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Car reviews - Honda - CR-Z - Sport coupe

Launch Story

24 Feb 2012

ON THE surface, Honda’s decision to base a desirable, sporty coupe on the distinctly unsporting – and underwhelming – Insight hybrid hatch sounds like trying to make a running shoe out of a loafer.

Perhaps it was these low expectations that caused a restaurant full of jaded motoring writers to buzz with enthusiasm for the CR-Z at the half-way point of the car’s launch drive program through Victoria’s Yarra Valley region, but we are more inclined to believe it is because Honda has produced a little ripper.

Let’s face it, on paper the CR-Z’s power and torque outputs of 91kW and 174Nm do not set the pulse racing, nor the prospect of accelerating from rest to 100km/h in 9.7 seconds, but we were not alone in being charmed by this little Honda.

Honda’s engineers have garnished the shortened Insight chassis with a wider track and sportier suspension setup featuring lightweight aluminium components, to which larger (but lighter) alloy wheels are bolted.

The resulting weight reduction – and improved agility – is built on with the addition of a more powerful 1.5-litre engine in place of the Insight’s 1.3-litre unit, while a slick-shifting, six-speed manual transmission was added to keep enthusiastic drivers happy (a CVT automatic with paddle-shifters will appeal to the masses).

Honda’s modest sales predictions for the CR-Z – offered from $34,990 in manual Sport guise – should endow it with a sense of exclusivity, while having a sports model will at least provide the ailing Japanese brand with an image boost. The CR-Z also presents an affordable way into a hybrid for customers put off by the holier-than-thou image of standalone hybrid models like the Prius and Insight, or unable to shell out premium prices for offerings from the likes of Lexus.

That Honda has concentrated on making the CR-Z fun to drive also further dispels the myth that electrified cars are boring, and its purposeful low-slung stance with wide haunches looks great in the metal.

CR-Z drivers and front passengers assume the low-slung sports driving position of old-school small Hondas in comfortable, supportive seats that are easy to adjust.

The multi-function steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach but we found it hard to find a position that provided both comfort and an unobstructed view of the instruments.

On the move, if viewed as an alternative to forced induction, Honda’s hybrid drive system provides a seamless and satisfying solution that combines the old-fashioned responsiveness of a naturally-aspirated engine with the low-down grunt of an electric motor.

A 0-100km/h figure of 9.7 seconds (CVT: 10.2s) may not seem like much for a car with sporting pretensions, but actions speak louder than numbers and, with the manual transmission at least, eager power delivery makes the CR-Z feel positively sprightly.

CVT models lose a few Newton-metres of torque and feel noticeably more turgid in their response, while also somewhat spoiling the CR-Z’s charismatic soundtrack.

Despite an over-styled gear selector that resembles a futuristic umbrella handle, it is far from the worst transmission of this type we have experienced and seven stepped ratios are quickly accessed manually if required via paddle-shifters.

As the figures suggest, acceleration is far from neck-snapping, but a combination of instant torque response from the electric motor, backed by the typically revvy Honda four-cylinder petrol engine, mean that actions speak louder than numbers.

The sporty experience is further enhanced by the low-slung seating position and a zingy engine note that can be enjoyed to the full when driving with the windows down – even before the CR-Z has been introduced to a twisty road.

The torsion-beam rear suspension, which allows Honda to place the CR-Z’s battery pack lower for a better weight distribution and centre of gravity, might compromise roadholding, but the lack of outright grip – not helped by the use of skinny low-rolling-resistance tyres – at least makes for a fun drive at legal speeds.

We experienced pronounced lift-off oversteer on a dry roundabout with no apparent intervention from the electronic stability control and later found the CR-Z to be remarkably adjustable on the throttle when taking long, sweeping bends.

Compared with the lumbering Insight, the CR-Z feels agile and achieves a sense of lightness without the Insight’s unnerving tinniness.

It resists body-roll well and can be hustled along admirably quickly. For a car with electric power steering, it is an involving, communicative drive with a firm but compliant and commendably comfortable ride.

On winding country roads, the CR-Z is best with Sport mode activated, which boosts assistance from the electric motor, sharpens throttle response, firms up the steering and on CVT models also allows the engine to rev higher for longer.

The clutch pedal has a vague feel, which could be related to the presence of an electric motor, but the brake pedal also produces a similar sensation at the start of its travel – though, once we became accustomed, we found the brakes to have a reassuring bite and progressive action.

Around town at low speeds, the Sport mode’s throttle response is too sharp, making for jerky progress. Conversely, switching from Sport or even Normal mode to Economy mode has the effect of making the CR-Z feel as though it is wading through treacle.

Econ mode, of course, improves fuel efficiency, but it can get frustratingly sluggish when driving in hilly areas. Unsurprisingly, Normal mode offers the best compromise between thrust and thrift.

Official fuel consumption of 5.0 litres per 100 kilometres for the manual and 4.7L/100km for the CVT are not that impressive compared with other hybrids like the Lexus CT200h (4.1L/100km) and Toyota Prius (3.9L/100km), not to mention similar-sized diesels.

In mixed driving we achieved 6.6L/100km with the CVT, while a more spirited jaunt using Sport mode and the entire rev range in the manual saw consumption creep above 9.0L/100km.

On the freeway, the CR-Z feels reassuringly stable and makes for comfortable cruising, although tyre roar entering the cabin on rougher surfaces can become wearing.

It wouldn’t be a hybrid without a high-tech instrument panel and the CR-Z has a busy three-dimensional theme, dominated by a large rev-counter with a digital speed readout in the middle.

The obligatory power distribution and battery status display are present, with a version of the Insight’s efficiency scoring system to show how economically you are driving, supplemented by a shift light on manual models that suggests when you should change up or down for optimum economy.

Like the Insight, the dashboard is shaped around the driver, with the ventilation controls situated close to the steering wheel. A decent-sounding audio system is further away as a result, but there are steering wheel controls so this is less of an issue.

We were impressed with the overall design and quality of the dashboard and, while the thin rubber coating on many surfaces does not come close to replicating the soft-touch effect mastered by the Europeans, it betters the cheap, brittle feel of the Insight.

The CR-Z will struggle on showroom appeal compared with the Audi A1 and Mini Cooper that Honda says it is targeting until more affordable coupes come onto the market from Hyundai, Toyota and possibly Subaru.

Honda loses further points with the $40,790 top-spec Luxury model, in which the base model’s acceptable-looking audio system is replaced with an ugly hard plastic edifice from which an ill-fitting, afterthought of an aftermarket-looking touch-screen system protrudes.

The Luxury model – which represents good value considering the amount of extra equipment provided for the extra $3500 over the CVT-equipped Sport variant – further disappoints as its standard panoramic glass roof is something of a misnomer, having an aperture barely larger than a standard sunroof.

Forward and side visibility is good, although small quarterlight-style rear windows do not provide much of a view and rear vision is further obscured by the split rear glass, so it is a good job Honda has included rear parking sensors as standard (with a reversing camera on the Luxury).

The CR-Z is marketed as a two-plus-two in Australia, but the rear seats are suitable only for hunch-backed amputees, even if the driver and front passenger are of jockey proportions.

A central lever that can be reached from the front seats enables quick folding of the rear bench, resulting in a flat load bay that Honda says is big enough for two golf bags.

With the seats up and the roller blind-style luggage cover in place, there is about enough room for two cases of the maximum size allowed for airline hand luggage.

The CR-Z is both easy and fun to drive but the purest experience is to be had with the entry-level Sport variant with the manual transmission. CVT versions feel – and are – slower, while adding an extra layer of disconnection from the driving experience.

It is another case of the base model being our favourite as the CVT-only Luxury model’s poorly executed extra equipment disappoints.

But we enjoyed our time with the CR-Z, which will no doubt join the list of well-regarded Honda coupes like the Integra, Prelude and, of course, the 1980s CRX to which the CR-Z owes its inspiration.

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