Review and photos by
Greg Wilson, CanadianDriver.com
This week on CanadianDriver, James Bergeron’s Day-by-Day Review of the new Honda CR-Z has elicited over 100 comments from forum readers – so far! Many of the feisty comments revolve around how it compares to the old CRX and whether a hybrid can really be a sporty car. Not surprisingly, many enthusiasts see hybrids and sporty cars as diametric opposites – one is designed for maximum fuel economy and the other is designed for sporty performance: can, or even, should these two attributes be combined in one car?
My view is, “Welcome to the future!”
In my opinion, it won’t be long before we start seeing many more sporty hybrids – though not necessarily too many two-seater hybrids. Already this week, Toyota announced a sporty new Prius Plus with a body kit and wider tires. Vehicle manufacturers have realized belatedly that hybrids are considered “boring” and only appeal to a relatively small segment of the car-buying population. A “sexy” hybrid, on the other hand, should appeal to a greater segment of the population. Hey, if trucks and utility vehicles can be marketed as sporty, why not hybrids?
While it’s true that the CR-Z is never going to be as much fun to drive as the second generation CRX Si (in my opinion), or be as fuel-efficient as the original 2001 Honda Insight hatchback, it does offer a combination of driving fun and decent fuel economy in a very stylish and well equipped small hatchback that meets or exceeds current crash safety and emissions standards.
Of course, there’s no denying the CR-Z is a compromise: its performance is compromised by its heavy battery, electric steering, and driver-selectable Eco mode, while its fuel economy is compromised by its available manual transmission (the CVT is more fuel efficient), wide tires, driver-selectable Sport mode, and heavy curb weight. As some readers have pointed out, it would probably offer better performance and comparable fuel economy if the hybrid system was eliminated to save weight, and a slightly larger, more powerful engine was installed.
But right now, there’s a general consensus among vehicle manufacturers and government agencies that the future of the automobile is heading towards “electrification” in order to meet future emissions and fuel economy standards. The CR-Z is a step in that direction.
Personally, I enjoyed driving the CR-Z over the week that I had it. Its short wheelbase makes it easy to manoeuvre, and its standard six-speed manual transmission, though a bit clunky, gives the driver more control over the driving experience. Acceleration is not particularly quick, even in Sport mode, when compared with other sporty cars and even non-sporty cars. 0 to 100 km/h is estimated at nine seconds with the manual transmission and just under ten seconds with the CVT, according to AJAC. This is not really surprising in a 1,205 kg car with combined gas and electric output of 122 hp and 128 lb.-ft. of torque. However, its 10 kW electric motor develops maximum torque from 1,000 to 1,500 r.p.m., making it feel quicker off the line.
Though it has four wheel disc brakes, ABS and Brake Assist, its braking distance of 42.5 metres from 100 km/h to a dead stop, according to AJAC, is not particularly outstanding.
However, with its low centre of gravity, wide track, independent front and torsion beam rear suspension, and standard P195/65R-16 all-season tires (Dunlop Super Sport 7000s on my test car), the CR-Z is a small car that can be tossed around with verve while being extremely forgiving when cornering limits are reached. Stability and traction control are there in case things get silly.
Its three driver-selectable performance modes, “Sport,” “Normal” and “Econ,” alter the throttle responsiveness of the engine and electric motor, and electric steering effort in order to improve fuel economy and alter the driving experience. From a driver’s perspective, I would describe these three modes as “responsive,” “unspectacular,” and “anaemic.” I found myself driving around in Sport most of the time. However, the unique aspect of this system is that it gives the driver a choice: those who want maximum fuel efficiency can choose Econ while those who want more performance can select Sport. To motivate the driver to drive more economically, the background colour of the central tachometer/digital speedometer changes from green to blue to red depending on how you drive.
As with other hybrids, the gas engine will shut off automatically while the vehicle is stopped at a traffic light and restart automatically as the brake is released and the transmission is put into First gear. The transition is occasionally bumpy, but not unpleasant.
On the freeway at 100 km/h in sixth gear, the tach reads 2,500 r.p.m., and the 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine isn’t particularly noisy. However, tire and road noise are noticeable. The ride is quite comfortable for a sporty car, and it tracks well at high speed.
Visibility to the front and sides is good but the rear hatch design creates a blind spot when looking over your shoulder. The sloping rear window and a vertical window below it provide a clear view to the rear when reversing, but I found that the split bar between them sometimes obscures following vehicles when looking through the rear-view mirror. A wiper and washer on the rear window will be appreciated in damp or icy weather.
The interior of the CR-Z is bright and sporty with controls within easy reach of the driver. My test car had nicely bolstered sport seats clad in a shiny silver fabric with chequered seat inserts and a matching pattern on the doors. But as with any light colour, stains show up more easily, and my fairly new test car already had a stain on the passenger seat.
While easy to reach, the CR-Z’s controls have an unusual layout. The audio controls are where you’d expect them to be in the centre of the dash, but the automatic climate controls and display are housed separately in a wing beside the steering wheel where admittedly, they are easier to reach. To the left of the steering wheel are buttons for the three driving modes, Sport, Normal and Econ as well as power mirrors and ESC off. The steering wheel itself houses audio volume and seek controls, Bluetooth telephone, cruise, and information display in the instrument cluster. Once you get used to the locations and the various dials and buttons, it becomes easier to navigate all the functions.
With a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and height adjustable driver’s seat, most drivers will be able to find a comfortable driving position. The instrument cluster offers a ton of information for the driver, probably too much. As well as vehicle speed and engine speed, the instrument cluster includes a battery charge level reading, real-time display of battery charging or battery-assist, a gearshift shift up/down indicator, fuel level, instant fuel consumption, outside temperature, and driving mode. As well, an info display displays power distribution while driving, average fuel economy, history of fuel consumption over the last few fill-ups, an “Eco guide” with leaves that grow when you drive economically, oil life display, average speed, range, and elapsed time.
Standard in the CR-Z is a powerful 360-watt AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA audio system with seven speakers including a subwoofer. Auxiliary and USB inputs are included.
Storage spaces are numerous, the largest being two large open bins behind the front seats where the rear seats might have been. These can be covered by a folding panel that folds down like a seatback to create an extended cargo area with a lined surface. The rear hatch lifts up to provide a large opening and there is a retractable cargo cover to hide the trunk’s contents.
In the cabin, other storage spots include a covered bin on top of the dash, a cubby for your iPod with a door, an open bin at the bottom of the centre console, and two cupholders. Missing is a centre armrest/storage between the front seats.
Though there has been a lot of criticism of the CR-Z’s dual nature as a sporty hybrid, I think its biggest weakness is the same as the CRX and first generation Insight: it has only two seats. The market for two-door, two-seater sporty cars and sports cars is limited, and two-seater buyers often prefer convertibles. And consider that you can buy a four-seater Mini Cooper with comparable fuel economy and performance and (probably) a better resale value for about the same price.
So even if the CR-Z did offer excellent performance and fuel economy, Honda probably wouldn’t sell a whole bunch of them anyway. But they must have known that.
Pricing: 2011 Honda CR-Z
Base price: $23,490
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $24,885
Crash test results
Greg Wilson is a Vancouver-based automotive journalist and editor of CanadianDriver. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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