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Car reviews - Honda - CR-Z - Sport coupe

Our Opinion

We like
The sheer enthusiasm of the design, simple but effective hybrid technology, edgy dashboard
Room for improvement
Underpowered, terrible rear vision, back seat largely a waste of space

24 Feb 2012

HONDA’S new CR-Z recently won the Wheels Car of the Year award, but we cannot rate it quite so highly.

The CR-Z may be viewed as the first sports hybrid vehicle and it does offer a different approach to mixing driving fun with maximum economy. In its own way, it is as much a niche vehicle as Toyota’s Prius.

This is a genuine niche vehicle, which addresses some of the issues of hybrid technology in an interesting way but leaves many questions unanswered. The simple fact that it is sold in some markets as a dedicated two-seater suggests it was designed more to rekindle the spirit of the much-loved CR-X than to deliver practical motoring.

Those familiar with the CR-X, which actually cut a dash in production car racing, will pick the cues immediately but that does not mean the CR-Z is a performance vehicle in the same sense it was the world has moved on a long way since the CR-X arrived here in November 1987.

For many buyers, however, it seems destined to be the second or even third car. In its quest for greener, more fuel-efficient motoring, any adult forced to travel in the rear for more than about 10 minutes will experience discomfort. Compromised packaging will limit the impact the CR-Z has in the market, car of the year or not.

Honda’s 1.5-litre petrol engine combines with the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) to deliver totals of 91kW of power and 174 Nm of torque (manual, 167kW with the CVT). Neither figure is generous and we preferred to leave the car in ‘Sport’ mode to maximise performance at some cost to economy.

Sport is one of three settings, but it is the only one that allows the keen driver to exploit the inherent zestiness of the CR-Z. Sport mode sharpens the throttle response and changes the parameters of the IMA system to increase electric motor assistance and to add a surprising and welcome amount of weight to the steering.

‘Normal’ struck us as neither one thing nor the other, while ‘Economy’ is the obvious mode for those anxious to achieve maximum economy. But even driving the CR-Z vigorously in Sport, we averaged a commendable fuel consumption of 5.0L/100km, which also happens to be Honda’s claimed combined figure.

The CR-Z’s idle-stop system works well in urban driving conditions and doubtless contributes measurably to the little Honda’s wowserish consumption. In hilly terrain the car works quite hard but the gearchange is a joy to use and the six forward ratios are well spaced in Honda tradition.

Because peak torque arrives at just 1000rpm and remains on tap until 1500rpm, performance is eager, but we still think the CR-Z deserves more power and torque because in hard driving it never actually feels very fast.

It takes nearly 10 seconds to accelerate to 100 km/h, which is actually about seven-tenths slower than the original CR-X (a quarter of a century ago!) from which the designers sought inspiration.

The reason the maximum torque occurs so low in the rev range is that the electric motor does its best work there. Its contribution to proceedings alleviates the lack of urge at low engine speeds – a common problem among petrol engines of this modest capacity.

And, by Honda standards, it’s an undistinguished petrol engine with a redline set at just 6000rpm (compared with 7000rpm or higher for Honda’s performance models, or even 8000rpm in the winning case of the Civic Type R).

The battery pack in the CR-Z is a 100-volt nickel metal hydride unit claimed to provide an excellent balance between output, reliability, safety and cost. Some might argue this is old technology now and it’s certainly less advanced than the lithium-ion batteries used in many electrified vehicles today.

The CR-Z’s dynamics are excellent, however, and well in keeping with the celebrated CR-X tradition. While the three-door ‘coupe’ borrows extensively from Jazz/Insight underpinnings, there has been extensive tweaking.

This car must have one of the most extreme relationships between track and wheelbase (meaning the former is a high percentage of the latter) which is a major factor in its almost kart-like responsiveness. And the ride, though firm, is always comfortable.

Perhaps the main point to be made about the CR-Z is that it is very rewarding to drive, in no small part because the manual weighs just 1155kg, which is notably light for any contemporary vehicle.

The CR-Z is a striking piece of automotive design quite closely based on the concept that previewed it (also known as CR-Z). Unusually, it fuses futuristic elements with an unmistakable nostalgia for simpler times, when Soichiro Honda steered his company.

The split-glass hatch looks great from the outside but is not so effective when you have to reverse because it distorts the rear view. But the CR-Z could only be a Honda with strong links deep into the marque’s history: it even recalls the early 1970s Z-Car.

The interior design is equally effective, although in some cases practicality is slightly sacrificed for form – a case of funk before function, especially with many of the minor controls. A large, deeply cowled circular tachometer houses a digital speedometer. Small strip gauges flank this pair on either side.

To emphasise the CRZ’s economy credentials, this central gauge changes colour according to which of the three driving modes is selected and how the car is being driven. It glows green under light throttle in normal mode and moves through green to bright red where it remains whenever Sport mode is chosen – and we didn’t mind the constant rebuke of red! We couldn’t help but recall the Vauxhall speedo that changed colours with speed – very sexy in 1960!

Er, space. There is plenty of it up front, where driver and passenger sit low and snug. The driving position is excellent with good forward vision, but it’s not so good for reversing, as mentioned. Indeed, this represents an interesting case of automotive industry rhetoric being misleading with Honda’s engineers having conduced extensive research in designing the two-window glass hatchback they may have, but they did not get the vision thing right!

The rear seat is for children or perhaps one very uncomfortable short adult, briefly. GoAuto arrived to collect the CR-Z test car with two adults and luggage ready to travel plan B was instituted! Americans can only buy the CR-Z as a two-seater but we think it’s good to have the option, especially when the seat can be folded away flat at one touch. This can be done from the driver’s seat or even when standing behind the car. Thus configured, it becomes deceptively spacious.

Overall, we enjoyed the CR-Z greatly, if for no other reason than it shows Honda is once again serious about making cars that are a joy to drive. But it has significant shortcomings, not the least of which is an engine which struggles in economy mode.

We can only hope that Honda will develop more vehicles of this type, but with a little more interior space and a larger engine. Why not, for example, a hybrid Euro? A hybrid Euro coupe could be even nicer.

Honda’s latest hybrid technology works seamlessly and does not come at too much of a price premium. Nevertheless, we can’t help wondering what the CR-Z would be like with a conventional Honda 2.0-litre petrol engine and no IMA.

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