Funky looks, fun to drive, but not as sporty or green as it likes to think it is
Model Tested: Honda CR-Z 1.5-litre, straight-four, six-speed manual
Think hybrid and what springs to mind? Clean, green, frugal motoring? No doubt. But fun, exciting, sexy? No way. And that’s the difficulty facing manufacturers of cars that are ‘environmentally friendly’ – they don’t reach driving enthusiasts on an emotional level, do they? You don’t look at a Toyota Prius and think “Phwooaaar, that’s gorgeous”.
In an effort to turn the tide and make hybrids appeal to a younger, more dynamic market, Honda has launched what it calls the world’s first hybrid sports car. That’s quite a claim for a car with a 1.5-litre engine and a whacking great big battery pack weighing it down. But no matter, because surely Honda knows how to make great sports cars. If you’ve ever spanked an S2000 or had the privilege of taking the legendary NSX supercar for a hard drive you’ll know what I mean. So maybe the on-paper statistics don’t tell the whole story of the Honda CR-Z.
It certainly looks the part, which is half the battle with hybrids. While Hollywood A-listers are wont to wear their green credentials on their sleeves by turning up at the Oscars in Toyota’s Prius, there’s something to be said for going about your business without shouting it to the world. The Prius and Honda’s own Insight hybrids are ungainly and everyone knows what you’re driving. But the Honda CR-Z is crisp, fresh and different, without screaming “I’m an eco-warrior”.
Remarkably similar to the concept car unveiled at the 2007 Tokyo motor show, it actually looks cool. With sleek fastback styling, it apes the looks of Honda’s 1980s cult classic, the CR-X coupe and has a nice, gaping grille up front, just to add a dash of testosterone into the mix. In fact there’s nothing else out there quite like it. And it’s nice inside, too. Slip into the driver’s seat and you sit nice and low, unlike in the Insight. The bright, airy cabin’s design is as modern as the bodywork and everything feels extremely well built. So far, so good…
Turn around and you’re faced with a couple of rear seats that are so small it’s quite laughable. Nice touch, that – it’ll get the youngsters excited. I mean, what twenty-something buys a car like this because it’s practical? The bottom line? If your passengers have normal limbs then don’t put them in the back for it would be a long, long journey for anyone squashed in there. No, leave them for your weekend bags, shopping, whatever you like. Fold them down and there’s 401 litres of luggage space – again, not scoring highly in the practicality stakes. If you want plenty of space, buy something else.
Rear vision is blighted by the design of the tailgate, where the glass is divided meaning you can see either the road behind or the clouds – very sporty, that. So it’s ticking all the right boxes for sportiness. It looks great, it sits nice and low, there’s no room for the family and you can’t see what’s behind. Brilliant. I’m just hoping it doesn’t disappoint where it matters most: on the road.
Compared to the Insight, whose platform the CR-Z shares, the new car has a wheelbase shorter to the tune of 115mm, it’s 30mm lower and weighs 44kg less. Its engine is a 1.5-litre unit (lifted from the Honda Jazz) as opposed to the Insight’s 1.3, there’s a six-speed ’box and a revised Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system. This IMA system comprises a 40mm wide electric motor that sits between the engine and the gearbox, while the nickel battery and other electrical trickery sit beneath the floor in the boot space. All in it weighs 60kg.
The system provides three different drive modes: Econ, Normal and Sport. Econ and Normal are really only suited to urban driving as they strangulate performance by retarding the throttle, reducing consumption and emitting less poison. Depending on which mode you’re in, the main speedo/rev counter glows in different colours: green for Econ, light neon blue for Normal and a darker blue for Sport, when you’ll also notice an inner circle that glows red. Far from being preachy, this serves as a gentle reminder that you might save a few dollars if the green is a-glowing.
Sport mode utilises the power of the electric motor in tandem with the engine to aid acceleration and you can feel the effect as soon as the revs climb past 1500rpm, when full torque is available. Hit the 6300rpm redline in second gear and the CR-Z is doing 100km/h (from rest this takes 9.9 seconds, so it’s no hot hatch) but the beauty of Honda’s V-Tec engines is that they thrive on revs. With this in mind I keep it on the boil between 4000 and 6000rpm, which is where the fun happens. The gear change is delightful, too, with a nice short throw and a slick, precise action. Combined, the revvy motor and the six-speed shifter give the impression that the Honda CR-Z is quicker than it actually is, and that has to be a good thing in this day and age.
The chassis is taut and rigidity levels are impressively high from the bodyshell, too. It’s stiff but not uncomfortable – nicely compliant. Steering is well weighted and accurate and the brakes have a lovely, progressive feel to them. In fact it’s difficult to home in on any aspect where the CR-Z fails – it’s a nicely designed, well built and accomplished little car but there’s one thing it isn’t: overly green.
You see, despite the hoo-hah surrounding hybrid technology, unless you do all your driving in the city, you’d be better off with a small diesel-powered car. Like an Audi A1 TDi, for instance, where you get 99g/km CO2 emissions compared to the Honda CR-Z’s 117g/km and you also get some proper poke from its punchy engine. It’s still early days, though, and hybrids are bound to progress soon but for now, with the CR-Z, Honda has at least taken a step in the right direction.