In order to appreciate the CR-Z properly, it's important to make clear from the start what this car isn't: The CR-Z is not a super-high-performance pocket rocket. It doesn't rev to 9000 rpm or handle on rails like an Acura Integra Type-R. It will not singlehandedly restore Honda's fading credentials as an enthusiast's automaker.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I can tell you what the CR-Z is: a really fun, sporty, and cheap hatchback that also happens to be a hybrid. It's good looking, too. The oft-noted resemblance to the CRX is actually more pronounced on the street, where the CR-Z's tiny dimensions and low roof stand out as a throwback to the days when small cars were actually small. Honda also did an excellent job fashioning the CR-Z's interior, manipulating familiar bits from the Honda Fit and Insight into a genuinely sporty cabin. I especially love the simple gauges, with a basic digital speedometer surrounded by a large tachometer.
I only wish that tach contained some higher numbers. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder revs smoothly and builds power nicely at around 4000 rpm, but at 6500 rpm, where a good Honda engine should just be waking up, it abruptly dies. Where's the V-TEC? Nevertheless, it's fun to milk every last horse out of the little hybrid with the six-speed manual gearbox. I spent all weekend in anti-hypermiling mode-running right up to the rev-limiter and slamming into second or slicing from sixth to third for a highway off-ramp. Make no mistake, the manual is more than a gimmick, it's the pièce de résistance. Given that I was in charge of the gear swaps, I wasn't expecting the various modes-"Sport," "Normal," and "Eco"-to do all that much. In fact, they provide a very noticeable change in throttle mapping. I found myself leaving it in Sport save for long slogs down the highway, where I would use Eco mode as a sort of overdrive.
With drag racing not on the menu, I was hoping the CR-Z would be exceptional in the steering and handling departments. Instead, it's merely very good. The small wheel could use just a bit more feedback, and all the weight at the nose makes it difficult to flick the car into a corner the way one should be able to with such a short wheelbase. Still, the CR-Z is a guaranteed smile maker when zipping around a parking lot or a tight curve.
As it stands, the CR-Z is a fun little hatchback. With a few improvements, including a more aggressive suspension setup and a higher-revving engine, it could be a great sports car. Like just about every gearhead on the planet, I sincerely hope Honda "gets it" and introduces a more aggressive Si model, but I'll bet that even if corporate doesn't go crazy with the CR-Z, tuners will.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor