Saving the planet is serious work, but who says you can't have some fun in the process? In the case of the 2011 CR-Z, Honda has taken a tried-and-true hybrid powertrain and dropped it into a small two-seat hatchback. The aim is to create the first hybrid that's fun to drive, and for the most part, Honda has succeeded.
But don't think for a minute that the 2011 Honda CR-Z is a sports car with green credentials. At least for now, you simply can't have the best of both worlds. Instead, the CR-Z seems to reside in a gray area between performance and economy, with compromises made on both ends of the spectrum.
The soon-to-be-released Lexus CT 200h appears to incorporate the same type of thinking about the balance between performance and economy and represents the CR-Z's closest rival. Being a Lexus, it will set you back more than $5,000 over the Honda, but it will also provide rear seats, additional features and a more luxurious interior. In the more conventional realm, the Ford Fiesta, Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Golf TDI deliver more thrills with slightly less favorable fuel economy.
Providing motivation for the 2011 Honda CR-Z is a 1.5-liter gasoline engine that works in concert with an electric motor to produce 122 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. This particular test vehicle utilizes a continuously variable transmission (CVT), as opposed to the previous CR-Z we tested which was fitted with a six-speed manual and benefitted from an additional 5 lb-ft of torque. The CVT also features a pair of shift paddles mounted to the steering wheel that selects different ratios, simulating conventional gears.
In testing, the CR-Z with the CVT accelerates from a standstill to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds. The manual-transmission model makes the same run in 8.8 seconds. Coming to a stop from that speed requires 122 feet, which is acceptable. The EPA estimates fuel economy for the CVT-equipped CR-Z at 35 city/39 highway mpg and 37 mpg in combined driving. We managed 36.2 mpg while it was in our care.
While out in the typical city environs, the CR-Z feels as nimble as any car of this size should. Unlike some other hybrids, the CR-Z is not capable of electric-only propulsion, but it does make use of start/stop technology. When the car comes to a stop the engine shuts off (saving gasoline), then restarts as soon as your foot begins to lighten pressure on the brake pedal. In theory, it makes enough sense, but in practice, it can be quite tiresome in heavy stop-and-go traffic.
Exploring the CR-Z's sporting potential on meandering mountain roads shows that it has enough power in Sport mode (Normal, Economy and Sport modes are available for the powertrain calibration) and lively enough handling to get most drivers to crack a smile. There is more body roll than we'd like, yet the CR-Z never feels tippy in quick steering transitions. Its only weakness lies in its narrow tires, which protest loudly as they approach their limits of adhesion. Past those limits, the CR-Z tends to understeer slightly, although getting the tail to kick out is as easy as lifting off the throttle.
In Normal mode, the 2001 Honda CR-Z feels as tame as a base economy car. The engine revs as high and the steering effort lightens slightly. Switching to Economy mode further emphasizes fuel efficiency over speed, adding a few Zs to the CR-Z and making it feel as lethargic as a Prius or Insight.
With its small dimensions and two-passenger capacity, the 2011 Honda CR-Z suffers slightly in terms of passenger comfort. There's a decent amount of head- and legroom for the average adult, but taller folk will likely disagree. The seats offer plenty of cushioning for all-day driving and enough support to hold you in position while cornering.
Passengers of all sizes, however, will probably agree that there's quite a bit of noise that intrudes into the cabin. Besides noticeable amounts of road and wind noise on the highway, the rather coarse engine note gives the CR-Z a lowly econobox vibe. The aforementioned start/stop engine function further accentuates this fuel-efficient personality. The ride quality is smooth enough for most people, though it can feel a bit nervous on the rough stuff.
When it comes to living with a CR-Z on a day-to-day basis, there are some hits and misses that should be readily apparent. Rear visibility is hampered by the small split rear hatch windows, negating any advantages of the car's small footprint when backing into a parking spot. On the plus side, the controls are well placed and legible, although the dated graphics of the navigation/entertainment display are woefully lacking in terms of layout, design and resolution. In its defense, though, the system's operation is fairly simple.
In the absence of rear seats, the CR-Z sports two storage bins. Unfortunately, access to these bins is difficult and the lack of bins and pockets in the main cabin means that you may be regularly wrenching your arm behind you as you fish for personal effects. Trunk space is decent, although it's on the shallow side with the cargo cover in place. Folding the trunk divider forward (covering the rear storage bins) and removing the cargo cover provides a more expansive space that can accommodate up to 25 cubic feet.
Design/Fit and Finish
On the outside, the 2011 Honda CR-Z is a modern and sleek interpretation of the Honda CRX that last saw production two decades ago. Overall, the design is tidy and attractive, but the long front overhang and nose seem out of place. Inside, the cabin continues the modern theme with unconventional yet still functional control placement. The color-shifting tachometer changes from blue to red when you change your driving style from economical to exuberant. Another nice touch is the digital speedometer that seems to float in the center of the tach, as well as the multifunction displays flanking it.
For the most part, the interior is well assembled, with no detectable creaks and groans. But putting a damper on the evocative design and commendable workmanship is the quality of the materials. There are just enough hard plastic interior elements to remind you that you're still driving an economical Honda.
Who should consider this vehicle
If the idea of a hybrid vehicle appeals to you, but you would rather not sacrifice too much in the way of driving pleasure, the 2011 Honda CR-Z is right up your alley. It's a lovely concept, but the reality shows that owners will have to make sacrifices in both fuel economy and performance as well as practicality and refinement. At least for now, it's the only game in town.
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