CR-Z goes back to future

John LeBlanc
By John LeBlanc
Posted on July 23rd, 2010

MAPLE, ONT.-In today’s hyper-competitive new-car market, it’s a rare occurrence when a newly-introduced vehicle can be called truly “unique” or a “one-of-a-kind.”

Yet as a two-seat sports coupe powered by a gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain, the lineup of competitors for Honda’s new 2011 CR-Z Hybrid is short – as in, none.

Sure, there are other small, fun-but-frugal 2+2 hatchbacks out there. A Mini Cooper comes closest to the new Honda coupe’s modus operandi. And the Fiat 500, Scion tC and Hyundai Tiburon-replacement are looming on the horizon – the kind of competition that may very well attract the same type of buyers Honda Canada is hoping will be interested in its new hybrid sports coupe.

But technically, like a Porsche 911 or Tesla Roadster, the CR-Z stands alone.

One of the reasons for the CR-Z’s unusual personality is its ancestry.

In theory, the CR-Z is the love child of two former small Hondas: the 1984 to 1991 gas-only CR-X sports coupe, and the 1999 to 2006 gas-electric hybrid Insight commuter pod. And Honda admits, the intended result was an “optimum balance” between these two seemingly opposing parents.

“We didn’t set out to make the most fuel efficient car, or the sportiest,” Honda Canada spokesman Richard Jacobs said at the CR-Z’s Canadian first drive event.

Instead, Honda’s sporty hybrid is supposed to be a line drive right down the middle between having fun behind the wheel and protecting the environment. It’s the type of corporate ethos that you’ll be hearing a lot of in the future from all automakers.

“The world has changed,” said Jerry Chenkin, Honda Canada’s executive vice-president. “With (U.S. corporate average fuel economy) regulations and carbon emissions standards, governments are going to be more involved with our business. We expect things will get tougher. And as the number one engine manufacturer in the world, we have to take this seriously.”

If that sounds like Honda pointing fingers, or preparing the CR-Z to be received as a compromise (like last year’s less-than-successful Insight Hybrid), you’re not alone.

So, is the new CR-Z a duckbilled platypus, or an “optimum balance” between fun and frugality?

From a practical standpoint, at least Honda isn’t taking advantage of the CR-Z’s blue “HYBRID” badge and running to the bank.

In the U.S., you can get a base CR-Z for under $20,000 (U.S.). When Canada’s model goes on sale this August, the better-equipped (360-watt seven-speaker audio system; Bluetooth; leather-wrapped steering wheel, etc.) CR-Z EX (with a six-speed manual gearbox) at $23,490 (Canadian) will be one of three of the least expensive hybrids you can buy – the other pair being Honda’s five-door $23,900 Insight LX sibling and the $27,350 Civic Hybrid sedan (both with a CVT as standard.)

Opting for the CVT will add $800 to the CR-Z’s costs. And a $1,160 (U.S.) navigation system won’t be available in Canada.

Despite a 114 mm wheelbase chop out of the five-door Insight’s platform that it’s based upon, the CR-Z is a lot larger, and more refined than the original ’99 Insight two-door.

The North American CR-Z replaces a pair of tiny rear seats found in other markets with what Honda calls a “cargo console,” appropriate space for an urban driver’s flotsam and jetsam, like briefcases, laptops or yoga mats.

And compared to the boxier Mini, there’s more maximum cargo space in the Honda: a generous 711 litres under its hatch.

There’s nothing revolutionary under the CR-Z’s hood. It’s basically the same Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system that debuted in the first Insight over a decade ago. Instead of the current Insight’s 1.3-litre gas engine, though, the CR-Z gets the 1.5 unit from the Fit, “assisted” by a 10-kW battery-powered electric motor, rated at 122 hp and 128 lb.-ft. (123 lb-ft with the CVT.)

That’s more juice than the Mini Cooper’s 118 hp and 114 lb.-ft., yet the Honda scores better at the pumps. The six-speed manual CR-Z gets an estimated 6.5 L/100 km city, 5.3 highway (43/53 mpg). The optional CVT-equipped model scores 5.6 and 5.0, respectively (55/60 mpg).

Honda says those numbers were gained with the CR-Z’s so-called “Normal” driving mode, one of three that also includes “Sport” and Eco.”

Old Insight owners will love the CR-Z’s save-the-planet Eco mode. The engine’s responsiveness and air conditioning system give priority to fuel efficiency, and the up-shift light had me in sixth gear before reaching 50 km/h. Unresponsive under foot, it feels most like a hybrid.

While the Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion, Insight and Civic are hybrids that achieve better fuel economy ratings, none offer the driver appeal of the CR-Z. If not an outright sports car, nor a fuel efficiency champ, it certainly lives up to its “sporty hybrid” hype.

Whatever driving mode you pick, drivers will enjoy the CR-Z’s driver-oriented ergonomics. Similar in design to the late Acura RSX and Honda S2000, the hybrid coupe’s instrumentation panel places commonly used controls close to the driver’s hands on pods that flank the steering wheel.

While it’s not as quick off-the-line as a Mini – according to factory numbers, the CR-Z is about a half-second slower from naught to 100 km/h than the Cooper, which can get there in 9.1 seconds – and it takes a couple of seconds longer to get to Ontario’s legal speed limit than a 1990s CR-X Si, the new Honda coupe’s Sport setting makes it drive most like a normal (i.e. gas-only) car

Also like those older, sporty Hondas, CR-Z’s gearshift is snickety-snick precise. Working with the already-smooth 1.5 mill, and full battery power, it’s a refined combination that gives little of its hybrid nature away.

More surprises: Honda’s really nailed the coupe’s ride and handling balance. Despite the short wheelbase, the CR-Z’s ride isn’t jarring, yet it doesn’t cry “Uncle” on a twisty road.

Fast, accurate, and with real feel, its variable-assist electric steering rack is arguably the best-steering hybrid I’ve driven.

Granted, when you do push the CR-Z really hard, like on the parking slalom Honda laid out at Downsview Airport, its limitations are quickly reached. It’s nowhere near the quasi-sports car my 1990 CRX-Si was.

I’d blame the choice of tires. While U.S. customers get P195/55R16 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A summer performance rubber as standard kit, the Canadian-spec CR-Zs we drove wore Dunlop SP Sport 7000 A/S of the same size, designed for low noise and good ride comfort on a variety of wet and dry roads, as well as in light snow. Honda says larger P205/45R17 tires and wheels will be available as a dealer option.

In reality, though, comparing Honda’s modern hybrid sports coupe against a 20-year-old car is like comparing Wayne Gretzky to Sydney Crosby.

Like Honda says, it’s a different world.

In today’s context, the 2011 CR-Z Hybrid is a very appealing car to drive for our times – hybrid or not – mainly thanks to its excellent cabin, quick steering and composed ride and handling.

Commuters will love its practicality and refinement. While drivers will enjoy its sophisticated driving characteristics and its nimble size.

The CR-X is dead. Long live the CR-Z.

2011 Honda CR-Z Hybrid Coupe

PRICE: base/as tested $23,490/$23,490

ENGINE: 1.5 L I4 w/ 10 kW electric motor

TRANMISSION: Six-speed manual

POWER/TORQUE: 122 hp/128 lb.-ft. (6MT)

FUEL CONSUMPTION: 6.5 city, 5.3 hwy L/100 km (43/53 mpg)

COMPETITION: Fiat 500, Mini Cooper, Scion tC, Hyundai Tiburon replacement

WHAT’S GOOD: Slick-shifting manual; driver-oriented interior, balanced ride and handling; practical rear cargo features; good fuel economy.

WHAT BAD’S: Doesn’t move the goal posts as a sporty car, nor as an economy car.

WHAT’S INTERESTING: The world’s first and only hybrid sports coupe.

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