Meet the 2011 CR-Z, Honda's new sporty hybrid. The modern-day answer to Honda's legendary CRX, the CR-Z is a two-seater that Honda says will deliver both sports-car thrills and hybrid fuel economy in a small, versatile package. Can one car really do all that? Read on. Price range $19,950 - $23,960, EPA fuel economy 31-35 MPG city, 37-39 MPG highway.
First Glance: CRX reborn?
The 2011 Honda CR-Z is supposed to be the spiritual successor to the Honda CRX. For those who aren't familiar, the CRX was a zippy little two-seat sports coupe that Honda built from 1984 to 1991. It weighed next to nothing, so it was quite fast and agile despite its rather modest engine. Honda made the CRX in three flavors: The CRX Si was the quickest and sportiest, the CRX HF was extra-light, extra-fuel efficient, and extra-slow, and the CRX DX came in somewhere in the middle. The CRX remains highly sought after today, and as you may have guessed, you're talking to the man who owns one: I have a clapped out '89 Si, and even in its sorry state, it's more fun to drive than a good many of the new cars I review.
So the 2011 CR-Z is supposed to be the modern-day CRX -- except you can't really build a modern-day CRX, at least not in this country. Stricter safety standards and shifting consumer tastes mean that cars must be better equipped. The original CRX did without airbags, anti-intrusion door beams, power windows and even power steering, all of which are must-haves today -- and all of which add weight. Nevertheless, Honda thinks they've found a way around that: By making the CR-Z a hybrid, Honda says they can fine-tune the powertrain's characteristics and deliver a similar driving experience to the old CRX.
Before we delve into the technical details, let's talk about the styling. Like the original CRX, the CR-Z is a wedge-shaped two-door hatchback. When I first saw the photos, I thought the CR-Z's bulbous nose looked awkward and a bit ugly, but in person, this car is a stunner. And I mean that in a good way.
In the Driver's Seat: Release the twelve-year-olds
Inside, the CR-Z is also a stunner, but not in a good way. The dashboard (link goes to photo) looks like it was designed by the same group of easily-distracted twelve-year-olds that did the Fit and the Insight. Where's the simplicity that was a hallmark of the CRX? From certain angles it looks like two different designs collided in the factory. I do like the instrument panel, though, with its integrated tach and digital speedometer. Note the blue ring around the speedometer, which changes color to indicate how economically you're driving: Green is good, dark blue is wasteful. And when you put the CR-Z into sport mode, it glows an angry red.
The jazzy cloth-covered seats are comfortable and supportive, although the passenger seat feels like it's mounted too close to the floor. (The driver's seat is height adjustable.) Behind the front seats is something that looks like a back seat, but isn't -- although CR-Zs sold in Europe and Japan get a back seat, US-spec CR-Zs have a "package shelf" and a sticker warning of imminent death if you even think of sitting back there. No matter, as if there were seats back there, there would be almost no legroom. The seat-that-isn't-a-seat can be left in place for cargo storage or folded down to expand the CR-Z's mediocre 9.8 cubic foot trunk to a much more usable 25.1 cubic feet. As with Honda's other small hybrid, the 4-door Insight, a compact hybrid battery/controller unit ensures a low trunk floor, while the big hatch makes for easy loading.
On the Road: Not a CRX, not an Insight
The CR-Z's powertrain is based on that of the Insight and Civic Hybrid, but the gasoline engine is bigger -- 1.5 liters instead of 1.3. Total output is 122 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque with the manual transmission (123 lb-ft with the continuously-variable automatic transmission). Yep, you read that right -- the CR-Z can be had with a six-speed stick. Though only 10% of cars sold in the US have manual transmissions, Honda estimates that 25 to 30% of CR-Z buyers will opt for the stick, even though it's less fuel-efficient than the automatic (31 MPG city/37 highway for the stick versus 35/39 for the auto).
I mentioned that the old CRX was available in three flavors, and with the hybrid system, Honda reckons they can deliver all three cars in one package. The CR-Z has a mode switch with Sport, Normal and Econ buttons. In Sport, the hybrid system pours juice into the electric motor like there was no tomorrow. It also firms up the electric power steering system, mimicking the non-assisted steering of the old CRX (although it can't mimic the CRX's feedback). The CR-Z isn't incredibly fast -- it's still only a 122 hp car -- but the electric motor gives the CR-Z the low-RPM pull you'd get from a bigger engine. Hit the green Econ button, and everything changes. The steering lightens up, the electric motor all but goes into hibernation, and the engine responds less urgently to the throttle.
Although the CR-Z is based largely on the Insight, it doesn't drive like one. The ride is firmer and the handling is sharper, although if anything the CR-Z is even noisier on the open road. The fun factor isn't quite as high as the old CRX; there's no substitute for light weight, and at 2,700 lbs, the CR-Z can't hold a candle to the one-ton CRX. Still, the CR-Z is exceptionally well balanced; yank your foot off the throttle in a curve, and it will even oversteer a bit -- a trait enhanced by the economy-tuned tires' lack of grip.
Journey's End: Sorting things out
My first test drive at the CR-Z press preview left me feeling a little indifferent -- but after a follow-up week-long test drive, including a run on the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road, I became a solid fan. The CR-Z doesn't drive like a two-door Insight, which was what I was expecting (and, if I'm honest, fearing), although it also doesn't quite drive like a CRX, which is what I was hoping for.
But the CR-Z does have a lot of the old CRX's good attributes: Sharp styling, easy parking, and outstanding utility. (You'd be amazed how much crap you can fit into a 25-cubic-foot trunk.) And unlike the original CRX, it won't roll up like a foil gum wrapper if you get into a crash.
Would I buy one? Hmm. Pricing for the CR-Z starts at $19,950 for the base model, which includes alloy wheels, automatic air conditioning, electronic stability control and power everything. The top-of-the-line CR-Z EX with navigation and an automatic transmission lists for $23,960. Here's the problem: For about the same amount of money, Honda will sell me a Civic Si. It's not as small nor as good-looking as the CR-Z, and it won't get the same gas mileage. But its quicker and gets through the corners quicker than the CR-Z. That said, the Civic Si isn't available with an automatic, and the CR-Z is -- but then again, so is the Volkswagen GTI.
At the end of the day, I think the CR-Z is going to have no trouble finding buyers. A car can't be everything to everyone, but with its big trunk and three-mode hybrid system, the CR-Z comes pretty darn close. Yep, I think a lot of people are going to like this car. As for me... I think I'm going to head out to the garage and start fixing up my old CRX. -- Aaron Gold