The Honda CR-Z is the start of something new in the automotive field - a car that can genuinely put some fun into environmentally friendly motoring.
The words hybrid and sporty have yet to become comfortable bedfellows when it comes to cars, though Lexus has tried - with limited success - with its Prius-based Lexus CT200h luxury hatchback. Honda believes they don't have to be mutually exclusive, and the Honda CR-Z sets out to deliver a sportier-looking hybrid that promises to be both fun and economical. But has it succeeded?
The Honda CR-Z marries a 1.5-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated engine with an electric motor, and the two powerplants combine to produce outputs of 91kW and 174Nm in the manual gearbox version, with torque dropping to 167Nm with the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). As with the Honda Insight and Honda Civic Hybrid, the CR-Z is only a mild hybrid - its electric motor never powers the wheels (in this case the front wheels) on its own but rather assists the petrol engine.
Those on-paper figures don't exactly promise hot-hatch performance and even in manual form the CR-Z takes 9.7 seconds to complete the 0-100km/h dash - hardly breathtaking by today's standards and slower than a Toyota Corolla. You can also buy a decently sport diesel hatchback with better fuel-efficiency in the form of the Volkswagen Golf GTD. Honda, however, believes the CR-Z will appeal to a different kind of buyer. One who seeks style, sophistication and energy-conscious performance.
Even though the Honda CR-Z may share a bit of DNA with the anything-but-sporty Honda Insight, it’s by no means just a juiced-up hybrid. The CR-Z is a purpose built sports coupe, and it shows.
From the outside it certainly looks unique, with the exterior design paying homage to the original boxy-shaped CR-X from the 1980s. It also follows a similar formula to the original car, a light sports car for everyday use. This time around, though, there's noticeably more class.
Its futuristic front-end is highlighted by a huge grille, wraparound headlights, straight-shaped daytime running lamps (which look effective when seen in the rear view mirror) and a double spoiler. The front windscreen curves around for a better viewing angle while the sloping roofline emphasises the coupe shape.
Although the front looks like something out of a Japanese anime series, the styling is perhaps a little more subdued at the back - and arguable not entirely harmonious with the front - though the almost-squared-off rear end ensures you won't confuse the CR-Z, which is incredibly compact at just 4080mm long, for a bland three-door hatchback.
Another factor that will help CR-Z owners stand out on the road from other hybrids such as the Prius is that Honda expects to sell around only 600 of them in Australia in 2012, making this another hybrid that has niche rather mass appeal.
To road test and review the Honda CR-Z, the company brought media to the Yarra Valley in Melbourne for a long, mountainous drive. The CR-Z offers three driving modes to pick from: Eco, Normal and Sports. As the names suggest, each is suited for a different purpose.
In Eco mode the Honda CR-Z is best described as dull and lifeless, doing all it can to preserve fuel. The more economical you drive, the more "trees" you earn as reward. It's well suited to heavy traffic situations but it by no means makes an exciting sports car. Turn it to normal and it instantly feels much better with the accelerator pedal response changing and overall dynamics improving noticeably.
But press the Sports button - and an obvious mode to choose for a mountain road - and the Honda CR-Z starts to reveal that it's a car to be driven with more vigour than a Toyota Prius. Engage Sports and the instrument cluster turns red to acknowledge you're not - at least for now - interested in 'growing' any trees. The steering becomes much weightier and the accelerator pedal becomes more responsive. Now the CR-Z is wearing its 'sporty' hat rather than its 'environmental' cap.
The CR-Z’s stiff suspension means poor quality roads are easily felt through the lightweight chassis, but the handling on the smoother, twisty roads of our launch drive at least provides a pleasant shock after the uninspiring experiences of previous hybrids. Acceleration also feels brisker in the real world despite the CR-Z's less-than-spectacular performance figures.
It won't take you long to find the car's grip limits, however, as the 16- inch wheels wrapped in 195/55R16 rubber tend to give in when pushed too hard around tight corners (a set of 17-inch wheels with wider rubber would be a logical option, even at the expense of slightly inferior fuel economy), while mid-corner bumps can also upset the Honda's composure.
The base model six-speed manual CR-Z Sport starts at $34,990 with an additional $2300 getting you a CVT automatic. The Sports comes standard with front foglights, privacy glass, cruise control, climate control air-conditioning, Bluetooth-enabled six-speaker audio system (no audio streaming, though), USB and iPod connectivity, rear parking sensors, and a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating.
Your other choice is the $40,790 CRZ Luxury (pictured below), which gains leather front seats with heating, panoramic roof, satellite navigation with DVD support and Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming. Luxury is only offered with the CVT auto.
The problem with this line-up is relatively apparent. The cheapest variant, the Sports manual, is also the fastest and most powerful. Furthermore, it's a far more engaging drive. Honda believes the majority of buyers it's targeting (empty-nesters or women in their early 30s) will pick the CVT for convenience, so there is no manual option in the luxury. For those unfamiliar with a continuously variable transmission, it’s a gearbox that can change steplessly through an infinite number of ratios. They're clever transmissions that help save fuel, but their tendency to drone and sound like a slipping clutch, as well as the lack of physical gears, hasn't endeared them to keener drivers.
For the most part Honda has addressed this with steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters that allow you to jump between preset gear 'ratios', but if you're an enthusiast the six-speed manual is a far better pick.
The interior has been designed around a cockpit theme, keeping dials simple but stylish. The two sport seats in the front are very comfortable despite the hard ride, whilst providing adequate support for the larger folks as well.
The two rear seats, if you want to call them that, are relatively useless, offering minimal leg or head room. They may come in handy when you absolutely must carry more than one passenger, but unless it’s a young child, they’re going to be rather uncomfortable (if they can even fit in the first place). Thankfully, though, they easily fold flat to give decent luggage space (401 litres).
We found the interior of the Sport model to be more fitting of what we had envisioned the Honda CR-Z to be. Not having the satellite navigation screen actually helped create a more functional cabin with nice big buttons for the stereo. The screen itself is of good clarity but the satellite navigation graphics and software seem rather dated.
There are no soft-touch plastics in the cabin but dark high-quality materials still show a classy look. The CR-Z’s show pony is the 3D gauge design that incorporates an innovative tachometer encasing a digital speedometer. This will change colour from green to blue and then red depending on your driving mode.
For now, it will be interesting to see whether the CR-Z can be a hybrid that can truly appeal to driving enthusiasts. It may just be that the CR-Z struggles to attract Honda fans who fell in love with the likes of the CR-X and Integra Type-R and instead attracts a whole new kind of buyer to the brand - a buyer who enjoys quite entertaining dynamics but one not necessarily hung up on 0-100km/h times and outright performance.