Peter Nunn, Contributor
Finally the 2011 Honda CR-Z has come down off the stand at the auto shows and it's sitting right here on the asphalt on Naruto Skyline, a mountain road down the spine of Shikoku, the smallest of the main islands of Japan. We've been waiting to get behind the wheel of this car since the concept first appeared at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, and now we're getting our chance.
Already there's plenty of hype building for the car's introduction to the U.S. late this summer, as American Honda has already built a Web site to promote the car's arrival. But this is the real car in front of us, ready to be released into the Japanese market, and Honda officials tell us that the American version won't be much different.
The 2011 Honda CR-Z asks a lot of questions. The recession has dramatically affected Honda's adventurous engineering spirit, and the company has had to sell its Formula 1 team, cancel the development of its new front-engine replacement for the Acura NSX and end the sale of the Honda S2000 in America. Does this company still have the imaginative engineering that makes it so different?
The Honda CR-Z is certainly a different kind of car. A hybrid can be a lot of things. Clean, clever and fuel-efficient, without a doubt, and a poster child for a forthcoming generation of sensible cars. But fun?
Honda has been working hard to make sure that the 2011 Honda CR-Z makes us remember the Honda CR-X, its two-passenger coupe built from 1983-'91. Just as with the CR-X, the mission here has been to build a small, smart, eco-friendly coupe for the modern era. Lightness and efficiency are the key attributes, because the combination of 122 horsepower and a curb weight north of 2,550 pounds tells you the CR-Z is not going to be blowing too many doors off a Bugatti Veyron any time soon.
Here on the Naruto Skyline, the CR-Z defies its critics in cyberspace, who have been quick to dismiss the idea of the first hybrid with a six-speed manual transmission. It proves surprisingly taut, sporty, agile and entertaining as it tackles the twists and turns of the Shikoku roads.
Of course, it's a totally different car from the CR-X coupe. That is to say, it's not some kind of cut-down Honda Civic coupe with a manic 1.6-liter VTEC twin-cam engine screaming its way to an 8,000-rpm redline. Nor is it a redo of the original Honda Insight, the slippery 1.0-liter hybrid coupe that Honda launched back in 1999 as the first hybrid to go on sale in the U.S.
Fact is, the 2011 Honda CR-Z falls somewhere between the two — both in terms of design and in the amount of performance on offer. Honda believes that this is the right combination to build a network of CR-Z enthusiasts from Mini-type buyers who like the idea of a smart premium-style compact, only with the green image that a hybrid conveys.
The CR-Z is like a Tesla Roadster, but without the $109,000 price tag.
Hybrid CAFE Racer
While the CR-Z is loosely based on the current four-door Honda Insight sedan, you'll be cheered to know that the Honda engineers have massively improved the formula by shortening the wheelbase, widening the front and rear track and making the structure far more rigid.
The car measures 160.6 inches from end to end, 68.5 inches wide and only 54.9 inches to the tip of its antenna. The wheelbase is 95.8 inches, some 4.6 inches shorter than the Insight, and the CR-Z retains the suspension of the Insight platform with front MacPherson struts and a rear torsion-beam setup. The bad news is, Honda claims only a 97-pound reduction in weight from the Insight sedan.
Once you pull open the somewhat heavy door, a novel interior design awaits, a kind of cost-conscious, Honda-type attempt to deliver the arty style of a Mini or Fiat 500. The low-set driving position is just what you want in a performance car, and the pedals and shift lever feel perfectly placed. The sport seat offers fine all-around support and looks good. The instrument panel is a busy mass of buttons, lights and switches, but there are cool touches like the usual entertaining display of power flow through the internal combustion engine and hybrid system.
Don't look back, though, because rear vision is badly hampered by that dramatic, sloping roof line, especially into the blind spots over your shoulders. In Japan, the CR-Z comes as a 2+2 with kid-size jump seats behind you, but the new small Honda will be strictly a two-passenger vehicle in the U.S.
It's the Power
The SOHC 1,496cc inline-4 with i-VTEC variable valve timing and lift comes from the Honda Fit, and it delivers 111 hp at 6,000 rpm and 106 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. It's matched up with a six-speed manual transmission with ratios selected from the European Civic.
Just like the Insight, the 2011 Honda CR-Z features a parallel hybrid system with an electric motor powered by nickel-metal hydride batteries. The motor is rated by Honda at 13 hp, and some complicated calculations by the engineers (don't ask) lead Honda to rate the combined output of the CR-Z's powertrain at 122 hp at 6,000 rpm and 128 pound-feet of torque at 1,000-1,500 rpm (123 pound-feet when equipped with the optional CVT).
The CR-Z adds sport to the hybrid system with a three-mode drive system. Three backlit buttons on the dash give you the choice of Economy, Normal or Sport, and the inner ring of the tachometer is illuminated in green, blue or red to match. Each mode offers a different combination of throttle response, steering effort, idle-stop time and power from the hybrid system.
Once you bring the engine to life, you'll recognize the uninspiring clatter. But when you select a gear from the six-speed manual, your frame of reference shifts along with the gears, as this tight, precise, short-throw linkage makes you think of the CR-X.
From the first, the CR-Z's chassis also feels infinitely better than you expect, far better damped than the Insight and with an incisive feel to the way it responds to the steering. The front struts have forged-aluminum lower control arms to reduce unsprung weight, while the compact, H-shape torsion beam in the rear (which helps make it possible to package the batteries unobtrusively) doesn't feel like a handicap.
And in the cut and thrust of driving — both in the city and on back roads — the 2011 Honda CR-Z feels sharp and punchy. Put that down to the extra push (in the way of torque) provided by the electric motor. In the Honda hybrid style, the electric motor is more than just a device to make it possible to stop and start the 1.5-liter engine at stoplights or propel the car silently across parking lots. Instead the motor delivers a maximum of 42 lb-ft of torque just as the 1.5-liter gas engine is getting into its stride. As a result, the CR-Z's powertrain has a sweet spot between 1,000 and 5,000 rpm on the tachometer, a smooth, seamless blend of power that gives the CR-Z a zest you don't expect.
On the highway, the CR-Z cruises easily at 80 mph, the sportified suspension giving a firm but not harsh ride. Up over the Naruto Skyline, the CR-Z uses its quick-ratio electric-assist steering, tight front suspension calibration and wide 195/55R16 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires on special lightweight wheels to turn into corners well and neatly stay on line. There's good consistency to the steering feel and the CR-Z seems entirely predictable and linear in the way it behaves.
We also tried the 2011 Honda CR-Z with its optional continuously variable transmission (CVT), and even with the slightly detuned engine (111 hp; 106 lb-ft of torque) required in this configuration, the car still accelerates briskly and smoothly.
Three Modes of Go
Gearheads, now look away.
This Fit-based 1.5 is no sports-car engine and starts to get loud at around 5,000 rpm. Keep the hammer down and all too soon you find the engine stuttering as it hits the ignition cutout at 6,500 rpm. Worked hard, the engine sounds flat and hard — not exciting at all. And when you're on the limit rather than just pushing along, the CR-Z gives in to soggy, plowing understeer, and the body rolls over in distress. And a few hot runs up and down the hills soon had the brakes smoking. Yikes.
There is, meantime, a big difference if you choose the Sport button over Economy. Throttle response is massively sharper in Sport (as it should be) and the Honda feels as if it's suddenly gained an extra 50 hp. But remember, on the hybrid side, there is no EV mode in Economy as such, and the CR-Z doesn't run in silent, zero-emissions mode like a Prius.
As far as fuel economy is concerned, American Honda tells us that we can expect the six-speed CR-Z to record 31 mpg city/37 mpg highway, while the CVT-equipped CR-Z will return 36 mpg city/38 mpg highway.
Is This a CR-X or Not?
So what to make of the 2011 Honda CR-Z? Honda says CR-Z stands for "Compact Renaissance Zero," a phrase meant to capture Honda's commitment to go back to the point of origin (zero) to take on the challenge of creating a new kind of compact car, one not bound by the values expressed by traditional coupes.
Down in Shikoku, the CR-Z proved that while it's not a machine to have the Nissan GT-R running for cover, it does have its own kind of sophisticated green-tinged driver appeal. Up to a pretty high level, it works, and that's pretty much all the CR-X offered us, however much we have romanticized the car in the past two decades.
At a price of between $25,000 and $27,600 in Tokyo, the Honda CR-Z is fairly expensive, but early orders have still been flooding in. Come late summer, will Honda's formula with the CR-Z click with Americans?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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