Driven: 2011 Honda CR-Z

Written by and Photography by Lee Bailie on .

2011_Honda_CR-Z_4I am old enough to remember the CR-X, one of the original sport compacts built by Honda from 1983-91.

At the time, I thought it was one of the coolest cars I had ever seen, particularly the Si model. It just captured my teenage imagination with its stubby, yet sleek, appearance – a car that was low slung with long doors, but also had a high rear end that formed a useful hatchback layout. I just loved to stare at it, whether it was on a dealership lot, on the road or in one of my many car magazines. I simply adored this car. Alas, I never owned one, but to this day – 20 years after Honda quit building them in favour of the gone and not lamented Del Sol – I still smile when I see one.

When I made the trek to Honda Canada’s new corporate digs on Toronto’s northern outskirts to pick up the new CR-Z Hybrid sport coupe for a test drive, I wasn’t sure what to expect.


Hybrids continue to proliferate across model lineups from Acura to Volkswagen, as manufacturers make a greater effort to lure environmentally conscious buyers into their showrooms.
What many of these entries have going for them in terms of fuel economy gains and green credentials, they lack in excitement both from a style and performance point of view. Simply put, a lot of these cars are just dull. Dull to look at, dull to drive and are mostly unremarkable, except for the aforementioned fuel economy.

Honda’s decision to revive the CR designation seemed to me like an invitation for comparisons between the new car and its famed predecessor, but I wasn’t sure if I would find it to be as appealing. After spending a week with the CR-Z, I can say that the CR model designation is indeed appropriate.

White generally isn’t one of my favourite automotive colours, but I thought it looked quite appealing on my tester. The CR-Z’s lines are flowing, with a clean, windswept sort of look that starts low at the hood and finishes high at the rear hatch. The creases running along the top and bottom of the doors adds to the sculpted look of the car and gives it a real sense of motion. A quick glance at the CR-Z did remind me of the CR-X, although the former has a more prominent snout than the latter and it is a bigger car. The one area where the cars do share some strong resemblance is at the rear. The blocky, high deck lid doesn’t look that much different, some 20 years later.

Sliding in behind the wheel, I was impressed with the snugness of the seats and had little trouble finding a comfortable driving position.

The interior had a quality feel to it, and reminded me of many other late-model Hondas I’ve been in: understated, logical and uncluttered, and perhaps a tad conservative.

It didn’t dazzle or overwhelm with a dizzying array of gadgetry, but still managed to include just about everything you could possibly want, with perhaps the exception of a navigation system, which is only available on US models at the moment.

Among the many standard features are automatic climate control with air-filtration, 360 watt 7-speaker stereo, USB device connector and a Bluetooth wireless mobile phone interface.

The black dash and steering wheel provided a nice contrast to the light two-tone grey seating areas, and the plastics and fabrics didn’t feel too hard or abrasive. The instrument cluster is an interesting collection of shapes, colours and displays. The protruding, barrel-shaped speedometer/tachometer in the middle looks like it was lifted right off of one of Honda’s sport bikes.

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The blue backlighting was augmented with colour coordinated tones for each driving mode that illuminates a ring around the speedometer: blue for normal, green for economy and red for sport.

Combined with the LED pods on either side that housed fuel, battery, temp and power assist gauges among others, the panel was as colourful as a lit up Christmas tree.

Under the hood, the CR-Z features Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid-electric system, which works in conjunction with a 1.5 litre iVTEC SOHC 4-cylinder gasoline engine. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, with a continuously variable transmission is available as an option.

The power output combined is 122 hp at 6,000 rpm and 128 lb-ft. at 1,000 to 1,500 rpm. The gas engine is responsible for 111 hp at 6,000 rpm and 106 lb-ft. and 4,800 rpm.

Without getting too technical, the IMA system (first introduced with the Honda Insight hybrid in the late 1990s) utilizes an electric motor located between the gas engine and the transmission to act as a starter motor, engine balancer and traction motor.

The system uses regenerative braking, which takes energy lost during deceleration and reuses it to propel the vehicle forward. IMA helps boost acceleration and eases the demand put on the engine which, in turn, improves fuel economy.

Because of the boost IMA provides in terms of performance, the gasoline engine it’s mated to can also be smaller and more fuel-efficient.

Impressions

During my stint in the CR-Z, I drove it on a mix of commuter highways, city streets and broad suburban boulevards, many of which were weatherbeaten, cracked and quite bumpy. The CR-Z was a capable performer on all of these roads, and the suspension (MacPherson strut, front; Torsion-beam, rear) soaked up most of these imperfections without making my teeth chatter. The 1.5 litre inline four proved to be more than capable of propelling the CR-Z around and through traffic during both city and highway driving.


The standard six-speed manual transmission featured smooth engagement that wasn’t stiff, with a short shifter that enabled me to row through the gears with ease. I had no trouble finding the right gear, even during spirited driving. One thing that took a little getting used to was the engine shutting off when the transmission was disengaged as I coasted to a light or a stop sign in neutral. At first, I thought I’d stalled the thing, only to realize it’s a fuel saving/emission reduction feature. As soon as I put it in gear, the engine sprang back to life.


I fiddled with the three driving modes, Economy, Normal and Sport quite a bit during my time in the car, and the differences in performance
were quite noticeable.
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Economy is definitely for those that want maximum fuel efficiency, and don’t mind the sluggish throttle response that comes with it. In this mode, I had to really stand on the accelerator to get the thing to move – it felt like I was towing a trailer with two snowmobiles on it. However, if you want to turn the CR-Z into a real fuel-sipper, this is the mode for you. A little tree on the instrument panel also lights up to let you know you’ve optimized the CR-Z’s eco potential.

Normal is the setting I used for most of my time in the car. It delivers the best compromise between fuel efficiency and performance. The throttle response is much better in this mode over Economy, and I was able to really hustle the car around with quick stabs of the accelerator.

In Sport mode, the CR-Z is at its most aggressive. Throttle response becomes hair trigger and fuel economy is sacrificed somewhat, but the car is heck of a lot of fun to drive. I would often leave the setting in Normal on the highway and then click over to Sport once I got on to city streets, which allowed me to dart and lunge through traffic like the proverbial hot knife through butter. Switching between Normal and Sport almost feels like you’ve engaged a turbo – the coiled-spring nature of the setting encourages the driver to blast off from each and every stop sign. At times, the car felt barely restrained and it made for plenty of fun driving.

The CR-Z may not please the CR-X purists with its conspicuous green credentials, but don’t be fooled – its performance potential is more than adequate.

The result is a more responsible, yet fun, hot hatch for the times we live in.

2011 Honda CR-Z - Specs

Price/As Tested $23,490/same
Engine 1.5-litre, 16-valve, SOHC, i-VTEC 4 cylinder with Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) – 122 hp @ 6,000 rpm / 128 lbs.-ft. torque @ 1,000 – 1,500 rpm
Transmission Close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission
Fuel Consumption (manufacturer) City – 6.5L/100 km (35 mpg); Highway – 5.3L/100 km (39 mpg); Combined – 6.0L/100 km (37 mpg)


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