Preview Drive: 2011 Honda CR-Z Hybrid

Sporty two-seat coupe is reminiscent of old CRX, but with modern battery/gasoline powertrain

by James M. Flammang

2011 Honda CR-Z Hybrid sport coupe

DEARBORN, Michigan - Honda and its Toyota rival have led the field in hybrid-powertrain cars for the past decade. Neither they nor later-arriving competitors, however, have turned out a true sporty compact coupe intended for gasoline/electric operation.

That oversight has been remedied by the arrival of Honda's new CR-Z Hybrid coupe, which made its debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2009 and then appeared at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in production form. Enthusiasts are likely to recall the CR-Z's spiritual predecessor: the two-passenger CRX coupe that was sold in the U.S. from 1984-92. That old CRX could be fitted as a performance-oriented sport coupe, or a fuel-sipping model. Both attracted some loyal fans in that era.

Offered with either six-speed manual shift or a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the new CR-Z Hybrid contains a 1.5-liter i-VTEC gasoline engine, teamed with an electric motor in Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system. The CR-Z joins Honda's Civic Hybrid Sedan and more recent Insight, giving the Japanese automaker three hybrid models on sale in the U.S. market.

Honda calls the Japanese-built CR-Z a "Sport Hybrid Coupe." As Vicke Poponi, assistant vice-president of product planning, put it: CR-Z is the "world's first truly sporty hybrid car."

Chief engineer Norio Tomobe noted that the subcompact CR-Z coupe is "intrinsically fun to drive," adding that Honda "also wanted to contribute to the environment." Developers of the vehicle, he said, asked "how can we cherish the relationship we have with society."

Evolved from the concept Hybrid Cafe racer, which featured a low, short, wide package, the CR-Z reflects "concentrated density," Tomobe said. European and Japanese buyers get a tiny back seat; but for the American market, the CR-Z Hybrid is strictly a two-passenger coupe with a fold-down rear console.

Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system is basically carried over from the larger Insight, but incorporates more cooling for the battery. Total output is 122 horsepower (113 hp from the gasoline engine) at 6000 rpm, with 128 total pound-feet of torque. "At high rpm, there's a lot of power," Tomobe said. Estimated fuel economy with manual shift is 31 mpg in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway. Honda's CVT raises those figures to 35-mpg city and 39-mpg highway.

Two transmissions are available: either the world's first six-speed manual gearbox for a hybrid car, or a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with paddle shifters. Short "throws" aim to give the manual-shift model a sporty shifter feel.

Three driving modes are available: Sport, Normal, and Econ. In Sport mode, the "Super 3D meter" (tachometer) ring is red. In Normal it's blue, changing to green for Eco mode. There's an Eco-drive bar in the information display, and manual-shift models get a suggested shift-point indicator.

Lightweight aluminum 16-inch wheels weigh about 11 pounds less than those on Honda's Insight. Output from the electric power-steering motor is 30 percent greater than in the Insight. With a center of gravity 30 millimeters lower than the Insight's, the CR-Z Hybrid features 60/40 front/rear balance. Honda's smallest steering wheel is installed, requiring only 2.48 turns lock-to-lock.

Cargo space totals 25.1 cubic feet with the rear console folded down; 9.8 cubic feet when it's raised. The three-mode cargo cover can fit into the floor when not in use, and can form a "small secret box" that holds small items.

Honda anticipates four-star overall scores in the government's crash-test program, which is now using a revised ranking system that makes five-star ratings more difficult to obtain.

Honda's latest hybrid shows its handling talents

Early critics who heard about Honda's acceleration figures fretted, if not complained, about likely lack of performance. Well, acceleration is admittedly on the easygoing side. Virtually no sporty sounds emerge from beneath the hood, either. Nevertheless, the CR-Z more than makes up for that modest shortfall in go-power by its superlative roadholding and agility.

Even better, that satisfying maneuverability is complemented by a surprisingly pleasant ride. In fact, the CR-Z's suspension feels far more compliant than that of many sporty coupes of any size, absorbing a considerable amount of pavement imperfection. Except for a touch of road/tire noise, the CR-Z coupe is surprisingly quiet.

Honda's six-speed manual gearshift operates easily and the clutch engages effectively, without any fuss. It takes a while to get used to the manual's short throws, but patience will be rewarded. Hill-start assist maintains braking force for a second after the car has stopped on a hill, but does not operate if the shifter is in neutral. Honda's CVT works nicely, performing nearly as well as the manual gearbox without losing much of the sporty coupe's "fun factor."

Dashboard instruments are unique and colorful, yet not difficult to read at a glance - though most drivers probably won't spend much time looking at the bar-style displays, which are somewhat obscure. Seats are nicely supportive, coming across as long-haul comfortable with very good thigh and back support, as well as helpful side bolstering. One notable flaw: quite a long reach is needed to grasp the seatbelts.

Visibility is fine through the windshield, but views to the rear are next to useless. Looking straight back, the view is divided into two segments by a thick horizontal bar that separates the twin back-window panes. That bar is wide enough to conceal the sight of an entire vehicle. Over-the-shoulder views to left or right are essentially nonexistent. A scant amount can be seen through the tiny quarter window on the right side, but the driver's side has nothing at all. Therefore, drivers must pay even closer attention than usual to the outside mirrors.

Three trim levels will be offered: Base, EX, and EX Navi. Base models include antilock braking, Vehicle Stability Assistance, steering-wheel auxiliary controls, and a six-speaker 160-watt audio system. EX editions add seven-speaker 300-watt audio, foglights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and alloy pedals. Honda's navigation system goes into the EX Navi model. Five body colors will be available, all with the same interior.

Pricing starts under $20,000, toppping out at just over $24,000. Honda hopes to sell about 15,000 CR-Z Hybrids in the U.S. each year.

Placed on sale on August 24, the CR-Z Hybrid aims at young buyers: members of Generations X and Y, with household incomes in the $40-60,000 range. Poponi refers to them as "responsibly indulgent" people who want a personal, fun, sporty car, but also are concerned about the environment.

Hybrid sales are down slightly now, but Poponi points out Global Insight's forecast of 22-percent hybrid growth in the next five years. In the small specialty segment generally, Global Insight predicts 21-percent growth during that same period.

Longer-term Update: In a subsequent week-long trial of a manual-shift CR-Z Hybrid, the two-seater again proved to be enjoyable on the road. Getting reaccustomed to the manual gearbox's short "throws" took a bit of time, but it soon became a friendly companion. Acceleration in first gear, in particular, was definitely on the sluggish side, but performance picked up when reaching third gear and beyond.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang