When I first saw the Honda CR-Z at the Detroit auto show, I was hugely excited. The tiny little hatchback looks fantastic and is, in my view, the coolest design to emerge from Honda in years. But having finally driven the car, I am rather disappointed.
Remember those arcade driving games with plastic steering wheels and four-speed "shifters"? Frankly, the CR-Z's steering wheel and gearbox feel as tactile and realistic as those gaming devices. The electric power steering feels like it has a huge spring dragging the wheel back to center, while changing gear is more like moving a joystick than engaging cogs and synchronizers. The CR-Z does accelerate quickly enough if you engage "Sport" mode and wring the engine out toward its redline, but the 1.5-liter four revs slowly and makes horrible droning noises. This is not a recipe for a fun compact hatch.
At least the Honda CR-Z is fuel-efficient. Engaging "Eco" mode numbs throttle response to the point that even hill starts are difficult, and with the aggressive upshift light recommending shifts at 2200 rpm, you won't be going anywhere fast. The trip computer reports that I averaged 31 mpg overall in city driving, so I suppose those austerity measures had some value.
My real qualm with the CR-Z is that it is compromised. It is neither an excellent hybrid nor a fun compact. For only a little bit more money, enthusiasts could get into a Honda Civic Si, which is genuinely fun, while greenies could buy a Civic hybrid, which is genuinely economical. The CR-Z seems to fit into a weird no-man's land in between those two vehicles.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
In the '80s, there was a little hot hatch that was frugal and economical, attractive and fun, and was called the CRX. I still get excited seeing a clean, stock Honda CRX rolling down the road.
I do not get excited, though, when I see the Japanese automaker's modern interpretation of the small hatch, the CR-Z, puttering along. Instead, I see a missed opportunity.
Honda had nothing but good intentions making the CR-Z. The car was deliberately designed to represent a second coming of CRX styling, with a low roofline and split-level rear glass. And if Honda had stopped at styling, saying only that the CR-Z would look like a modern CRX, they would've succeeded. But they didn't. Positioning it as a "sport hybrid" meant that every little thing about CR-Z had to be drenched in sportiness. Gauges that change from green to red when you drive aggressively, a short-throw shifter with six speeds, and a sport-tuned suspension system should all come together to create a car as great as the CRX, no?
Far from it. Jake Holmes put it perfectly. The CR-Z is seriously compromised. It's trying too hard to appease everyone when it should've been built to appeal to the hot hatch crowd only. It's too bad. This car could've been one of my all-time favorites.
Christopher Nelson, Road Test Editor
Honda has had bad luck with its recent crop of hybrids. The Insight fell short of stealing a sizeable piece of the Toyota Prius pie - despite an embarrassingly similar design - and the CR-Z falls into a no-man's land inhabited by neither hybrid nor hot hatch. Sometimes that kind of segment splitting is what creates an all-new - and profitable - market niche; that's not the case for the CR-Z. Its performance falls short of similarly priced (and larger, more comfortable) competitors such as the Volkswagen GTI and Honda's own Civic Si. To help infuse the CR-Z with sportiness, Honda has sacrificed hybrid economy as well, placing the little hatchback near the bottom of the pack when it comes to gas-electric efficiency.
However, what Honda did get right is the look of the CR-Z. It clearly harks back to its CR-X predecessor without being too retro. The wedge-shaped body and gaping grille are attractive and show off the cars sporting intentions. Inside is an ergonomic dream, with climate and powertrain controls perfectly placed in their respective pods on either side of the instrument panel. Redundant control on the steering wheel mean that drivers don't often have to reach to the stereo head unit, which is just beyond the climate controls.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
The accept wisdom is to kvetch and moan about how the CR-Z isn't the second coming of the hallowed CRX, but allow me to take a different tack. This isn't so much a hot hatch but rather a comfortable commuter car that isn't completely boring - and that's a rarity in this day and age.
The CR-Z's tapered hatchback shape is somewhat funky (especially the cross-bar that obscures rear visibility), but it is distinctive, and gives the car a sporty personality. Call it odd, call it ungainly, but don't call it bland: the sharp, juxtaposed lines and tapered tail lend the car a boy-racer-of-the-future look, a theme continued within by the three-dimensional gauge faces and chrome door accents.
At 5'10" and 240 pounds, I'm not a small person by any means, yet I've always found it easy to get comfortable behind the wheel. The CR-Z offers plenty of head-, shoulder-, and legroom even for larger occupants, and the bucket seats are well bolstered and surprisingly supportive. As Donny notes, the control placement is top notch; drivers have little need to reach far beyond the steering wheel to control both the audio and climate systems.
With only 122 hp on tap, it's hard to call the CR-Z sporty, but it's not hard to call it fun. Though the steering is numb and suspension a tad wallowy, the six-speed manual transmission is absolutely a joy. In typical Honda fashion, throws are short, smooth, and surgically precise. The clutch is nicely weighted, but take-up can prove a little tricky, especially when tied with the engine's start/stop system.
Is this a true Honda hot hatch? Perhaps not. But it does blend entertainment with efficiency - and in an age where automakers are more likely than ever to eschew the former in pursuit of the latter, that's a breath of fresh air.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
Let's get this out of the way right up front - the Honda CR-Z is not a hot hatch, it's more like a lukewarm hatch. With a peak output of 122 hp and only 128 lb-ft of torque, this is not a vehicle that will get the adrenaline flowing. However, the fact that it has a six-speed manual transmission does at least make it more involving to drive than other hybrids with their droning CVTs. High-speed driving really isn't the CR-Z's thing, as you really have to push it to merge with freeway traffic, and it doesn't really want to cruise at extralegal speed limits. The CR-Z is much more in its element driving around town, where you get a chance to use the manual transmission to its best effect. Unfortunately, the CR-Z is at the bottom of the hybrid pack when it comes to fuel economy, and it also suffers from compromised utility because of its coupe body style and lack of cargo capacity. Rear visibility is atrocious, as you look out a postage-stamp-size rear window that is bisected by a black bar. And what's with the rear windshield wiper that is mounted horizontally on the rear glass?
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor