Honda’s CRX is something of a legend, one of those cars about which everyone seems to have memories. Fond memories at that, usually involving an ultracool college-age dude who drove the wheels off one. The first-generation Honda Insight, on the other hand, is a car that the in crowd probably doesn’t even remember, but it was pure dork delight. With an aluminum unibody, it was the first hybrid to reach the U.S. and posted the highest EPA combined fuel economy number of all time: 53 mpg (49/61 mpg city/highway).
And now we have the 2011 Honda CR-Z, which could be a new CRX-except for the fact that it’s a hybrid. So, is the Honda CR-Z a hot hatch for the hip crowd or a fuel economy dork’s hypermiling wet dream?
Well, the CRX’s influence is not only obvious in the CR-Z’s name (which stands for Compact Renaissance Zero) but also in its truncated tail and horizontally split rear window. The triangular taillights bear a strong family resemblance to Honda’s current (and pretty dorky) Insight, but the CR-Z is lower, wider, and certainly cooler. The upswept character lines and the C-pillar suggest motion even when the car is parked, but the long front overhang can’t mask the Honda’s economy-car roots.
The CR-Z shares its basic architecture with the Fit and the Insight, but it rides on a wheelbase that is shorter than either car’s. The CR-Z is an inch shorter overall than the Fit but is almost two inches wider and more than five inches lower. Surprisingly, headroom is generous even for tall people, since the seats are mounted low.
Inside, the CR-Z is best described as “futuristic busy,” with a multicontoured dashboard that has more angles and textures — and storage cubbies — than all four generations of CRXs and Insights put together. Secondary controls are located in symmetrical pods on either side of Honda’s smallest-diameter steering wheel, which, on top-spec EX models, is wrapped in blue-stitched black leather and freckled with enough buttons to control a spaceship.
The gauge cluster will impress Trekkies, too, with numerous charts and screens displaying fuel economy information. The cool guy wins here, though, since center stage is given to an oversize tachometer. Bedazzled with loads of three-dimensional elements, it has a blacked-out circle at its center for a digital speed readout. A ring around that speedometer changes color — it’s red when the CR-Z is in Sport Mode and alternates between green and blue in Normal and Eco modes, depending on how well the driver is behaving. The cluster is highly legible, but it’s for the enjoyment of the driver only, as it’s recessed so deeply into a circular binnacle that the passenger can’t see it.
That’s right, the word passenger is singular. Like both the CRX and the first-generation Insight, the CR-Z is strictly a two-seater. In the space where the back seats would be (and some markets do get them), there are two deep plastic pockets that seem pur-posely built to make sitting back there excruciating-probably a good thing, since there are no seatbelts. In place of what would otherwise be a seatback is a plastic cargo separator that folds forward to create a flat floor. Loading cargo is best done through the hatch, as the front seats don’t return to their previous position after being folded forward to access the rear — a surprising oversight from a normally very detail-oriented automaker.
A CR-Z costs just $600 less than an Insight, starting at $19,950. The cabin comes outfitted any way you like it, so long as you like it with silver cloth seats and a two-tone black-and-silver dash and door panels. The $1560 EX package adds an impressive 360-watt, seven-speaker sound system; HID headlights; foglights; aluminum pedals; a few silver interior trim pieces; and Bluetooth, which makes selecting the EX almost mandatory these days. Navigation adds a steep $1800. The CR-Z comes standard with the usual power goodies, automatic climate control, and auxiliary audio inputs, but if you need a sunroof, heated seats, or keyless ignition to feel cool, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And if “elsewhere” is behind the car, you’ll wish the CR-Z was available with a backup camera — those C-pillars could block an entire neighborhood.
For sprinting around your neighborhood, the front strut-type suspension from the Fit has been upgraded with aluminum control arms, and disc brakes replace drums at the ends of the torsion-beam rear axle. The fast steering rack’s electric power assist motor is 30 percent more robust than the Fit’s, in the event you need to make repeated and hasty use of the CR-Z’s teensy turning circle. Since the CR-Z weighs a bit less than an Insight and a touch more than a Fit, the implication of these upgrades is clear: this Honda is meant to be driven hard.
To that end, Honda took the Fit’s gasoline engine and added the electric motor and IMA system found in the Insight. With some slight revisions to the intake plumbing that were necessary to clear the low hood, the 1.5-liter SOHC four-cylinder makes four fewer ponies than it does in the Fit, a total of 113 hp at 6000 rpm and 107 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. The electric motor adds as much as 13 hp (at 1500 rpm) and 58 lb-ft (from 1000 to 1500 rpm) for a total combined power output of 122 hp and 128 lb-ft.
That ain’t much. Then again, with less than 2700 pounds to haul around, the CR-Z is lively — and especially so with the manual transmission. A $650 CVT is available for video-game dorks — replete with shift paddles that imitate seven fixed ratios — but sorry, we say cool kids will still want a stick. Compared with the CVT, the six-speed manual costs this Honda 3 mpg on the EPA combined cycle (34 mpg overall versus 37 mpg), but the CR-Z is the only hybrid available with a clutch pedal, and we wouldn’t dream of leaving that offer on the table.
With short throws, the shifter is typical Honda in its delightful weight and precision, and the clutch pedal’s takeup is smooth and linear. In fact, once you’re driving the CR-Z, you could easily forget that it’s a hybrid at all. The biggest clue comes when you stop, engage neutral, and notice that the engine switches off. It intuitively and quickly restarts as you put the car in gear to move off, and the electric motor shows its low-end torque when starting out on a hill. In every way, though, the manual-transmission CR-Z is the least hybrid-y hybrid ever. Even the brake feel is excellent, with no obvious point of transition between regenerative and friction brakes.
Steering feel is largely absent but, happily, so is torque steer. Sport mode quickens the throttle calibration, alters the assist characteristics of the electric motor, and reduces steering boost, all of which conspire to make the CR-Z even more fun. At low speeds, chassis balance tends toward understeer, but the little Honda’s rump becomes more willing to rotate as corner entry speeds increase. The police three counties over will know any time you’re misbehaving, though, since the standard all-season Dunlops scream at the very suggestion of hard cornering. Their noise also dominates at highway speeds, where the engine is commendably hushed — in stark contrast to the Fit, whose short top gear results in lots of racket from under the hood.
The CR-Z’s ride quality is impressive for a vehicle with such a short (95.9-inch) wheelbase, and soft dampers allow the suspension to use its full wheel travel on very bumpy pavement, relying on compliant bump stops to soften any hard bottoming out. Unfortunately, this calibration results in a lot of body motions — the CR-Z will pogo its way over rough back roads with considerable body lean and heave. Its path doesn’t seem to be upset by all the vertical motions, but your passenger might be.
If your passenger happens to be familiar with the original CRX, he or she might point out that it wasn’t a full-on sports car, either. Like many legends, the CRX’s reputation doesn’t really reflect what it actually was — or what it did. You see, the cool-dude hot-hatch image we associate with that 1980s car was for the high-performance model: the CRX Si. It’s easy to forget that lesser variants of the CRX combined a reasonable fun-to-drive factor with astonishing fuel economy.
That sounds just like the CR-Z, now doesn’t it?
Of course, it was the presence of the Si that cemented the CRX’s place in the cool car hall of fame. Without an Si variant, the CR-Z hasn’t yet secured its spot. We’ll wait impatiently for Honda to stuff one of its signature 8000-rpm screamers under the hood of the CR-Z, but in the meantime, we think both the dudes and the dorks can find a lot to love about this little car. It proves that we’re officially past the point where hybrids have to be nerdilicious, single-purpose fuel-economy machines. The CR-Z is a hybrid solely because that’s this millennium’s way of achieving the CRX’s performance/economy balance. Welcome back, CRX — now where is that Si?
Comparatively Speaking: Top Fuel Misers*
Toyota Prius: 50 mpg
Honda Civic Hybrid: 42 mpg
Honda Insight: 41 mpg
Ford Fusion Hybrid: 39 mpg
Mercury Milan Hybrid: 39 mpg
Honda CR-Z CVT: 37 mpg
Smart ForTwo: 36 mpg
Lexus HS250h: 35 mpg
Audi A3 TDI: 34 mpg
Nissan Altima Hybrid: 34 mpg
Toyota Camry Hybrid: 34 mpg
Volkswagen Golf TDI: 34 mpg
Volkswagen Jetta TDI: 34 mpg
*EPA Combined ratings for 2010 models, except CR-Z, which is a 2011
2011 Honda CR-Z Price (base/as tested) $19,950/$23,310
Engine: 16-valve SOHC I-4
Displacement: 1.5 liters (91 cu in)
Motor: 13-hp DC
Horsepower: 122 hp @ 6000 rpm (combined)
Torque: 128/123 lb-ft @ 1000 rpm (combined; manual/CVT)
6-speed manual, CVT
Steering: Electrically assisted
Suspension, Front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Torsion beam, coil springs
Brakes F/R:Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires: Dunlop SP Sport 7000AS
Tire Size: 195/55VR-16
L x W x H: 160.6 x 68.5 x 54.9 in
Wheelbase: 95.9 in
Track F/R: 59.6/59.1 in
Weight: 2654 lb
Weight Dist., F/R: 59/41%
EPA Milage: 31/37 mpg (manual), 35/39 mpg (CVT)