The cars we loved.
If you were to mention the word hybrid to the average motorhead, you’d likely get the look of dissaproval. The very term recalls squinty little hatchbacky things that look like Picchu. It’s easy to reinforce that image with Leafs and Prius dominating the carpool lanes. Honda attempted to shake up the image of the hybrid by hinging its bets on a new type gas/electric; a sporty one. Doing so was not all that risky, after all they did roll out the Prius shaped Insight to be on the safe side. The shape would make it clear that this new breed of hybrid would put efficient, fun and affordable in the same sentence.
The very name CR-Z recalls the CRX, the beloved little hatchback from the 80’s and 90’s. By skipping from X to Z might make one wonder if the first Insight was in some way a half-hearted attempt to update the CRX formula in the 90’s. Its been said that Honda set out to scrap all the preconceived notions of what it takes to build a small car and start from scratch with a nod to advance technology and efficiency. Benchmarks like the Elise, Mini and Sirocco came to mind as Honda set out to refine the dynamics of the CR-Z. The old ghost of the CRX figured prominently too as it inspired the exterior design to the point of looking like a modern update.
Even before the CR-Z was released, it caused a stir in Tokyo as a concept in 2007 and the next year in Detroit when the production model was shown. It’s also been one of the most shown cars at SEMA in recent years with all sorts of (bad taste) variations on display, some with as much as 500 hp! The popularity was so crazy, that Automotive News reported that there were more than 1 million hits on Honda’s CR-Z website. There was even a marketing promotion at college campuses to develop the best campaign for the car (Syracuse University won the competition). The popularity did not exactly translate to sales, as the CR-Z trails more practical hybrids like the Sonata, Prius and Honda’s own Insight. With a price starting as low as $20,000, the CR-Z stays close to the original formula set by the CRX. This makes it surprising that the one “fun” hybrid on the market is not more popular sales wise.
The new CR-Z does manage to capture some of what made the CRX fun in the first place. For one, it’s the only hybrid available with a manual transmission, a six speed unit no less. That along with being a two seater in itself says a lot about the car’s sporty intent. If self-shifting is not your thing, Honda offers a continuously variable unit as an option. One key element the CR-Z lacks that made the CRX so fun was a fully independent double wishbone suspension. Honda’s front wheel drive cars have been moving away from wishbones in favor of the space-saving (and cheaper) MacPherson struts in front and torsion-beam in the rear. The CR-Z is no exception to this sad trend. It suffers a sometimes choppy ride due mostly to a short wheelbase, but not helped by having what amounts to a beam as a rear suspension.
The resulting downgrade appears to have had no negative effect on handling. Road and Track reported that the CR-Z handled well and had a ride that was a bit on the firm side. While the CR-Z is fun in the curves, it’s not likely to win too many stop light battles. With a 0 to 60 time of 10.5 seconds it would be more in line with the 92 hp CRX in DX trim. There are only three versions of the CR-Z, all with the same engine; base, EX and EX with navigation. In theory, the EX offers the best weight to power ratio, but the extra weight of the navigation system is less likely to be any more a factor than an overweight driver (or passenger). The interior is tight and in typical Honda fashion, everything is easy to see and read, even if it comes across as a video game display at first glance.
Honda engineers went to great lengths to make the CR-Z as efficient as it is fun to drive, in other words they arrived at a compromise. Extensive testing was done at various stages of the car’s development in Europe to get the handling characteristics just right. The key to that was keeping weight down (about 2734 lbs. at its heaviest) and pairing the transmission with an efficient power plant. That power comes from a 122 hp 1.5 L i-VETC inline four-cylinder engine. The SOHC unit uses what Honda calls integrated motor assist (IMA), which amounts to small electric motors at the drive wheels that work in tandem with the gasoline engine. The petro engine on its own makes 111 hp. The power to weight ratio is still less favorable than the old CRX Si.
Although fun was important, the CR-Z is after all a hybrid. As such its expected to deliver exceptional gas mileage-right?. Here is where Honda might oddly be a bit out of steep. Consider this. The old CRX HF is rated at 41 mpg in the city and 49 hwy. The best the CR-Z can do with the 6 speed manual is 37 city and 44 highway. To be fair, the CR-Z’s gas mileage is similar to the top versions of the old CRX and manages to be so with four airbags and a ton of electronic equipment, not to mention lugging around a heavy Ni-MH battery. Still, the efficiency argument is deflated when you consider the new breed of direct injection four cylinders reaching 40 mpg without the aid of electric motors, solar sails or ion drive. A few of those direct injected cars like the Mazda 3 or Ford Focus could out perform the CR-Z in many respects.
Honda must be aware of the CR-Z’s deficiencies. Racing they say improves the breed, so the efforts of Honda’s Performance Development team may pay off in the future. Two modified CR-Z entries ran in a 25-hour endurance race in Willows CA in 2010. The stock 1.5 liter 4 was turbocharged for 175 hp. In addition both entries featured modified electric assist motors for an extra 25 hp. Although one driver got the pole position, the team was hampered by penalties. One driver managed a second place finish after coming from behind while the other entrant did not finish the race. The racing developments fueled some speculation that Honda might be releasing a higher performance version of the 1.5 or a gas only new engine altogether. Would Honda spin-off CR-Z development in hybrid and standard gasoline versions? If the big changes to the Civic line are any indication, it’s a possibility, but the CR-Z may be too new to tell.
For now the CR-Z is a great step in the right direction conceptually. With the spirit of the CRX hanging over it, it appears to not go far enough to appease those who miss what the original CRX represented. Motor Trend magazine did not even consider the CR-Z in its short list for the annual 10 best list. It’s not the most efficient hybrid or the fastest or best handling compact. As Japan’s 2010-11 car of the year, the CR-Z ‘s appeal goes beyond motoring enthusiasts. Mother Earth News voted the CR-Z as one of the “Best Green Cars” of 2011. Sales have been consistent, but Honda may need to make changes to push the CR-Z (or variations of it) more toward greater efficiency and or more power and performance for to finally put the memories of the CRX to rest.