road noise are acceptable given the car's sportier mission, and none of our editors complained about it being uncomfortable. However, the CR-Z can feel a little skittish when taking corners over broken pavement, which is likely an inherent result of the car's light weight, short wheelbase and economy-minded rear suspension design.
One of the more interesting features on the 2011 Honda CR-Z is its three-mode drive selector. Pushing one of the three buttons on the left side of the dash (Sport, Normal and Econ) tunes the car for the specified driving, and we found it does indeed make a difference. Sport is nice on a curvy road, as it quickens the car's throttle response and dials back the steering assist for added steering heft. We weren't particularly fond of Econ, however, as it dulls the CR-Z's responsiveness considerably in the name of better fuel economy. One of our editors quipped that he thought the throttle pedal was sending commands to the engine by postal service.
The CR-Z's general layout is similar to the Insight's, with an easy-to-reach and compact automatic climate control layout to the right of the steering wheel, and either an audio head unit or integrated navigation system centrally located in the dash. Our EX test car had the navigation system. It's the same one found in the Civic, Fit and Insight, and includes voice-command functionality and the ability to program addresses while on the move. Unfortunately, the unchanged graphical display and font looks dated for an all-new car. The CR-Z is also missing some desirable upscale features, including leather/heated seats and a sunroof.
Also missing is a backseat. In other worldwide markets, Honda will sell the CR-Z with four-passenger capacity, but here Honda wanted to capitalize on the heritage provided by the two-seat CRX. It is a curious choice on Honda's part, as practicality drops considerably. Instead of a backseat there's a two-bin parcel shelf that can hold bags and other small items.
A rear cargo divider can be easily flipped down to cover the parcel shelf as well as create a flat cargo area. The rear cargo shade can also be placed in a different position on the floor to create a separate divided section. The CR-Z's double-paned hatchback, however, does impede the driver's rear visibility, as do the very thick rear hindquarters. Backing out of parking spaces can be tricky.
Design/Fit and Finish
The CR-Z's sheet metal commanded its share of positive attention. Most of our editors commented favorably about the car's styling, and in general the car stands out as being both distinctive and stylish.
The cabin is similarly distinctive, thanks to the colorful and futuristic gauge cluster. As with the Insight, graphical displays and a variable-hue background help the driver adjust his driving style for better fuel economy. The 3-D-effect digital speedometer display is also neat. Interior fit and finish is solid, but the significant use of hard plastic is indicative of the CR-Z's economy-car roots.
Who should consider this vehicle
Like Rush Limbaugh and Barbara Boxer, "fuel-efficient" and "sporty" aren't a typical combination, so from that sense, there's definite appeal to the 2011 Honda CR-Z. But shoppers should be aware of the car's distinct limitations and make sure to take a look at other available spunky cars that offer more practicality, similar fuel economy and price tags that are, in some cases, lower.
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