Driving Northwest: The 2011 Honda CR-Z

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 Auto Specialist

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KING5.com

Posted on September 9, 2010 at 2:08 PM

They don’t make ‘em like they used to.  My father said it.  His probably did too. Even I’m guilty of looking back and fooling myself into believing how great things used to be when bathed in the golden light of nostalgia.  Psychologists have actually documented time and again that no matter how bad an event may be, humans will eventually forget the negative and embrace the happiest of moments.  Apparently at our core we are optimists.

One look at the new 2011 Honda CR-Z brings back fond memories of their CR-X.  It’s a car that many people reminisce about and why not?  Fun and fuel efficient it was immensely entertaining and entirely affordable. My brother drove a second gen CR-X Si and I still remember slicing it through crowded Seattle streets with a grin plastered on my face. 

CR-Z is built on the same architecture as the Insight and yes it’s a hybrid.  Starting with a strong snout the single brushstroke design is strong, purposeful and aerodynamic.  Honda doesn’t post numbers but claims a lot of work was done underneath to smooth air flow.  The backlight is nearly horizontal, you’ll need the wiper in the Northwest.  The EX with Navigation model Honda has dropped off stickers for $23,300 dollars.  That includes HID headlamps.  Base models go for around 20K with destination.  Honda calls CR-Z an emotional ancestor to the CR-X, what you’d get if it had a baby with the original Insight.

Family resemblance

Despite their similar snub-nose design, 2 seat configuration and peek-a-boo glass tail, the Honda folks say they were not out to create a modern version of the CR-X.   No sir, you won’t catch them reminiscing.  They claim their intention was to create an entirely new kind of modern sports coupe.  Their best argument comes from that single hybrid badge on the Z’s tail.  This gas/electric vehicle has a different mission than Prius and Honda’s own Insight and part of it involves fun.

Looking through rose colored glasses it’s easy to believe the CR-X to be much more dynamic than the Z.  Really though 0-60 times are similar at around 8.5 seconds.  While the CR-Z is heavier by some 600 pounds it also has more power and it’s powertrain delivers it sooner because of the torque rich electric motor (Honda’s engines of the day were high-revving powerplants that got their muscle up in the northern RPM range).   There’s better chassis structure and high strength steel for safety these days too.  No, they don’t make them like they used to, that’s for sure.

CR-Z gets it’s scoot from a 1.5-liter SOHC 16-valve i-VTEC 4-cylinder gas  engine coupled with with a 13 horse 10-Kilowatt motor.  This combo is good for 122 horsepower at 6000 RPM.  There’s 128 lb-ft. of torque @ 1,000-1,750 RPM.  Rated AT-PZEV, it’s a clean machine.  The IMA system (Integrated Motor Assist) is paired with two transmissions- a CVT automatic (not driven) or a 6-speed manual which is a hybrid first if you like to ride the trends.  Unlike Toyota and Ford hybrids, electricity never powers this Honda by it’s lonesome. 

Multiple personalities

There are 3 performance modes.  Econ is the most fuel efficient, slowing throttle tip in and generally making CR-Z lethargic.  On start-up Normal is the default mode, the highly preferable Sport tightens up the throttle and steering effort plus gives more electric motor oomph off the line.  These distinct settings are easily discerned by anyone behind the wheel. 

Colorful 3-D gauges are, well, engaging.  Accelerate slowly and the ring around the digital speedometer glows green, turning blue when pushed harder.  Hit Sport mode and you’ll see red.  There are other cues to help fuel economy including a display that rewards with more tree icons when easy on the gas.  Drive hard and there are a bunch of sticks that look like nuclear winter.  How do I know?  Well...

Settling down for a few days to get better fuel economy returns a 33.5 MPG average.  This is not Prius territory, I generally score 43 in those.  Then again, the enthusiast in me curses the lumpy brakes and sluggish dynamic of Toyota’s halo car.  

Cornering the market

It’s not a pavement wrinkler in the sports car tradition, the torquey CR-Z feels moderately quick when in Sport.   Where this hybrid shines is in the cornering department, it’s entertaining to toss the Z into curves.  Back in the early 90s my brother foolishly let me throttle his CR-X (though he didn’t know how hard I was pushing it).  When zipping around the city, CR-Z brings back those memories though the modern car has a much more solid chassis.  Those who subscribe to the “better to drive a slower car hard than a fast car slow” school of thought will appreciate the dynamics.  The glass panel on the vertical end of the hatch makes parallel parking easier but the sweeping wall that is the back pillar is a big big spot. 

The suspension upgraded from Insight with MacPherson struts up front and Torsion-Beam in back is predictably firm.  Sharp bumps easily find their way into your backside but cruising is fine.  Road noise is much higher than average.  The pavement on I-90 on the way to Snoqualmie Pass may not be the quietest, but the moderately decent sound system is all but drowned out by a constant roar here.

Braking charges the Ni-MH batteries on hybrids, normally with a disconnected feel.   The Zs pedal feels pretty linear, essential if Honda is to make any sport claims with this car.  At rest with the manual shifter in neutral the gas engine shuts down, restarting when shoved back into gear.  This dynamic can make takeoff less elegant if done in a hurry.  After a week I learned to anticipate my actions. 

This is less of an issue with the CVT transmission but even with paddle shifters enthusiasts are less likely to enjoy it’s type of dynamic.  Honda says it has 7 distinct virtual gears and will hold them longer when cornering hard.  It also gets better fuel economy, 35/39 vs 31/37.  FYI, those EPA ratings were achieved in Normal mode. 

Gauge cluster or video game console?

Honda has done a nice job with the interior.  It would have been easy to affix faux carbon fiber to a couple of panels and call it a day but CR-Zs materials have an interesting and fresh look about them.  All controls are centered around the driver cockpit style with bright crisp displays.  The blizzard of colors and their interactive nature make it less CR-X, more X-Box.  The attractive seats are nicely bolstered with grippy fabric though my back needed time to get used to them.  Bluetooth is onboard, iPods are supported, and music can be loaded onto memory cards (the slot is behind the screen of the serviceable navi system also found in Civic and Insight). 

There is no factory sunroof option and no armrest or covered storage on the center console. Remember, there isn’t a back seat either.  Japan and Europe get one but American focus groups most likely took one look at the diminutive space and laughed.  There is storage under the drop down divider good enough for a laptop computer or sweatshirt. 

Since CR-Z is a 2 seater I’m leaving the divider down for the TP Trunk Test.  The small Z swallows an impressive 8 bundles, certainly enough to play a pretty decent Halloween prank.  The retractible security shade can be used in the traditional way to keep prying eyes off your valuables or can be mounted near the load floor and pulled up as a second divider, holding grocery bags from sliding around. 

The Verdict

Give Honda kudos for offering up a fun and efficient car.  Theoretically it  should unite two different audiences.  In reality, hybrid shoppers and sporty car buyers are two rabidly different camps with strong preferences.  The eco group will expect better fuel economy than CR-Z is offering up, enthusiasts demand higher performance.  Makes a guy wonder who the CR-Z is aimed at.  Maybe the EPA.  Upcoming CAFE rules will require cars to be very fuel efficient so in a way this and small turbo engines are a taste of the car of the future.

Honda is quick to point out CR-Z is among the top 5 most fuel efficient cars available in the US but that fact gets diluted when people see that Prius can score 50 MPG and Fusion 42 while carrying 5 humans.  Never mind that people seldom have more than one occupant in a car.  Inevitably shoppers will find themselves either optimists or pessimists when it comes to Honda’s sporty hybrid.  The few shoppers not reminiscing about the good old CR-X days, those without preconceived expectations will see CR-Z for what it is: A sporty vehicle that’s responsible fun. 

 

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