For the generation of Honda freaks that grew up reading Super Street and Sport Compact Car and worshipping at the Temple of VTEC, the new 2011 Honda CR-Z will represent another blown chance for Honda to return to its tuner-friendly roots. This "sport hybrid" is not a cousin to the old Acura Integra or a high-tech hybrid reimagination of the Honda CRX. But at the same time it's something fun out of the same company that's put a trowel on the front of every Acura and let the Accord swell up into a dirigible.
The CR-Z is a car that finally shows us that Honda is trying to figure out what a Honda should be. It's a car that feels like it has been built by engineers, not dictated by product planners juggling contradictory data from focus groups. Sure, there's a bit too much soulless Asimo robot in the CR-Z's personality and not enough Integra Type R boiling in its blood, but if this is the future, there's hope for Honda.
There's even hope for hybrids.
Cuts Like a Butter Knife
In profile the 2011 Honda CR-Z has a nearly flat tail and a steeply raked windshield that leads to a blunt nose. It looks like a knife all right, but one that's used for spreading butter and jam over an English muffin. Not the sort of sharp blade that one takes to a knife fight. It might be that the new regulations for pedestrian protection in Europe will mean that all cars sold there (like the CR-Z) are doomed to have high, flat hoods like that of the CR-Z (take a look at the new BMW 5 Series, too).
At an overall length of 160.6 inches, the CR-Z looks short, but with its long doors and relatively long 95.9-inch wheelbase (4.2 inches longer than that of a Mazda MX-5), this little coupe is exceptionally easy to get in and out of. The big doors are thick and heavy, so they produce a satisfying thud when you close them, which makes you feel safe and secure. But they also swing out with a lot of inertia, and if you put a little too much shoulder into opening one at the Target parking lot there's a chance that you might put a good-size dent into the side of a Dodge Caravan. (Not that we have any personal experience.)
Every control in the CR-Z is angled toward the driver. It's almost as if the engineers were tempted to build the CR-Z as a one-seater, but chickened out.
A large circular tachometer lies within its own shrouded pod, and floating in its center is a digital speedometer. To each side are various ancillary gauges, including a battery charge meter and a status meter for the electric motor assist to the left, plus a fuel gauge and multipage instrument display to the right. There's a bit too much going on, and the objective here seems to be lots of style with a scientific spin.
The seats are nicely shaped, full of airbags and covered in a silvery fabric that feels like a Kevlar mesh. Behind the two seats are indentations that look like they might be seats themselves, but function as bins for the usual flotsam. Close the cover and you get secure storage plus a nice, flat load floor all the way back to the tail. Honda says that 25.1 cubic feet of storage space can be found here, and it's all usable and easily accessible.
While the interior looks great, it's hard to see out to the rear. The long rear window acts like a prism, so reflections toward the edges can get funky. Instead you look through the vertical glass panel at the trailing edge of the hatch and there's a lot that gets hidden, like the grilles of Dodge Chargers, Ford Crown Victorias and other assorted vehicles preferred by our friends in law enforcement.
In general specification, the drivetrain of the CR-Z is identical to that of the current Honda Insight. There's a SOHC 1.5-liter inline-4 with i-VTEC variable valve timing making 113 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 107 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. It's supplemented by a small electric motor that produces 13 hp and 58 lb-ft of torque. The combined parallel hybrid system is making 122 hp at 6,000 rpm and 128 lb-ft of torque between 1,000 and 1,750 rpm when the car is equipped (as this one is) with a six-speed manual transmission. (If you choose the continuously variable transmission, CVT, the torque rating is 123 lb-ft.)
To the left of the steering wheel are three buttons marked "Sport," "Normal" and "Econ." The default mode is Normal and the CR-Z performs, eh, OK that way, plus the tachometer glows blue. There's no crispness to the throttle response in this mode, but the car isn't significantly more sluggish than, say, a heavily laden Honda Fit.
In Econ the CR-Z feels as if it is dragging an anchor at anything less than full throttle, plus the tach gets a virtuous green aura. Honda says the Econ mode limits power and torque by about 4 percent, but provides "full responsiveness" at full throttle. Since it's misery at anything less than full throttle, what's the point?
The Sport mode pumps in extra electrical power during acceleration, firms up the steering effort and changes the electronic throttle's responsiveness, plus it has the tach burning a bright evil red as if you were actually strangling a Spotted Owl instead of driving a small car. At part throttle in Sport, the CR-Z actually feels pretty neat, with the unique sensation of low-end torque being the most prominent element in that neatness. For many CR-Z drivers, it will become a ritual after starting the car to hit that Sport button.
Almost Sort of Fast
Since we perform our acceleration testing at wide-open throttle, the CR-Z records the same test numbers in any mode, even Econ. And with its stability control disengaged, the CR-Z gets to 60 mph from a standstill in 8.8 seconds (8.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), and the quarter-mile comes up in 16.5 seconds at 84.1 mph. That's better than the Honda Fit we last tested, which did 9.5 seconds to 60 mph (9.4 seconds with rollout) and 16.9 seconds at 81.1 mph in the quarter-mile.
According to the EPA, the CR-Z with its six-speed manual transmission will achieve 31 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. That's pretty good. And yet because it's a hybrid, we found ourselves expecting somewhat better than that from this 2,635-pound car. In our real-world driving, we achieved 30 mpg, ranging from a best of 38.7 mpg while driving so frugally it nearly killed us to a worst of 26.6 mpg while driving like a complete idiot on mountain roads.
The thing with a Sport Hybrid is, we also expected great performance, and the electric motor did provide some kind of edge, as this car would give us a little scratch between 1st and 2nd gear. We've never heard of anyone ever running the battery in Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system out of juice, but we managed on some steep canyon roads while driving far too quickly, and the lack of the electric motor's useful power assist left the car surprisingly lifeless.
Perhaps all this shows you that the presence of the electric motor in this car is about more than just corporate public relations; it really makes a difference in the way the car drives, whether you're trying to get mpg or mph.
In a hybrid like the CR-Z, handling often seems to be an afterthought. But the CR-Z has a sweet feel to it that's not part of many other hybrids. The electric power steering is direct and responsive, and the suspension is both supple over road zits and dignified in corners.
This, however, doesn't mean the CR-Z is a corner-carving rocket. Its 195/55R16 all-season tires are designed for low rolling resistance, and the nose pushes through corners determinedly. Our 0.83g orbit around the skid pad is pretty respectable, though, while it also achieves 0.82g with the stability control engaged, which shows you that the electronic nanny is pretty permissive.
There's more car here than tire, an impression confirmed by the CR-Z's 61.4-mph run through the slalom.
The CR-Z We All Want
The pricing for the 2011 Honda CR-Z starts at $19,950 and peaks at the CR-Z EX with Navigation and the CVT at $23,960. Our test car, the CR-Z EX with Navigation and a six-speed manual, runs $23,310, which seems maybe too much for a car that's not so quick and for a hybrid that's not so economical. It's also just a few hundred bucks short of the Honda Civic Si coupe with nav that performs much better, or the Honda Civic Hybrid Sedan with Navi that gets better mileage.
Right now, the 2011 Honda CR-Z tantalizingly straddles the territory between what Honda once was and what it is going to be. There's a better, more engaging car waiting to burst out of the CR-Z, and here's hoping the Honda engineers start channeling the solid-state soul of Soichiro Honda himself and find a way to make this sport hybrid thing work better for us.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Magrath says:
The first thing you have to come to terms with when driving the new 2011 Honda CR-Z is the stalling. Well, it's not really stalling, but you come to a stop and the engine turns off. For those of us used to driving traditional stick-shift cars, that's a bad thing. But in the CR-Z the engine stays off until you depress the clutch pedal fully (there's a big warning light if it's not) and slide the shift lever into 1st, at which point the engine comes to life again. This is part of its hybrid thing. The first few dozen times, I panicked and over-revved the motor, thinking it wasn't going to go. It went, so I spun the tires. It was kind of fun.
Solution: Deal with it.
And there's a second thing you have to sort of wrestle with here. Ignore the lure of green in Econ mode, turn the gauges red with Sport mode and then you can really drive the CR-Z. There's understeer, sure, but there's also lift-throttle oversteer (thanks to all those heavy batteries in the back). And for maybe the first time ever in a little Honda, you can also get torque, and from like, zero rpm! It's a blast, really. Small car with torque? Cool in my book. Happens to be a hybrid? Neat. And 26 mpg is way better than you get hustling a Miata.
Solution: You think this is a problem?
But this is where the third thing about the CR-Z shows up. If you've somehow managed to drain the battery pack (even if there's still a bar of charge left on the battery indicator), and there are hills around and you're going up them quickly (like a maniac, maybe), then be prepared for the Integrated Motor Assist to turn into an anchor. When fully charged, the CR-Z will scratch its tires on a hard shift from 1st gear to 2nd. After you've run three-quarters up a mountain, the same engine bogs and chokes like a gear or five was missed. This drop-off in performance necessitates careful battery minding. "I'd love to pass this pack of cyclists, dear, but we'll have to wait for a good long downhill to power up again."
Solution: Ditch the weak-sauce Fit motor in this car and dump in the Civic Si motor. It'll pull when there's electricity and it'll pull when there isn't. Make IMA a bonus, not a necessity.
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