At one point during my week with the 2011 Honda CR-Z, I found myself pacing a late-model Mercedes SL65 Convertible on the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The comparison between the two vehicles is ludicrous: one is a mild-hybrid with a milquetoast 122 horsepower and 128 lb/ft of torque; the other has thrice the cylinders, four times the displacement, five times the horsepower and six times the twist. The Merc’ also costs ten times as much.
Here’s the thing though: that was the third SL65 I’d seen that day. I didn’t see another CR-Z until the end of the week.
So sure, contrasting the two vehicles is like comparing The God of War with The God of Letting People Cut In Front of You At The Supermarket Checkout If They’re Only Buying A Litre of Milk. But there’s a certain appeal to exclusivity when you’re in the market for a sports coupe.
Buying an SL65 over the excellent SL63 is largely about paying a huge premium for that V12 Biturbo badge. Buying a CR-Z gives you a badge with equal-if-not-greater heft in these eco-sensitive times: it’s a sporty hatch and it says “Hybrid” on the back. Well, a sporty-looking hatch anyway.
The CR-Z has garnered a great deal of stick from the critics for not being the second coming of the beloved CR-X. I haven’t seen so many auto-journos grump disappointedly since the coffee cart didn’t turn up at the 2011 Vancouver Auto Show: truly, this car is our Rapture-fail.
Michael Karesh over at TTAC likened the CR-Z to a modern-day Fiero and on the face of it, the comparison seems fairly apt. GM ruined their MR by cramming in the wheezy and leaden “Iron Duke” V6, and pundits rail that the non-VTEC 1.5L and its tiny electric sidekick are the same sort of weaksauce wasabi. This is the same powertrain that – barely – motivates the somewhat insipid Insight; doesn’t the CRX’s heir deserve a K20? At least?
But let’s leave the a priori notions at the door to the Temple of VTEC. This car ain’t no CR-X: so just what the hell is it?
First off, I think it’s a great-looking car. Sure, that truncated back end flares out and gives a bit of muffin-top effect with narrow wheels failing to fill the swelling arches, but the rest of the car is cutesy-aggressive done perfectly. Park this pissed-off cuttlefish next to a current-gen Mazda3 and see what I mean.
Make sure you back into the spot though: during my time with the CR-Z that low-height, high-overhang front end scraped and ground on enough curbs to garner a Tony Hawk high-score. Futuristic-looking it may be, but one loses a certain amount of street cred every time you crunch to a stop in front of a 7-11 as though needing the assistance of curb-feelers.
There’s more of the same futuristic appeal inside, after you awkwardly clamber over the high sills. Here though, the interior is let down a bit by cheapness. Quite frankly, there’s no place for pebbled-dash rubber-elephant hide in Honda’s uber-futuristic cockpit design language; I wish they’d stuck with matte surfaces or faux brushed-aluminum throughout.
Other than that, the driver’s view is pure Blade Runner. There are an overwhelming array of buttons and gauges here: battery charge level, charge/assist bar, real-time fuel economy levels, an optimal-rev gear-shift indicator, and a colour-shifting rev-counter that glows green for planet-saving sluggishness and blue every time you decide to dunk a polar bear.
For all that, mastering the control layout is a bit like attempting Dance Dance Revolution for the first time. There is just so much blinking gee-whizzery that useful information like the upshift-indicator can be drowned out, leaving you wishing you’d gone and played the taxi game instead.
Further, having the A/C controls close-up where an interfering passenger hand can be slapped away is convenient, but it pushes the stereo buttons way out to the periphery; you have to take your eyes off the road for longer than I’d like to fiddle with them, although there are basic redundant controls on the small-diameter steering wheel.
Visibility-wise, the driver sits low and is as oblivious to what’s going on behind them as the judges on The Voice appear to be. All that stylized swoopery around the CR-Z’s rump has resulted in blind spots the size of – as tested in the field – a 1997 Volvo V70. Two solutions present themselves.
First, the old racer’s trick of adjusting your mirrors just past the point at which you can actually see the sides of the car shrinks the amount of unseen territory from “horrifying” to “barely manageable”. Second, hit the blinkers and watch that “Hybrid” badge work its mojo.
Vancouver drivers are some of the most irately oblivious people outside of mainstream politics. They text while driving and turn left in front of you at the last possible second and honk if you stop for a pedestrian and are universally of the opinion that an indicator is something you put on after you’ve already merged or stopped dead in the middle of an intersection.
Despite all this malfeasance, not once did I get honked at in the CR-Z, and I drove that thing like a Tehran Taxicab. “Go right ahead,” people seemed to be saying, “You’re saving the environment!”
Was I really? Certainly, Honda’s IMA start-stop tech worked nearly flawlessly and without hesitation on startup. Also, the A/C now stays on full-time, even when the car shuts off.
However, a mild-hybrid system can only go so far, and budget-conscious buyers will note that there is merely the slightest of differences between the in-city fuel-economy of small-displacement conventionally-engined car like the Ford Fiesta (7.1L/100km) and the CR-Z (6.5L/100km). Both cars are identical on the highway at 5.3L/100km.
Hitting the “Eco” button doesn’t help either: it’s like bolting on a tent-trailer. Throttle reaction becomes so minimal you’d swear your leg had gone to sleep. Much better to drive carefully in Normal Mode.
Or hit the “Sport” button… but it brings no Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. Rather, it’s like Bruce Banner changing into the Incredible Sulk, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m mildly irritated.”
A reddish aura pops up around the digital speedo readout and the CR-Z no longer tells you to upshift at 2000rpm. Time to party?
Well, sort of. The short first and second gearing and added torque of the CR-Z’s electric engine – you get peak twist at a lowly 1750rpm – makes the little hatch leap off the line with an adolescent and semi-embarrassing chirping of tires. Press beyond though and you’re just making noise although, it has to be said, it’s not a bad noise.
Unlike its stratospherically-revving Honda brethren, the CR-Z offers little reward for mashing the go-pedal past a certain point. The added down-low power makes a promise that the 1.5L engine just isn’t prepared to back up. So you’ll be shifting a lot.
Good news:this shifter is not quite as good as other Honda products, but it’s still slick enough to have Nissan engineers committing seppuku. The all-metal shift-knob is weighty enough that (frequent) rowing through all six gears is a hoot, although parking in the sun will leave it hot enough to have you re-enacting Arnold Ernst Toht’s burning medallion scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
We ran the little hatch up to Squamish on the Sea-to-Sky to give see how it handled the highways. On one hand, the heavy steering and flat handling meant that the CR-Z strung together corners with aplomb. The ride was excellent for such a short-wheelbase car, although there was a fair amount of road noise.
On the other hand, show the CR-Z a steep hill and you better have planned ahead. All too often on the Sea-to-Sky you can find yourself trapped behind some wallowing galleon of an RV that throws all sheets to the wind any time a passing lane opens up. The only real straight stretch between Vancouver and Squamish is a kilometre that runs straight uphill, upon which lengthy incline the CR-Z didn’t gather a single extra digit of speed until the third downshift.
At time of writing, Honda Performance Development has come out with a race-spec’d CR-Z turbo-charged up to 200hp and boasting a Li-ion battery for weight savings. Had you spoken to me during the first few days of my week with the CR-Z, I would have listed 200hp as the bare minimum output for this car.
But as I drove it, I mentally revised that figure downwards by increments. 180 hp would be fine. Even 160. Perhaps 140?
On my last day, I drove the CR-Z back through downtown Vancouver in heavy traffic. I’d been able to tuck the little car in a tiny parking space, last one on the block. The capacious trunk had swallowed both a reasonably bulky ergonomic chair and the rear cargo bins had proved themselves ideally suited as a holder to store 650ml bombers of microbrew.
We carved up the traffic on Georgia street easily, shifted to the outside lane and found ourselves taking the “secret” path through Stanley Park that dodges the congestion on the Causeway. Of all things, we found ourselves pursued by a vintage Porsche 912 along looping, sun-dappled roads ‘neath leafy canopy.
This was, you understand, some pretty low-speed maneuvering: it’s a public park after all. But the CR-Z was flat through the corners, and the heavy steering and responsive throttle made the drive fun – and legal.
The CR-Z is not as fast as it could be. It’s not as fuel-efficient as it could be. It’s not as practical as it could be, and it’s not quite as fun-to-drive as it could be. However, it’s not as boring as it could be either.
It feels like a compromise, but no-one could ever accuse it of being dull. For a hybrid, that’s saying a lot. Now Honda, build an Si version already!
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