Review: 2011 Honda CR-Z

I’m going to be up front here, I am not a Honda guy. I have nothing against Honda cars or the brand. They make excellent vehicles, and have a solid reputation. It’s just that I have always been kind of take it or leave it when it comes to their cars. They have had some exceptions. I liked the Element when it first came out, it was a great design departure from the SUV look of the time. The new Civic Hatchback has a sporty look to it and power to match, and while very similar to the Toyota Prius, the Insight edges it out on overall styling. One car Honda made that I always loved though was the original CRX from the early 1980’s. The car was well designed, sporty, a blast to drive, and an affordable sport coupe.

Today I took the new 2011 CRZ out for a test drive. It was a nice way to spend about 45 on a Saturday afternoon seeing what all the buzz was about for the hybrid sport coupe. Let me tell you straight out, this car was a blast to drive.

The CR-Z is based on the Honda Insight, which isn’t what I would consider a promising start as far as sportiness is concerned. I assures you the CRZ isn’t just a copy and paste job transplanting the Insight drive train into a different styled body: the CRZ wheelbase is 4.5 inches shorter than the Insight, and the car itself is shorter by some 8 inches. The CRZ is also considerably wider and lower than any other Honda sedan or coupe on the market right now.

The CR-Z is very much a take it or leave it affair, like most of Honda’s recent designs, and yes like all production cars, when compared to the concept the front end looks somewhat toned down.

That’s not what this is about though, when you look at the CR-Z you get the distinct feeling that Honda’s design team had a very clear image of the CRZ they wanted from the outset: this car simply looks like nothing else on the road. From the raked rear window inspired by the original CR-X, to the pointy rear lights, flares and bulges distributed in key areas this car stands out.

The first thing I noticed when I sat down in the driver’s seat was how close I was to the ground. You sit very low in here. Sport car low. Ladies I am advising you to avoid wearing skirts, or at least take caution when entering and exiting the car. Because of the scaled down size, passengers will feel very snug. I am 6 foot 4 and the passenger’s seat, even when it was all the way back was a tight fit for me. It wasn’t bad but you won’t be getting things out of the glove box if I am sitting there. Larger people might feel a bit claustrophobic in the CRZ if they are more used to the expanses of their oversized Suburban, or the SUV. Storage spaces are scarce, and there is no rear seat. Yes folks this is a true two-seater from Honda. There are storage bays directly behind the front seats though that provide room for smaller object like a laptop, that you might want to keep out sight from prying eyes. The trunk isn’t especially large – it measures 8.2 cubic feet in size with the seats all the way back, and the loading deck sits high due to the hybrid batteries and full-size spare wheel sitting underneath it.

The instrument panel is designed with the ultimate control freak, and instrument nut in mind. Directly behind the steering wheel sits the tach and speedometer in an isolated tunnel that directs your vision straight to the bright LED readout. To the left and right of it is a digital readout of battery charge meter, power assist, fuel gauge, a fuel consumption indicator, a gear shift indicator along with the usual array of warning lights and standard gauges. Like with the Insight, the tach will light up in blue shades if you’re killing the planet and lights up in green if the animals and plants of planet earth are happy with the way your driving. And like the Insight the central display will also grow flowers over time if you keep it up. There are tons of switches, buttons and selection modes which to some could be a bit overwhelming, especially at night when this thing is lit up like the cockpit of a 747 jumbo jet. The layout was good though with everything well within reach, and placement set up for ease of use. Unfortunately, the flashy interior doesn’t manage to conceal the mediocre quality that the CRZ shares with the Insight, and while all of the surfaces feel like they’ll put up with daily wear, they seem a little too cheap for a car of this breed and styling.

The car I drove was the CVT automatic, but the CRZ is available with a 6 speed manual transmission, if you want to get even more sport performance out of this car. The automatic features paddle shifters on the steering column though, so you still have the option to get the car into the next gear when you want it to. Given the option I would probably go for the manual. Everything i have read about it says it is a quick shift delight with a fluid buttery clutch, and besides this is a sport coupe. That means manual drive if you have the option. When combined with a 1.5 four cylinder unit lifted from the Fit, Honda’s IMA hybrid system generates a modest 124 horsepower on a weight figure of 2,568 pounds – not that far off from mother Insight, and all in all, not a very convincing figure.

The CRZ feels quick off the line.This is in part do to the small size, and lowness of the car. In reality the CRZ took almost 10 seconds to go from 0 to 60, not that impressive when you think about it. Very impressive when you think about the fact that this is a hybrid car. None the less Porsche and Audi don’t have to worry about anything just yet. The power boost you do get comes from the electric assist motor which really felt like a turbo. If you are rolling and you mash down on the gas, the CRZ gets up and moves. I had no issues with it on the freeway or zipping through city traffic. One nice feature that Honda was smart enough to include was Sport mode. When this is selected, the CRZ has even more power, and you can visibly see it. When I hit the sport button the RPM on the tach moved to a higher idle position, and the response time of the car quickened. In Sport mode, where the electric spinner provides more torque to the front wheels and throttle response is sharpened. The CR-Z’s engine is a short breather compared to traditional Honda performance motors – redlining at around 6,500 rpm – but there’s been a lot of effort to make it sound the part, so there is a considerable amount of not unpleasant engine noise entering the cabin in higher RPMs.

This car is fun to drive but it isn’t all wine and roses here. The CRZ is simply under geared, and it runs out of breath with a lack of midrange power to label it a real sport coupe. This is a real shame because I want the CRZ to do more. I realize this car doesn’t handle like it’s forbearer the CRX. It shouldn’t the CR-X was a different car for a different generation, and expecting the 2010 car to have the 1990 driving dynamics is like expecting to get built-in GPS and navigation in an entry-level Hyundai Excel. In the end though, the truth is that when you get the CRZ up to speed, it can bring a naughty smile on your face.

The CRZ steering lacked feel, it was fairly accurate and well-weighted, and thanks to the low ride height and relatively short suspension travel, body roll was also relatively modest when cornering and moving through traffic. The CR-Z responded well to my steering inputs, and felt agile and capable in the corners. Gather enough speed and leave the throttle, and you’ll even manage to induce some old school back slips. Unfortunately, CR-Z doesn’t manage to shake off the braking syndromes associated with hybrids. (hybrids using breaking energy to  transfer power to the electric motor to improve start up in economy mode) Thanks to its variable-pressure pedal, there’s not enough feel from the pedal hampering performance braking. In the model I drove the driver’s and passenger’s seats also don’t provide side bolstering for key areas such as the torso and shoulders. I need to check and see if a sport seat upgrade is available for the CRZ.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These are all small gripes compared to the major design flaw. The CR-Z’s biggest problem is that there is not enough straight-line performance to let you easily discover its positive characteristics, and you can really feel the chassis aching for more power.

So the CR-Z is not really a sporty car. So is it a good hybrid? After an intensive driving session, I averaged about 25 mpg. While this isn’t really what I would call good hybrid performance,  you have to bare in mind I was engaged in some pedal-to-the-metal driving along some curvy roads in Sport mode, so the CR-Z shouldn’t have much problems hitting the 31/37 city/highway EPA cycle if you can hold off the child in you begging to have some fun. 31/37 mpg isn’t to shabby for a pretentious sporty coupe, but then again not really ground breaking as far as hybrids or diesels are concerned. When you’re into economy, you can switch to Eco or Normal modes. Both make the car feel more sluggish thanks to a blunter pedal response and less assistance from the electric motor. Frankly you’d be hard pressed to switch back into one of these modes after driving in Sport.

The CR-Z’s livability is a curious mix of good and bad. On one hand, the ride is impressive both in town and on the freeway. It’s also easy to drive thanks to the smooth CVT transmission, something about it makes you feel like you’re going around 15 mph slower than you actually are. Is the Honda CR-Z a sporty coupe? Not really. Is it an exceptionally good hybrid? Not really. After driving Honda’s newest hybrid Honda’s only real sporty car in its current lineup, I came away with more questions than answers and criticism about this car. Don’t get me wrong. This thing was fun to drive, and the price point was right. You get a lot of bang for your buck here, and if I were in the market for a new car in the low 20 thousand dollar range, I would consider buying the CRZ. With that said, I have to admit, this is a first generation car, and even though it is built around a proven drive train it tends to fall between the lines.

So who is this car for? This car is for someone who is consciences about the environment and is looking for a fun car to drive, something sporty and flashy, but isn’t a driving enthusiast. In other words, someone who wants a peppy gas sipper, and isn’t looking to burn up winding country roads on a Saturday afternoon. If you are looking for a green performance car, save your pennies and buy a Tesla.

The good thing is, Honda has already announced a more powerful version of the CRZ due out in Japan later this year and in North America and Europe in 2012. In addition, since this is a first generation car, Honda will surly improve upon the technology and overall underpinnings of this car with each new release.