Honda's latest hybrid, the 2011 CR-Z, attempts to be both sporty and a hybrid, and it has middling success at each.
When it goes on sale Aug. 24, the CR-Z will be the first hybrid in six model years to offer a manual transmission; it will also be available with a continuously variable automatic transmission. As the spiritual successor to the wedge-shaped CRX, produced from 1984 to '91, the two-door, two-seat CR-Z joins the five-seat Insight and Civic hybrids in Honda's semi-electric lineup. Final pricing hasn't been released, but Honda says the base CR-Z will cost less than $20,000 including the destination charge. The 2010 Insight is $20,550 with destination, and the Civic Hybrid starts at $24,550.
A navigation system effectively creates another trim level, called EX Navi, which will top out at less than $24,000 including the optional CVT but with no further options. Options will include mostly exterior and interior cosmetic "accessories," but you can also get 17-inch summer tires in place of the standard 16-inch all-seasons.
I drove EX Navi versions, both manual and automatic.
My first and most lasting impression was how comfortable the CR-Z's ride is. Take a small car with sporty intentions, and you have the formula for a stiff ride. Add the fact that it comes from Honda, whose suspensions lean toward the firm, and the expectation is perfectly reasonable. The CR-Z goes way in the other direction. The short wheelbase does result in some fore-aft rocking, but overall I found it more comfortable than some larger Hondas.
On the downside, this ostensibly sporty model exhibits a lot of body roll, a common but no longer inevitable tradeoff of a compliant ride. This was unexpected, in part because the CR-Z's hybrid battery pack — mounted low toward the rear — lowers the car's center of gravity. The front/rear weight distribution is 59/41 with the manual transmission and 60/40 with the CVT, which is the norm for a front-wheel-drive car. All the same, the CR-Z feels more nose-heavy to me than do the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Golf. Granted, those are four- and five-seaters, respectively, but the two-seaters with which the CR-Z arguably competes are usually rear-wheel drive, and that makes for an intrinsic weight-distribution advantage among many CR-Z competitors.
The CR-Z goes into a corner with understeer, as expected, though the standard tires have some bite, and the electric motor provides respectable torque at low revs to pull you out of the turn. There was no opportunity to truly flog the car on a racetrack, but my impression is that it's reluctant to rotate on its axis — something the Golf and Cooper do well. A high point is the CR-Z's precise, well-weighted steering from what Honda notes is the company's smallest steering wheel. The handling is definitely sporty, but the CR-Z didn't beg to be driven hard. Part of this is about power.
I'm no power junkie. Power is the easiest and crudest element manufacturers can put in a car — as they often do to mask shortcomings. What many car reviewers call underpowered, I call modestly powered. That's how I characterize the CR-Z, but here modest is a problem. The CR-Z is meant to be a sporty, fun car. Sporty cars typically are less efficient than normal ones, and a sporty hybrid can be expected to be less efficient than a normal hybrid.
The problem is, the CR-Z might not be powerful enough to justify its lower mileage. It's smaller than the Insight, has fewer seats and is generally less versatile. Those are all tradeoffs. In the absence of substantially greater acceleration, the CR-Z's low-mileage rationalization simply falls apart.
Of the two transmissions, the standard six-speed manual is the more responsive and certainly the more fun, as manuals usually are. The six-speed stick has a decent feel, with reasonably short throws. The gear ratios are well chosen to give the car a respectable launch, and the clutch and all other aspects feel like any other manual, which is nice when compared with all other hybrids, whose continuously variable characteristics vary in refinement and all feel a bit foreign in the best of circumstances.
It doesn't hurt that the engine-motor combination has 5 pounds-feet more torque at a lower rpm when teamed with the stick: 128 pounds-feet at 1,750 rpm versus 123 at 2,000 rpm. The horsepower rating is constant at 122. The hybrid system is Honda's relatively simple Integrated Motor Assist, in which an electric motor is effectively mounted to the crankshaft — an oversimplification, but the point is it turns only when the engine does. The gas engine automatically turns off when the car comes to a stop, and the electric motor restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake.
The motor also assists in acceleration, contributing 13 horsepower at 1,500 rpm and 58 pounds-feet of torque at 1,000 rpm to the overall rating. When coasting or braking, it serves as a generator, regenerating electricity and charging the high-voltage battery pack.
Where the Insight uses a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, the CR-Z has a 1.5-liter. This higher displacement and sportier, higher-rolling-resistance tires play a part in the car's decreased mileage, as does a higher coefficient of drag: 0.3 versus the Insight's 0.2.
The brake pedal feel is also quite good for a hybrid. Regenerative braking tends to make the pedal mushy and nonlinear. (If anything, the current-generation Prius is worse in this regard than the previous one.) Between its stick shift and decent brake pedal feel, the manual CR-Z is the least hybridlike hybrid we've driven.
It's good to drive a manual hybrid again, as the last one went out of production with the previous-generation Civic Hybrid in 2005. There is a tradeoff, though, in gas mileage. In regular cars, manuals often are more efficient, but it all depends on how you drive them. This goes double for hybrids, because the alternative, a computer-controlled CVT, does a better job of maximizing regenerative braking. However, Honda says a driver who follows the manual CR-Z's shift-up and shift-down indicator arrows can come close to the CVT's rating.
Continuously Variable Automatic Transmission
Test Drive: 2011 Honda CR-Z review