New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Honda CR-Z

Is the 2011 Honda CR-Z a new CRX? 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 D-pillar suggest motion even when the car is parked, but the long front overhang can’t mask this car’s economy-car roots. After all, the CR-Z shares its basic architecture with the Fit and the Insight, but it rides on a wheelbase that is considerably shorter. 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, since the sport seats are mounted low.

“Futuristic Busy” Cabin
Inside, the CR-Z is best described as “futuristic busy,” with a multicontoured dashboard that has more angles and textures-and storage binnacles-than all four generations of CRX and Insight put together. Secondary controls are located in symmetrical pods on either side of Honda’s smallest steering wheel, which, on top-trim EX models, is wrapped in blue-stitched black leather and freckled with enough buttons to control a spaceship.

The gauge cluster has numerous charts and displays dealing with fuel economy, but center stage is given to an oversize tachometer. Bedazzled with loads of three-dimensional elements, it has a blacked-out circle at its center that hides an LCD 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 aggressively the car is being driven. 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.

Room for two
That’s right, 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 they’re optional in some markets) there are two deep plastic binnacles that seem purposely 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 load floor. Inserting cargo is best done through the hatch, as the front seats don’t return to their previous position after being folded forward for access to the rear-a surprising oversight from a normally very detail-oriented automaker.

The cabin comes only with silver cloth and two-tone dash, door panels, and carpeting. The EX package adds an impressive 360-watt, seven-speaker sound system, HID headlights, fog lights, aluminum pedals, a few silver interior trim pieces, and Bluetooth, which makes buying it almost mandatory these days. The only other option available is navigation. 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-go, 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-the D-pillars could block an entire neighborhood.

A Honda to be driven hard
For sprinting around your neighborhood, the Fit’s front strut-type suspension has been upgraded with aluminum control arms, and disc brakes have found their way to the edges of the torsion-beam rear suspension. 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 about the same as an Insight and around 100 pounds less than the Fit, the implication of these upgrades is clear: this Honda is meant to be driven hard.

To that end, Honda took the Fit’s gas engine and added the electric motor and IMA system found in the Insight. With some slight revisions to the intake plumbing necessary to clear the low hood, the 1.5-liter SOHC four-cylinder makes a few less 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 up to 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 of torque.

Finally, a hybrid with a manual transmission
With less than 2700 pounds to haul around, the CR-Z is lively, and especially so with the manual transmission. A CVT-replete with shift paddles that imitate seven fixed ratios-is available, but we prefer the stick. The six-speed manual costs this Honda 3 mpg on the EPA combined cycle, 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 typically 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 it’s a hybrid at all. The biggest clue happens when you come to a stop and notice that the engine has switched off. It intuitively and quickly restarts as you engage first 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 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.

Ride quality is impressive for a vehicle with such a short (94.5-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 through 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 not be so lucky.

If your passenger happens to be familiar with the original CRX, he might point out that it wasn’t a full-on sports car, either. Like many legends, the CRX’s reputation might not completely reflect what it actually was, or what it did. You see, that hot-hatch image we associate with that 1980s hatch was the high-po model: the CRX Si. It’s easy to forget that lesser variants of the CRX combined reasonable measures of fun-to-driveness with downright astonishing fuel economy.

That sounds just like the CR-Z, now doesn’t it?