Driven: Honda HPD CR-Z and B-Spec Fit

To showcase its growing and increasingly growling grass-roots motorsports program, Honda recently put journalists inside race-tuned versions of the CR-Z coupe and Fit hatchback at Willow Springs International Raceway, near Rosamond, California.

We also got our first look at a Pilot that's prepared for desert racing. And The Piper-Honda DF5 Formula F single-seater completed the lineup of Honda racers on view. Alas, because of high winds that would have raised dust from the off-roader, and because of the difficulty of fitting and refitting various drivers within the single-seater's slender body, these two were for demonstration only during our track day.

Before our afternoon at Willow Springs, there was a morning session in which the company revealed its super-sophisticated Honda Performance Development operation in Santa Clarita, California.

Established in 1993, HPD presently occupies a glittering 123,000-square-foot building that shares a hilltop with the eight sound stages of Santa Clarita Studios. Lindsay Lohan sometimes uses the same access drive as the five dozen or so engineers who are included among the total of 124 HPD employees. The Honda subsidiary bills itself as a "comprehensive R&D center focused on high-performance race engine, chassis, and performance parts development."

To that mission can be added the production of about one-third of all Honda Indy V-8s used by Indy Racing League competitors; the remainder of the 3.5-liter 635-hp units are built in the Detroit area by Honda's technical partner, Ilmor Engineering.

In addition, assembly of stock-block twin-turbo V-6 engines used by HPD's American Le Mans Series racers and in other sports car series is undertaken here.

Overall, including development engines for the 2012 season, about 350 completed V-8s and V-6s will emerge from the workshop this year.

While Honda's success at the pinnacle of motorsports is indisputable, HPD has increasingly sought opportunities at the grassroots level, which helps to explain the existence of the HPD CR-Z and the HPD Fit B-Spec.


HPD CR-Z Racer

While the streetgoing CR-Z is a snazzy-looking little car, the HPD version introduced at the 2010 SEMA show fully realizes the menace that's inherent in the design. It's like a lollipop laced with sloe gin.

It was built by HPD to show the way to a racing version and to create interest.

The blacked out grille and intakes -- as well as the black chin spoiler -- make the little pavement muncher scowl in a way that's uncharacteristic of Hondas. Bold graphics and talonlike alloy wheels enliven the side view. Capping it all: the enormous rear wing vies with any airfoil the World Rally Championship has to offer.

The hybrid powertrain benefits from bold strokes as well. The production car's tame 1.5-liter four, which is boosted by the electric drive of Integrated Motor Assist, now receives a turbocharger -- the same turbo as either of those found on the ALMS V-6 -- which huffs and puffs at about 10 psi. Meanwhile, IMA output is increased as well, thanks to upgrades to the nickel-cobalt-magnesium battery pack. Combined available power amounts to 187 hp, up from 122 hp.

The stubby little streetgoing CR-Z drives like a rerun of "Seinfeld" combined with a bag of Doritos. There are some giggles and burps and a bit of squirming. A pleasant time is had.

But the HPD CR-Z is a completely different type of show. The engine lights up with the urgent rip of a news bulletin. There's enough torque at 155 lb-ft (up from 128 lb-ft) to haul the 2650-lb racer out of the racing circuit's Rabbit's Ear turn with some authority. In our two laps behind the wheel, we were never aware of intrusiveness from the IMA, unlike other hybrid systems. The "Assist" in Integrated Motor Assist did exactly that.

With upgraded brakes and tires and a tuned suspension -- not to mention the chassis that's stiffened by the addition of a roll cage -- the HPD CR-Z becomes quite staunch. The stock CR-Z's understeer goes completely away and the chassis is nicely balanced and lets you know exactly what's coming next. Over the whoop-de-doo of Monroe Ridge, there's neither comedy nor drama: just a determined way of getting on with the story.

But we found two problems that the production car shared with the racer. One is the widely spaced pedals. The gap between the brake and accelerator favors a driver like Sasquatch; our size-eight Clarks loafer was overmatched.

And another issue, a recurrent one among the six-speed manual transmissions we sampled during the session, was the wanton shifter. "Honda gearboxes don't like to be hurried," said Karl Thompson, managing partner of Compass360 Racing, the team that captured the SCCA Pro World Challenge Touring Car division's 2011 championship in a Civic.

For them, a trophy. For us, a trial.

Engine
Turbocharged and intercooled 16-valve SOHC 1.5L inline four with i-VTEC and Integrated Motor Assist, 178 hp @ 6400 rpm, 155 lb-ft @ 6000, redline 6400 rpm, compression ratio 10.4:1

Transmission
6-speed manual with limited slip

Suspension f/r
MacPherson strut/torsion beam, stabilizer bar 18.0 in/18.0 in

Brakes
Disc/disc (12.9 in/10.2 in)

Tires
225/45R17 BF Goodrich g-Force R1

Weight
2650 lb


HPD B-Spec Fit Sport

At first, the thought of a Honda Fit prepared for racing made us dissolve into fits of giggles. Isn't this like a cuttlefish that wants to be a giant squid?

Then we learned about the SCCA's new B-Spec class, meant to address the high cost of competition in Showroom Stock. B-Spec will include B-segment cars like the Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris, Mazda 2, and others.

Honda and Mazda introduced the specter of their B-Spec entries at the Performance Racing Industry show in December 2010. "A cornerstone of our grassroots motorsports initiative has been to establish a connection between Honda's passenger cars and the racing cars which evolve from these models," HPD general manager Marc Sours said then.

Honda Performance Development has developed the goods that will make it possible for anyone to race a Fit in 2012.

While the class specifies a stock engine and chassis for low-cost racing, it requires the addition of a roll cage and racing seat and allows the mounting of approved suspension components along with high-performance tires and lightweight wheels.

HPD will offer the suite of bolt-on parts, and the grassroots racer can expect to have a total investment of around $25,000 if he does the work at home. A pro build would add another $10,000 or so.

We strapped into the B-Spec Fit Sport for our allotment of two highly entertaining laps. The first surprise upon launch was the wind rush through the cabin, due to the lack of side windows. Already, the car was a blast!

The second surprise came when we turned ninety degrees left at Castrol Corner. The roll bar combined with the forward-thrusting A-pillar to block our view down the track, and because the racing seat's high wings did their job of limiting side-to-side head movement we just had to live with the poor view.

Otherwise, the car offers many delights, although with just 117 hp and 106 lb-ft, blinding velocity isn't one of them. The five-speed manual transmission was easier to shift than the CR-Z's six-speed, and keeping the Fit in its power band was no problem. The idea here is to keep momentum, and even with its simple suspension (front struts/rear torsion beam, with a stabilizer bar in nose and tail) the car allows for high cornering speeds, which were achieved with almost stupid ease. The B-Spec Fit weighs 2350 lb, which is 210 lb less than the stock Fit Sport, so the lightness certainly helps to expedite matters. The modest addition of smaller but wider 205/50R15 BF Goodrich R1 tires also contributes to the package's effectiveness. Given the combination of low straightaway speed and high cornering threshold, heavy braking isn't required, so the stock setup of the single-piston-caliper front ventilated disc and rear-drum binders is used.

As unprepossessing as all this might sound, the B-Spec Fit Sport was a hoot to drive, and it's easy to see the rationale for the series.

Engine
SOHC 1.5L inline four with VTEC, 117 hp @ 6600 rpm, 106 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm, redline 7000 rpm, compression ratio 10.5:1

Transmission
5-speed manual

Suspension f/r
Strut/torsion beam, stabilizer bar 22 mm/17 mm

Brakes f/r
Ventilated disc/drum

Tires
205/50R15 BF Goodrich R1

Weight
2350 lb

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