TORONTO, ON –
The words "sporty" and "hybrid" are rarely, if ever, seen together.
To date, the push for maximum fuel economy and minimum emissions has resulted in a wide variety of vehicles with a combination of electric motors and internal combustion engines.
There are big SUVs, $140,000 luxury cars and more affordable compact cars from American, European and Japanese companies with the Koreans about to join the parade. But even at the high end, where the electric propulsion systems are paired with high output V-8s, the results are not exactly "sporty".
Honda aims to change that situation with a newcomer that is highly evocative of one of the most popular vehicles in its history – the CRX Si. When it arrives at Honda stores in August, the 2011 CR-Z will give the company sole ownership of the first, and so far only, only sporty hybrid on the road.
The two-door, two-seat, hatchback with a chopped off body looks a lot like the second- generation CR-X sold here 20 years ago. That car became a cult classic that is still highly cherished and sought-after today.
The CR-Z also performs much like the CR-X. Despite weighing almost 25% more due to the much stronger structure necessary to meet crash-regulations and a set of nickel-metal-hydride batteries, the CR-Z delivers similar performance but vastly superior fuel economy.
The 108-horsepower, five-speed manual CR-X was rated at 9.8 litres/100 km in the city and 7.8 on the highway. The CR-Z improves those figures to 6.5 and 5.2 with a six-speed manual and, even more impressive, 5.6 and 5.0 with the optional CVT automatic.
You might have noticed mention of a six-speed manual transmission. Not only does that make it the only hybrid with a manual gearbox, it shows what the development theme was – sporty performance.
Sure the optional CVT automatic provides superior fuel economy, but it is exactly the opposite from a manual in terms involvement and/or enthusiastic driving. Honda was willing to surrender some economy in return for some much-needed "buzz" from the affordable little newcomer.
The CR-Z gets its platform from the Fit, shortened and with a wider track front and rear. The drivetrain comes from the Insight. This corporate sharing helps explain the low cost – more on this further on – and its high weight.
Development costs for both platform and drivetrain were minimized by sharing. The safety advantages are easy to see, with proven crash-worthiness and a full slate of add-on features like six airbags, electronic stability control, ABS and active head restraints standard.
The decision to make the CR-Z available with a manual transmission seems to fly in the face of the move to maximize economy. However, Honda wanted a "halo" car, an affordable new vehicle that would showcase its other hybrid offerings and bring traffic to showrooms.
There is no expectation of big sales volumes – 500 a year for the entire country is the best guess. With such low volumes it didn’t make sense to have too many trim levels available so unlike our neighbours to the south, who will get three versions when it arrives there in late August, we will get one fully-loaded version.
Our $23,490 CR-Z will have power everything, air conditioning, a 360-watt, seven-speaker audio system. The only decisions to make will be colour and whether or not you want the $800 CVT transmission.
Forget the automatic. The six-speed is a treat with slick linkage, short throws, well-defined gates and a light, progressive clutch. It also allows you to wring maximum performance out of the engine/electric motor.
The drivetrain is carried over from the Insight so is a known entity. As is always the case with electric motors, maximum power or torque is available from stop so the CR-Z accelerates with some punch from rest.
The combination of engine and motor allows decent power across the normal range of operation but it does fall off as speeds climb, so don’t get into any races.
Having said that, if you were to tackle a slalom course or autocross, which we did, the CR-Z shines.
The electric steering is light but programmed to provide plenty of feedback. The suspension has been tuned with handling as a priority and ride secondary. Its not punishing but on rough surfaces it can be a bit choppy.
The exterior styling combines modern touches like HID and LED lights, big wheels pushed to the corners and an aggressive stance.
Inside, the instrument panel is a study in dimensions, graphics and colours. There are a whole lot of buttons and knobs – too many for me.
Overall, however the CR-Z is a clear step forward for Honda interiors, with little hard plastic and lots of soft-touch and textured surfaces.
There are lots of ways to alter the instrument readouts so you can track your fuel consumption. The guages change colours to remind you when you are being too heavy on the throttle – except when you`ve selected ‘sport’ from the three drive modes. In which case it stays red.
The others modes are normal and economy. Unlike most of these multi-mode drive systems there is a noticeable change in steering and throttle response among the three settings.
The two front seats are exemplary, with loads of support. The home market gets a pair of infinitesimal second row seats but Honda product planners wisely decided to nix that in favour of a pair of storage areas and a `seat back than can be folded down to add to the already impressive cargo space beneath the large hatch.
The 2011 CR-Z can be seen as the best of both worlds. Driven sensibly it delivers great fuel economy. Driven enthusiastically, it rewards with dynamics not available in any other hybrid. The first non-boring hybrid!