Most consumers consider hybrid gas/electric vehicles solely for their ability to consume as little fuel as possible. Honda, however, is reminding the car-buying public that they can also be fun to drive (provided you’re not expecting exotic-car performance) with its new-for-2011 CR-Z hybrid sports coupe.
This diminutive two-seat hatchback is dramatically styled with a large front grille, wraparound headlamps, bulging rear wheel arches and slashed character lines along the side. While its essentially a more aggressive update of Honda’s original two-seat hybrid from 2000, the Insight, it’s also the spiritual successor to the automaker’s fondly remembered CRX two-seater from the 1980’s, which was one of the most popular models among the so-called “pocket rocket” segment of its day.
Under the CR-Z’s sloping hood resides a 1.5-liter gasoline engine that’s augmented by an electric motor/generator and self-charging battery pack that generates the equivalent of 122 horsepower. With 128 combined pound-feet of almost instantaneous torque, the low-slung and lightweight car feels much quicker on the uptake than its power rating might suggest.
And it does so with an EPA-estimated fuel economy rating of 35-city/39-highway mpg, assuming one drives so passively as to completely ignore the car’s sporty nature.
Unlike most other hybrids, the CR-Z’s electric motor is only used to assist the gasoline engine – it never completely powers the car on its own. However, as with all other hybrids, the gasoline engine automatically shuts down while at a stop to further save fuel, starting up again instantaneously when the driver lets up on the brake pedal.
Of note, the CR-Z is the only hybrid car to offer a manual transmission. Honda has always made among the best stick shifts in the business and the CR-Z’s six-speed is no exception, delivering easy clutch action and butter-smooth shifts. A hill-start assist function helps prevent the car from rolling backwards when stopped on an incline when releasing the clutch. Unfortunately, the car’s automatic stop-start function can easily get confused when working the clutch and brakes quickly into and out of a rolling stop, with the car hesitating for a second while the engine re-engages.
Alternately offered is a CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic that eschews gears for a belt and a set of pulleys. This design is widely used in hybrids, where it can take greatest advantage of an electric motor’s steep and flat torque curve, delivering a constant onrush of power. The downside is that a CVT can make a car sound whiny under moderate to full throttle, and some drivers find the lack of shift points disconcerting.
A selectable drive system adjusts the CR-Z’s performance characteristics according to “Sport,” “Normal” and “Econ” modes. Running in Sport mode enhances the car’s throttle response, steering effort and power delivery curve for the electric motor. This is where the car achieves its full potential, at least from an enthusiast’s point of view. However, to achieve anything near the car’s lofty fuel economy rating of 35-city/39-highway mpg, you’ll have to engage Econ mode. This has the opposite effect, essentially gelding all 122 horses under the hood for the sake of saving a few sips of gas.
A wide track, short wheelbase, low center of gravity and a sport-tuned suspension with large 17-inch wheels and tires combine to deliver agile handling that’s enjoyable even around town. It can stand up to demanding switchback curves without becoming unbalanced, though as with most tightly-sprung cars the ride gets a little rough over broken pavement. Honda’s Vehicle Stability Assist anti-skid system is standard to help keep all four wheels planted to the pavement during extreme or sudden handling maneuvers, while four-wheel antilock disc brakes deliver sure stopping abilities.
Inside, the CR-Z’s tidy cockpit-like passenger compartment is dashingly styled, with an instrument panel that features cool blue backlighting and a 3-D effect for the digital speedometer. A ring around the speed readout turns appropriately green when the driver is practicing efficient driving skills.
The CR-Z isn’t perfect, as it seats only two passengers, and its cargo carrying ability is limited, but the same could be said of several other sporty cars having backseats with legroom so sparse they’re useful only as upholstered shelves. It is, in fact, sold in Japan with a small rear seat that couldn’t possibly be practical as such, and the remnant cushion-less back remains in the U.S. version as a barrier to the cargo area, with the ability to fold flat as needed.
Still, the front seats are comfortable and supportive, they’re height adjustable for shorter motorists and there’s sufficient legroom for taller ones to find a comfortable driving position. The car could benefit from a center armrest/console, however, and its odd two-piece rear window (necessitated by a nearly horizontal hatchback design) hampers rearward visibility.
The car comes well equipped even in its base form with all the necessities buyers expect, with the top EX version adding a premium audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, with a voice-controlled GPS navigation system optional.
While the CR-Z is eminently likeable, the best fuel economy we could garner over the course of a week’s driving, albeit mostly in city traffic, was around 26 mpg. We can’t help but wonder if a small turbocharged and direct fuel-injected engine might achieve equivalent performance and similar efficiency without the added cost and complexity of the hybrid powertrain.
Honda CR-Z Quick Facts
Engine: 1.8-liter Gas/Electric Hybrid
Horsepower: 122 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 128 @ 1,000 rpm
City/Highway: MPG 31/37-35/39
Transmission: 6-Spd Manual, CVT Automatic
Wheelbase: 95.9 in
Overall Length: 160.6 in
Width: 80.1 in
Height: 68.5 in
Curb Weight: 2,637
Did You Know?
The original Honda Insight was the first hybrid-powered car to be sold in the U.S., beating the Toyota Prius to the North American market by seven months. While not nearly as sporty as the current CR-Z (its three-cylinder gasoline engine generated just 67 horsepower), the Insight was likewise a two-seater that came wrapped in a slavishly aerodynamic shape that was capped by a tall tail to maximize its fuel efficiency. It was EPA-rated at a still-amazing 61-city/70-highway mpg. While that version was discontinued in 2006, the Insight name has since been resurrected for a more conventional compact four-door hybrid sedan that debuted for the 2010 model year.