By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Life is about compromises – and so is the new CR-Z coupe from Honda.
It’s the first “sporty” (decent acceleration and handling; available six-speed manual transmission; doesn’t look like a sad-sack Al GoreMobile) hybrid coupe.
But to deliver all that driving goodness and hipster style, it sacrifices much in the way of everyday functionality. And perhaps more seriously, it gets not-so-great gas mileage — for a hybrid.
I say perhaps because to a great extent hybrids are as much about image as they are about economy. The truth is that many people buy hybrids to make a statement as much as they do to save gas. Doubt it? Recall how well the obviously hybrid Prius has sold vs. the torpid sales of the not-so-obviously hybrid Honda Civic (and Accord hybrid) sedans.
Some people want to look green at least as much as they want to save green.
So the CR-Z may prove very popular — even if it’s not especially fuel-efficient.
WHAT IT IS
The CR-Z is a compact two-seater “mild” hybrid coupe with a small gas engine supplemented by a small electric motor and battery pack.
It’s the first two-seater hybrid since the late 1990s-era Honda Insight coupe, but unlike the original Insight (which was capable of more than 60 mpg) the CR-Z’s gas mileage is about the same as most conventional (non-hybrid) subcompacts — some of which (like the new Ford Fiesta) actually get better gas mileage.
Prices start at $19,200 for the base model and top out at $23,210 for a loaded EX with GPS navigation and CVT automatic transmission.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
The CR-Z is a brand-new model for Honda, although the car shares many of its components with the current Insight hybrid sedan.
The first hybrid that’s not all about fuel economy.
Available six-speed manual transmission — a feature no hybrid to date has ever offered.
Crisp, precise steering; good acceleration; nice engine sound.
Not-box styling; Jetsons interior layout.
Very large (for a compact) 25 cubic foot cargo area.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
37 MPG (highway, with the manual) isn’t much to write home about; several current econo-compacts (such as the Mini Cooper) accelerate and handle as well or better and can match (or nearly match) the CR-Z’s fuel economy without the complexity or cost of hybrid technology.
Two-seater layout limits the CR-Z’s everyday usability.
UNDER THE HOOD
The CR-Z is powered by a 1.5 liter gas engine boosted (on demand) by a small electric motor and battery pack, for a total rated output of 122 hp.
A six-speed manual (with Hill Star Assist) is the standard transmission, with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic transmission with Sport, Normal and Economy modes the optional unit.
Zero to 60 happens in about 9.6-9.8 seconds, quick for a hybrid.
Fuel efficiency is good but not great. With the standard six-speed manual, EPA quotes figures of 31 city/37 highway; with the more efficient CVT automatic, the highway figure improves to 39 MPGs. Several new econo-compacts such as the 2011 Ford Fiesta actually get better gas mileage (41 MPGs) and the very sporty and uber-cute BMW Mini Cooper (37 MPGs) virtually matches the CR-Z’s fuel economy while costing less to buy ($18,950 to start) and probably less to own down the road (no complicated and potentially expensive to fix/replace hybrid components).
ON THE ROAD
No doubt, this is the first hybrid with hustle. 122 hp in a (roughly) 2,700 lb. package is a much more favorable power-to-weight ratio than the Prius’ 134 hp and (almost) 3,100 lbs. Or for that matter, the current Insight hybrid sedan’s rickety 98 hp and 2,723 lbs. (about the same curb weight as the CR-Z).
Granted, a nine-ish 0-60 time isn’t exactly Mustang GT territory, but check the stats and you’ll discover it’s not far off the pace of the base model Mini Cooper (about 8.5 seconds) and a major improvement over the diesel Chevette-slow Prius (11-plus endless seconds). It feels punchy, too, because peak torque is available at a very low 1,000 RPM — which is better than even a diesel engine as far as that goes.
The CR-Z also sounds good when you accelerate and that’s a quality no hybrid I have ever driven could claim. The exhaust note under 3/4-full throttle is very much like a Civic Si’s. And the optional CVT transmission’s three push-button settings dramatically alter the personality of the drivetrain. Engage Sport and throttle tip-in becomes immediately sharper; the engine noticeably more racy and eager-feeling. The transmission gears down, too — literally making the most of the available power.
In Normal, the transmission’s behavior softens up a little and so does the aggressiveness of the throttle; but it’s still got more verve than any other current hybrid. To max out the fuel efficiency potential, depress the third button — which has a green leaf icon (which also appears on the dash display). Now the CR-Z feels like a hybrid — but for slow-poking around town or being stuck in traffic, it’s the ticket.
Mostly the CR-Z runs on gas, but the IC engine will automatically turn itself off when you’re stopped at a traffic light, then cut back on again, automatically, when it’s time to drive off. The electric motor/battery pack also provide some extra power for acceleration and passing, but the CR-Z doesn’t actually move on electric power alone, as in the Prius and some other hybrids.
Some reviews have criticized the CR-Z for having excessive body roll when cornering. I drive pretty aggressively (let’s be honest; I drive very aggressively) and I didn’t notice any such — until I was literally pushing the envelope of sanity (not to mention legality). Sure, on a road race track, the CR-Z isn’t going to keep up with Miata — or even a Civic Si. Does that matter? Honda’s intent was simply to inject enough personality into a hybrid to make it somewhat fun to drive. And the CR-Z absolutely is fun to drive — and more than just “somewhat,” too. Hard-core weekend racer types don’t buy hybrids anyhow. The target audience is someone who wants something that won’t put them to sleep.
Not scare them — or get them thrown in jail for reckless driving.
AT THE CURB
If you remember the ’80s-era CRX coupe, you’ll see hints of it in the CR-Z. It’s a stubby, dart-like little thing with a glass-topped tapered rear hatch. Aerodynamic efficiency (and so, fuel efficiency) is enhanced by a molded-in lower body kit/skirt — though unlike the ’90s-era Insight coupe, the CR-Z rides on performance-minded 16-inch wheels and tires (with 17-inch wheels optional) instead of super-skinny low rolling resistance tires.
The interior is even more aggressively futuristic than the exterior, with lots of swoopy angles and jet fighter-like displays. The main gauge is a jewel-like speedometer with three-color backlighting: It glows red when you’re operating in Sport mode, blue for Normal and Green for, well, green (hybrid/economy mode).
You sit low in the sport buckets and visibility for shorter drivers (and passengers) may be a issue; there’s also a fairly large blind spot caused by the steeply up-angled cat’s-eye rear quarter glass and the fastback bodywork — but the back-up camera and the car’s abbreviated dimensions (just 13 feet, end to end) make it very easy to maneuver in tight quarters.
The two-seater layout forces comparisons with other two-seaters, none of which (such as the Mazda Miata or BMW Z4 or Porsche Boxster) are hybrids or intended to be particularly economical — or even remotely “green.”
The ’90s-era Insight was also a two-seater, but it was capable of motorcycle-like fuel economy (some people got 70 MPGs out of them) and never intended intended to be particularly sporty.
So the CR-Z is somewhere in between — a compromise.
Evidence of this can be found behind the front seats, where you’ll discover what appear to be vestigial rear seats: A pair of molded-in-plastic cutouts that look like they’d accommodate a small person’s butt — along with a fold-down “seatback” that’s actually the floor of the cargo area. There’s zero legroom and no seat belts — as well as no way to get a person back there without literally crawling in from behind — but they sure look like almost-seats.
Though not usable for people, the end result is a decent amount of storage space — just over 25 cubic feet — for what’s otherwise a very small car. That’s more than twice as much as the “trunk” space you typically get in a conventional two-seater, such as the Mazda Miata or BMW Z4 — and it does add a dose of practicality to the CR-Z’s persona.
A young/single person could use this as their everyday driver with more ease than the typical two-seater and its glovebox-like “trunk.”
Though economy is a big part of the CR-Z’s mission it’s not a stripped-down basic car with only a few amenities. Automatic climate control AC, power windows, locks, cruise control and a nice stereo with steering wheel-mounted secondary controls are among the standard features. Many luxury-level features are available, too — including leather/metallic interior trim and a high-end audio system with Bluetooth wireless. The major stand-alone feature is GPS, which works through a large LCD display mounted at the top of the center console and canted toward the driver.
All the latest active/passive safety equipment — side-impactand curtain air bags, ABS, traction and stability control — is included in the cars base price.
The CR-Z also comes with a longer, hybrid-specific eight-year/80,000 mile warranty on the electric motor, battery pack and related hybrid system components. The rest of the car is covered by a shorter-lived three-yar/36,000 mile basic (and five-year/60,000 mile drivetrain) warranty.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are equally fuel-efficient and as or more-fun-to-drive non-hybrid little cars out there (notably the spunky and 37 MPG Mini Cooper) but the CR-Z has the extra appeal of hybrid cachet desired by many people as much (or even more) than either fuel-economy or sportiness.
Programming Note: Starting this week, we’ll be publishing a car review every Thursday on the NMA Blog.