A sporty hybrid? At first glance, the 2011 Honda CR-Z might seem a bit oxymoronic. After all, Americans expect their hybrid cars to be purely about fuel economy, with flowers, rainbows and unicorns coming out of the tailpipe. But Honda is hoping that people are ready for a car that not only gets very good fuel economy but also happens to be fun to drive -- a hybrid without the drive-induced narcolepsy, if you will.
You might recall that Honda actually tried this approach a few years ago with the Accord Hybrid, a V6-powered Accord that promised strong performance and enhanced fuel economy. Sales were slow, however, and Honda cancelled the car after a short run. Of course, those of you with an even longer memory will also recall the original Honda CRX, the CR-Z's spiritual predecessor that crystallized Honda's reputation for building fun and efficient cars from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s.
Like the old CRX, the CR-Z is front-drive with two doors and just two seats. Mechanically, though, the CR-Z is related most to Honda's current Insight hybrid, sharing its basic structure and suspension design. To bring some sport to that formula Honda made the CR-Z shorter by about a foot, widened the track slightly and reduced overall height by a couple inches. This trimming doesn't reduce curb weight by as much as you might hope (the CR-Z only weighs about 80 pounds fewer than the Insight) but it does make the CR-Z one of the most nimble cars you can buy.
Under the hood is Honda's familiar Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) mild-hybrid system. For more punch, the CR-Z starts with a slightly bigger gasoline engine than the Insight (1.5 liters versus 1.3) that produces 112 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor is the same and generates another 13 hp and 58 lb-ft. Notably, Honda is offering a six-speed manual transmission in addition to the more hybrid-typical continuously variable transmission (CVT). The resulting fuel economy isn't exactly Prius-like, but it is still quite good, with the CVT variant returning an estimated 35 mpg city and 39 mpg highway.
The end result of all this is that Honda has indeed created a sporty hybrid. The CR-Z looks sharp and is fun to drive around town thanks to its small size and quick steering. There is certainly fun to be had on a curvy road, too. But when you push the CR-Z really hard, its dynamic limits are quickly reached via modest tire grip and notable body roll. Serious driving enthusiasts will likely be put off by this and perhaps down the road Honda will see fit to bring out a sportier Si version.
The two-door/two-seat layout makes the 2011 Honda CR-Z a near anomaly in the marketplace, but there are more conventional choices. The 2011 Mini Cooper presents the closest competition and it has a few advantages like a backseat (albeit a small one) and greater customization. Another option is the new 2011 Ford Fiesta. While it's a four-door, it's also small, economical and sporty to drive. Both these competitors can be had with features the CR-Z lacks, such as a sunroof, keyless ignition and heated leather seats. The new 2011 Scion tC will also be worth a look. Even so, we like the CR-Z and think that shoppers looking for a sporty urban runabout will be pleased.
The two-seat 2011 Honda CR-Z comes in three trim levels: base, EX and EX with navigation. The base model comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, hill-start assist (manual transmission), automatic climate control, full power accessories, manual seats with driver-side height adjustment, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, cruise control and a six-speaker CD audio system (with steering-wheel controls and USB/auxiliary audio jacks). The EX adds xenon headlights, foglights, heated side mirrors, metallic interior trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth and a seven-speaker premium audio system. The EX can also be equipped with a voice-activated navigation system. Notable dealer-installed features include 17-inch wheels, performance tires and satellite radio.
While the 2011 Honda CR-Z sold in other worldwide markets will come with a small backseat, Honda chose to equip the American version with a flip-down rear parcel shelf instead. The idea is to apparently better tie the car to the original two-seat CRX. From a practical standpoint, having only two seats is disappointing, though it also means your friends won't constantly be hitting you up to be the designated driver either. Seat comfort is adequate.
The CR-Z's rear cargo divider can easily be lowered down to create a flat load floor and hide any items in the parcel shelf's bins. A multiposition cargo shade is also part of the deal. Maximum cargo capacity is 25.1 cubic feet, and two golf bags should fit with the divider lowered.
The centerpiece of the CR-Z's interior is certainly its futuristic-looking dash. The multicolor gauge cluster has a three-dimensional look and will display a green background when you're driving efficiently or blue when you're not. Selecting the Sport mode turns it red. A configurable display can also show other fuel-economy-enhancing tools. But some of our drivers have found the overall look of the dash to be a bit busy and disjointed. We're also not fond of the expansive use of hard plastic interior trim (the door armrests are notably uncomfortable) and the increased chance of sun glare from the EX model's polished metallic trim. A more serious problem is rear-quarter visibility, or more accurately, the lack thereof -- backing out of a parking spot can be a perilous exercise.
The 2011 Honda CR-Z is hybrid-powered by a team consisting of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor paired with a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The gas engine is good for 112 hp and 107 lb-ft of torque, while the electric motor chips in 13 hp and 58 lb-ft. Due to varying power peaks, the maximum combined output is 122 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard and a CVT with paddle shifters is optional. If the CVT is selected, torque output drops slightly to 123 lb-ft. All CR-Zs come with a three-mode drive selector consisting of Sport, Normal or Econ. Each adjusts parameters for throttle sensitivity, steering assist, transmission programming (CVT), additional IMA assist (manual transmission) and air-conditioning usage.
Official EPA fuel economy numbers haven't been released as of this writing but Honda estimates that the CR-Z will get 31 mpg city/37 mpg highway and 34 mpg combined with the manual and 35/39/37 mpg with the CVT.
We'll put this out first: If you're expecting sharp handling like a Civic Si, you're going to be disappointed. The 2011 Honda CR-Z is tuned for a smooth ride, and its economy-minded twist-beam rear suspension simply isn't up to the task of providing sports car reflexes and compliance. But if you lower your expectations a little, you'll find the CR-Z reasonably fun to drive. The steering, though not hugely informative, is quick. There's also an enjoyable sense of nimbleness from piloting a small car that weighs just 2,650 pounds.
Power from the hybrid powertrain is certainly sufficient, and the burst of extra torque from the electric motor helps the CR-Z feel more energetic at low speeds than many competitors. How that power is doled out depends on which driving mode you've selected, as the difference in throttle response is vast. Sport provides a feel reminiscent of a classic, free-revving Honda performance car, while Econ transforms the CR-Z into a lethargic, deathly slow fuel-sipper. We think most folks will keep it in Normal most of the time. You can't really go wrong with the transmission choices, as the six-speed manual is easy to shift and offers a more mechanical feel than the one from the toylike Honda Fit, while the CVT keeps much of the car's sportiness intact thanks to its paddle shifters.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes, stability and traction control, front seat side airbags, side curtain airbags and active head restraints.
The 2011 Honda CR-Z is all-new.