Honda may have come up with the first fun hybrid car. The Insight, Prius, Camry, and Fusion are all very practical hybrids, and Lexus makes a few comfortable cruisers. But the 2011 Honda CR-Z made us want to drive fast. We wanted to find the most winding road around and torture the car through the corners.
Honda obliged during our preview drive, prescribing a twisty route north of San Francisco we've previously used to test the BMW M3, Porsche 911, and Audi R8. Those cars had it all over the CR-Z for power and speed, but the plucky little CR-Z showed its stuff in the turns. Honda also set out an autocross course so we could really thrash the CR-Z, a test that we haven't previously seen a hybrid put through.
The CR-Z certainly has its quirks. In other markets it is produced with 2+2 seating, but Honda removed the rear seats for the U.S., launching it as a two-seater. We assume Honda thinks Americans are too fat to use the tiny rear seats. We're not going to argue the point.
The CR-Z's hatchback design means it offers decent cargo space in back; removing the rear seats adds an oddly formed cargo area immediately behind the front seats, the two spaces divided by the former rear seat back rest.
Old nav, good stick
Two things stood out for us when we got into the car. We groaned a little when we saw the navigation unit, Honda's original system launched with its first generation of navigation-equipped cars. Needless to say, this system is badly in need of an update. It looks very rough compared with the latest nav units coming out from competitors.
Honda has fitted a Bluetooth phone system and iPod connector into the cabin to round out the electronics. The audio system consisted of six speakers, a subwoofer, and a 360-watt amp. We didn't get a lot of time to listen to the stereo, but what we heard came through with good clarity.
But we were also pleased to see a six-speed manual shifter. This six speed, similar to that used in the Civic Si, is a good one. This transmission makes the intent of the CR-Z clear. However, Honda representatives said they expect about 25 percent of CR-Z purchasers to opt for the manual transmission.
The other transmission available for the CR-Z is continuously variable, like that used in the Insight. After driving the manual version, we can't see why anyone would take the CVT. Honda includes a hill start function with the manual, making it practical in a hilly city like San Francisco.
Our preview drive began in the City by the Bay, and the car gave us three choices for its drive mode: Eco, Normal, and Sport. Setting out in Normal mode, the CR-Z showed its hybrid nature at the first traffic light, shutting down the engine as we stopped. On the green, we lifted off the brake, but the engine didn't start. We pushed the clutch in, and the engine still didn't start. But flicking the shifter into first, something it does with a nice precision, caused the engine to crank over with enough power to get us moving as we let the clutch out.
In fact, the manual transmission encouraged some fast starts off at the light, something the hybrid power train was all too happy to do. The power train consists of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder i-VTEC engine mated to Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, producing a combined 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. With the CVT, shave 5 pound-feet off that torque number. Those numbers don't sound like much, but the electric motor makes a lot of torque available immediately for a satisfying launch.
On rough pavement, the ride quality suffered from the car's firm suspension, but the electric power steering seemed well-tuned for precise handling. The CR-Z's small size made urban maneuvering easy, letting us slip in between cars from one lane to another.
Colorful instrument panel
The instrument cluster, covered in a Christmas tree of colored lights for fuel economy information, included a green up arrow indicating when we should shift. Designed to optimize fuel economy, it wanted us to change gears early and often, putting the car in sixth at 40 mph.
Honda estimates its EPA numbers for the CR-Z at 31 mpg city and 37 mpg highway for the manual transmission version. The CVT gets it up to 35 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. So there is a reason for taking the CVT version. Our drive was too short and spirited to get a real-world number. Honda says its testing was done in Normal drive mode, so the Eco mode might run the mileage above 40.
Switching the car into its Eco drive mode resulted in a slight slow down as the throttle response retuned. It also made a ring in the tachometer change from blue to green, a visual indicator of the drive mode. Similar to the Insight, that ring stayed green when the car thought we were driving in an environmentally responsible fashion, and blue when we floored it. It is a color-coded conscience.
Getting the CR-Z onto the twisty roads north of San Francisco called for testing out the car's Sport mode. Beyond the start/stop feature, the hybrid system never reared its head on our drive through the city and the ensuing freeway. It remained equally in the background as we tossed the car through the turns on Highway 1.
Ignoring the shift recommendations of the instrument cluster, we kept close to third gear, changing down to second for the really tight turns and up to fourth for longer straights. The CR-Z performed like an inexpensive little sports car. Honda says the Mini Cooper is one of the CR-Z's competitors; the Cooper has a slight edge in handling, but most people will find the CR-Z equally as fun.
The CR-Z showed its small displacement weakness heading up the hills, where the power train quickly lost steam. Going up a rise on the freeway, the CR-Z wouldn't maintain 70 mph in sixth gear, requiring a downshift to fifth. On steeper ascents on back roads, we found ourselves putting the car in second just to pull the hill.
This trip ended up at a parking lot autocross course, a series of cones defining tight turns and a slalom. When we stopped the car, a monochrome display to the right of the instrument cluster showed our Eco score, 5.5 little leaf icons. Without any context, we decided it was a high score, unlocking a virtual Eco Warrior badge in our mental video game version of the car.
The autocross course gave us a more-detailed understanding of the CR-Z's handling. In Sport mode and running it through tight turns in first and second gear, the electric power-steering proved well-tuned, ready for point-and-shoot operation. The all-season tires, wrapped around 16-inch alloy wheels, let the car slip a little too much on this hot, sunny day, causing more than a couple cones to go airborne.
The handling, while good, proved just a little loose. Honda seems to have tuned some softness into the suspension to make the CR-Z a comfortable everyday driver. As such, suspension travel allowed a little bit of lean in the corners. The CR-Z still can claim sports car handling, but there are more tightly screwed down cars available.
The 2011 Honda CR-Z goes on sale this fall. It will be available in standard and EX trim levels, at prices ranging from less than $20k to $24k. We drove an EX trimmed car with the optional six-speed manual transmission.