On paper the 2013 Honda CR-Z appears rather expensive, relatively slow, quite cramped, and wears a 'hybrid' badge that nobody correlated with sportiness until supercars started using the same technology – well after the CR-Z was on sale.
On the road, however, this two-door petrol-electric coupe completely transcends its specification sheet to become one of the most delightful new cars available at any price.
Facelifted for the first time since its local launch two years ago, the 2013 Honda CR-Z is now available as a single model only, priced at $38,990 for either the six-speed manual or automatic continously variable transmission (CVT). That’s a $4K price hike over the outgoing car, even though the front-drive, 100kW CR-Z really needed a price cut to compete with the rear-drive, 147kW Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ.
Look closer, however, and the Honda CR-Z has actually improved its value equation. The single model is specified like the old auto-only Luxury model that retailed at $41,790.
Yet even compared with that model, the 2013 Honda CR-Z adds 17-inch alloy wheels with super-grippy Michelin Cup Pilot 2 tyres as standard equipment. Other features include full leather trim with heated front seats, a glass roof, climate control, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and touchscreen with satellite navigation, rear-view camera and Bluetooth connectivity.
It now exceeds the standard equipment of the Toyota 86 GTS, even though it still costs $3500 more for what is a slower but more economical vehicle.
In manual specification the 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and electric motor combo produce 100kW of power at 6600rpm, and 190Nm of torque between 1000-2000rpm – up 9kW and 16Nm, respectively.
The no-cost automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) makes 99kW and 172Nm.
The facelifted CR-Z now packs lighter lithium-ion batteries and a new S+ ‘overboost’ mode to improve performance, but claimed consumption increases to 5L/100km (auto) and 5.3L/100km (manual).
A mid-eight-second 0-100km/h time is slow for a car costing $39K, but that is not the end of the story. It's best not to think of the electric motor as a fuel-saving device in the CR-Z but rather a substitute for a small turbocharger.
Except the electric motor is better than any small turbocharger because it has absolutely no impact on consumption, doesn’t curb engine revability, and responds faster than any turbo – check the peak torque from 1000rpm.
Because the electric motor teams with a Honda engine and manual gearbox, the drivetrain is an absolute gem.
Around town the CR-Z pulls strongly from just off idle, permitting early upshifts. The alloy-topped gearlever connects to one of the world’s best gearboxes – with a mechanical, yet well-oiled snick-snick between ratios, it encourages frequent use.
The new ‘S+’ button provides a five-second overboost to make overtaking feel far quicker than the outgoing car, and faster than the outright acceleration numbers might suggest. Attempting to maintain speed on hills, the electric motor feeds in more torque rather than labouring the engine, meaning no consumption increase. Then, when braking or coasting downhill, kinetic energy is captured to recharge the tiny 0.6kWh battery pack.
Lightness no doubt helps – the CR-Z weighs 1176kg, 40kg less than an 86/BRZ. That hands the Honda a power-to-weight ratio of 162Nm/tonne, compared with 169Nm/tonne for the Toyota and Subaru. But the CR-Z makes peak torque from 1000rpm, where you’ll need to wait until 6400rpm for a peak 205Nm in the rear-drive twins. For driveability, the Honda CR-Z is plainly superior.
The steering, ride and handling of the Honda CR-Z remain superb. This is a car that communicates intimately, responds eagerly and is happy to adapt to multiple cornering styles.
Thanks to the grippier new tyres the CR-Z sticks tighter at the front end, permitting higher corner entry speed than before. Yet no front-wheel-drive car currently on sale oversteers more easily and more fluently than the Honda CR-Z. It dances between its axles – a slight lift of the throttle mid corner helps point the nose, a big lift incites big-angle oversteer.
When Peugeot says it can’t make a modern-day 205 GTi because of strict safety regulations, it obviously didn’t drive a Honda CR-Z. It’s similarly light, torquey and loves to lift-off oversteer, just like that iconic French original that sits in my driveway at home…
Yet the low centre of gravity, helped by the heavy battery pack mounted underneath the floor, and little body roll, means the lift-off moment is never scary – unlike the 30-year-old Peugeot. The brilliantly tuned stability control knows its place, too, intervening only when big slip angles are detected.
The electro-mechanical steering is likewise superb – crisp, quick and consistent whether the lighter-weight Eco and Normal, or heavier Sport mode is selected. Damping on rough roads is spot on, yet even with low profile 17-inch wheels, urban ride quality is small-hatch compliant and more impressive than the 86/BRZ.
Ultimately, the CR-Z needs more power, and occasionally it’s possible to get caught between second and third gears – revving too hard in second, but falling off pace in third. When pushed to the absolute limit in 90-degree corners, the Honda CR-Z will ultimately understeer, too.
The Honda CR-Z is not a proper four-seater. Rear legroom and headroom is poor, reserved only for small children. It is more useable as a two-seater with a big boot. The liftback rear hatch design means practicality is improved over sedan-like coupe competitors, and folding the rear backrest expands luggage space from 225 litres to a class leading 393L.
Although the interior has been updated, the touchscreen looks aftermarket and has a low-resolution display. Hard plastics abound, but they are of a rubber texture so don’t look particularly cheap, and the controls rotate with the precision expected of a Honda.
Front-seat comfort is excellent, although rear visibility remains an issue only partially solved with the help of a rear-view camera.
It’s best to forget the numbers with the 2013 Honda CR-Z. It is exquisitely engineered to deliver a huge amount of driving enjoyment, whether commuting or punting hard on a twisty road.
It just needs a bit more power and, ultimately, a lower price tag, to become a near-perfect package. Its steering, ride and handling are all first class, it feels light and torquey, and is super efficient – after a hard 400km drive, the CR-Z returned 7.9L/100km.
The misunderstood and underrated Honda CR-Z hasn’t been a strong seller for the brand, so we’ve seen huge discounts on showroom floors. Bargain hard and this hybrid coupe is every bit the equal of the 86 and BRZ that still have long waiting lists and dealer-inflated price tags…