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.
The CR-Z's higher trim level, the EX, adds features like Bluetooth, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum shift knob (manual), aluminum pedals, additional interior accents and a more powerful stereo with a subwoofer. The all-important analog and USB MP3-player inputs are standard in all trim levels.
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
I also drove the CVT version, which behaves pretty well. CVTs sometimes accelerate abruptly from a standing start or come to a stop awkwardly. The CR-Z lurched a bit upon launch, but it improved once the car had warmed. I also noticed smoother response if I let off the brake and waited for the engine to spin up and engage the transmission before hitting the gas pedal. Otherwise I'd catch the sleeping engine by surprise and it would jump out of bed and whack its head on the transmission, if you will. Like other CVTs, when you accelerate hard, the engine zooms to its top speed and the transmission accelerates the car as the engine drones on at a constant and rather loud level.
The CVT makes full use of the CR-Z's three-mode drive system. In both versions, Sport mode decreases the power-steering assist, and Econ mode switches the air-conditioning compressor to a more efficient cycle. With the manual transmission, the modes vary how much the car accelerates based on accelerator-pedal depression. It's more responsive in Sport, reluctant in Econ and up the middle in Normal mode. In the CVT, it varies the throttle response less and the gear ratio quite a bit.
For example, if you're cruising along and switch on Sport mode, it instantly boosts the engine speed by about 1,000 rpm, keeping the vehicle speed constant. To remind you not to stay in the mode unintentionally and waste gas, a blue ring around the digital speedometer turns red and stays that way. In the Normal and Econ modes, it starts out blue but transitions to green when you drive in an efficient manner.
Keeping the engine at higher revs makes it ready to accelerate with more power, and it provides more engine braking. Econ holds the engine at lower rpm and makes the first few inches of accelerator-pedal travel less productive. Again, Normal is in between.
If you floor the accelerator, regardless of mode, the CR-Z goes full-steam ahead. I can't overemphasize how important this is. When you need a car to go, you need it to go, and cars that rob you of full power in the name of an efficiency mode (there are some) are potentially hazardous. When you request passing power from the CR-Z at highway speeds, there's slightly more delay if you're in Econ mode because the CVT has to up the ratio and the engine needs to rev up, but this is incremental; there's no artificial limitation. In any mode with either transmission, passing power is serviceable, but again, it's not exactly sports-car material.
Anyone who wants the manual experience with the CVT can have it, thanks to shift paddles on the steering wheel, which select among seven fixed gear ratios that emulate a conventional transmission. It shifts up and down relatively quickly. You can trigger a manual selection at any time, but in Normal mode, it will promptly revert to automatic operation. When in Sport, it stays in the selected gear and manual mode unless you hold the shift-up paddle for a few seconds or change mode altogether.
It appears that the EPA estimates are conservative, as is the case with the Insight. I exceeded the automatic's highway rating with 39.4 mpg, according to the trip computer. That's not bad for a car with only 1,000 miles on it, hardly broken in. Of course, this was on flat terrain on a warm day. Other conditions might change the results.
The driver's seat has more legroom than I needed at 6 feet tall, and it has comfortable, supportive cushions with just enough side bolstering. The passenger seat, however, had too much lumbar support, and neither seat lets you adjust it. A driver's seat height adjustment is standard, and I had a little headroom to spare even with the seat raised fully. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, which is another plus. The one omission is a center armrest, which is optional. If comfort isn't a good enough reason to get it, the cabin's lack of covered storage certainly is. There's a glove compartment, but it's tucked far under the dashboard and is hard to access even from the passenger seat.
Visibility to the front and sides is good, but out the rear is a problem. The rear pillar is high and wide, and the rear windows — bisected by a horizontal beam as they are in the Insight — are rather narrow. On the positive side, the crossbeam seems higher than it is in the Insight and Prius, so it didn't obscure cars behind me in the rear-view mirror.
The CR-Z EX's interior impressed me. We've complained about inconsistency in Honda's cabin materials, both the quality and the typical hodgepodge of textures and colors. The CR-Z is an improvement. There's low-gloss material on the dashboard and the tops of the doors, and the door handles and some dashboard trim feature a high-luminosity metal-film composite that Honda describes as a thin layer of vaporized tin under clearcoat. Pretty effective stuff.
The seats are upholstered in silver-gray mesh fabric. It looks pretty good on the doors, too, but it's a bit too coarse to be serving as armrests. The gauges are brilliant, three-dimensional luminescent affairs, including a digital speedometer at the center of an analog tachometer dial. Like the Insight, the driving mode buttons, ventilation controls and other switches rest on pods canted toward the driver. Unlike the Insight, there's no separate high-mounted gauge at the base of the windshield, which some people don't like. I was reminded that I like it because the steering wheel blocked my view of the gauge cluster.
Sometimes efficient cars are noisy. The CR-Z isn't bad. Engine noise is the most intrusive, but it's mainly under heavy throttle. Other sounds are relatively balanced: There's some road noise and occasional wisps of wind around the A-pillars, but nothing is overbearing, though a motorcycle or noisy car alongside the CR-Z intrudes through relatively thin (lightweight) side windows. One sound I couldn't help noticing was a slight hiss coming from the cargo area that I thought was static from a radio trapped between stations. Ultimately I found it was a cooling fan for the battery pack, which speeds up and slows down along with the vehicle, so it's always just barely audible. Raising the cargo partition and putting the retractable cargo cover in place seemed to quiet it down some.
At 25.1 cubic feet, the cargo area is more than twice the volume of a typical compact car's trunk. It's not particularly tall, but it's a vast improvement over the first-generation Insight, a two-seater whose cargo floor was nearly at head restraint height. Two storage bins sit right behind the seat where a backseat would be and are separated from the rest of the cargo area by a vertical partition that can be folded forward 90 degrees to form a continuous, longer cargo floor. (The Japanese-market CR-Z has a backseat — a generous term for it — but Honda says U.S. safety regulations require rear head restraints that would stick up through the roof.)
The partition folds down in a single step, but it would be better if there were release handles on the sides rather than one in the center where it's hard to reach from outside the car. My test cars also had retractable cargo covers, which can span the entire cargo area or can be mounted on the floor about a foot in front of the rear bumper. This configuration creates a small compartment, but the whole space looks empty when viewed from the outside.
As a brand-new model, the CR-Z hasn't been crash-tested yet. Standard safety features include frontal, side-impact and curtain airbags and active head restraints. Also standard are antilock brakes with discs at all four corners and an electronic stability system with traction control.
CR-Z in the Market
The CR-Z is in the middle in many ways, including sportiness and mileage. At least Honda is pricing and positioning it in the middle, too. Though it's less efficient than other hybrids, it's also cheaper. It's more expensive than some sporty cars, but in those cases it's more efficient.
Potential competitors are an eclectic mix, and few match the CR-Z in more than one attribute. Among larger two-doors, the Civic's performance-oriented trim level, the Si, is close to $23,000 with the destination charge, and the Ford Mustang and Hyundai Genesis coupe start above $22,000.
The super-fun Mazda MX-5 Miata similarly comes nowhere near the CR-Z's mileage, and it starts at more than $23,000. With the retractable hardtop, which makes it more like a coupe, it's close to $28,000.
On some level, the two-door, 36-mpg-combined Smart ForTwo is a competitor, but ... don't make me laugh. (Smart ForTwo review.)
In my opinion, the CR-Z's greatest two-door competition comes from the Mini Cooper, modestly powered in base form at $19,500 with destination. With an EPA-estimated 32 mpg combined (manual) and 28 mpg (automatic), it's at least knocking at the CR-Z's door. For anyone who's willing to consider diesel, the Golf TDI delivers 34 mpg combined. It starts at $22,905 with destination, but a $1,300 tax credit knocks it down to $21,605.
Honda sold 20,000 CR-Zs in four months when it went on sale in Japan, but Japan is less power-hungry than the U.S. In some ways I think Honda would have been better off downplaying the hybrid aspect and presenting the CR-Z as an efficient little car that happens to be a hybrid. When shoppers hear "hybrid," I think they expect more — more mileage, or at least more space, seats or sportiness for the mileage the CR-Z offers.
Test Drive: 2011 Honda CR-Z review