Blog: Honda CR-Z—The Second, Purpose-Built Greenformance Car Arrives

By Tom Martin

September 06, 2010

The Honda CR-Z arrives at dealers this week, which seemed a fitting time to give another perspective on this interesting car. Having driven the CR-Z in and around San Francisco, we opted this time to try it in the Midwest on the flatter and more pockmarked roads between Chicago and central Wisconsin (the American Le Mans series was visiting Road America, so we chose that as a suitable destination).
My conclusion was that this is a pretty special car, but like everything in our hyper-segmented world, that specialness applies under certain conditions that won’t appeal to everyone. There is no doubt that many consumers would prefer a car like the CR-Z if it, a) had 300 horsepower, b) had a body by Pininfarina, c) got 100 mpg and/or, d) had a back seat to rival the Mercedes S550. Oh, but keep the price where it is, please, at just over $19,000. There being no free lunch (or engineering), this isn’t going to happen, so I thought it might be more useful to talk in the context of the real world and focus on what the CR-Z does well, and what it doesn’t do so well. You can decide if that fits your needs.
First Win: the handling of the CR-Z is genuinely fun. The steering is quick and turn-in is good, so the CR-Z is a very willing partner in whipping through city traffic or carving up back roads. Seyth seemed to think the suspension was a little soft and roll-prone, but I found the roll control to be very good at rational street speeds. There are many, many cars out there with more body roll, certainly.
Another way to put this in context is to say the CR-Z feels a lot like a Mini Cooper, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Honda revealed that their engineers had studied the Mini extensively. Both the Mini and the CR-Z feel balanced, willing to rotate, and grippy to a point. They don’t feel biased toward understeer below the limit that many front-drivers do. I’d give the Mini the edge in steering feel and entertainment value (in part because of the small yaw moment that Mini builds into turn entry). But when it comes to light, responsive, quick, flat, directional changes—sometimes called go-kart handling—you should consider that the Mini gets high marks on these items, so saying that the CR-Z is in the same league places it well above most cars.
Second Win: the ride/handling balance is almost in BMW territory. The softness Seyth felt at the launch in my experience comes across mostly as usable compliance rather than sloppy handling, resulting in a very good secondary (pothole, frost heave) ride. Unlike the Mini, the CR-Z is not brittle over these bumps; the CR-Z takes the edge off, though the firm springing lets you know that every bump is there. The price for this gain in ride quality is that the CR-Z’s somewhat compliant shocks and bushings reduce the communication level from the road a bit compared with the Mini.
Third Win: gas mileage in the real world seems to be better than the EPA would have you believe, and a cut above non-hybrid competitors. The CR-Z’s EPA rating is 31/37 for the manual transmission that we had on our test car. I logged about 500 miles in the CR-Z and I’d suggest city mileage expectations in the 35 mpg range are reasonable, though city mileage is notoriously dependent on exact driving conditions. I achieved 42 mpg on the highway, just driving normally at 65-75mph. Since most people drive in a suburban environment, my measurement there showed that the CR-Z knocked down 38 mpg with ease. Experience says that the Mini Cooper will do about 34 mpg under similar conditions to these and the Smart Fortwo will do about 35 mpg. The CR-Z behaves more like the VW Golf and Jetta TDIs in fuel economy, with perhaps a shade less economy on the highway and a shade more in town.
Fourth Win: the design is engaging. As I mentioned above, I had the car at Road America, and to put it mildly the comments from the race fans there were very positive about the exterior styling. While I don’t think this is going to go down as one of the seminal designs in automotive history (see Mini for that), the car in the metal is attractive and interesting. Most importantly, among those I talked to, is the fact that for $20K it doesn’t read as a pure economy car. That is to say, it reads as something different and special, with a dash of sports car thrown in.
On the interior, there is plenty to like as well. I enjoyed the control pods to the left and right of the wheel, where they fall easily to hand. I also was impressed with the large flat load floor in back, and I liked the bins behind the rear seat that seemed more useful than seats fit only for children. Of course, if you have kids between 4 and 8 years old, you probably would wish for a 911-style set up. The CR-Z seats are just okay for support and comfort, but with only two seats to deal with, the CR-Z is an ideal candidate for aftermarket Recaro, or Bride, or Corbeau seating to taste.
So, here we are in the late stages of this review and we haven’t talked about the CR-Z’s drivetrain, and that’s mostly because I found it to be a mixed bag. On the positive side of the ledger, the manual shifter is excellent, continuing Honda’s strength in this area. The clutch works smoothly and the engine has decent throttle response, too. Off the line, the CR-Z accelerates pretty well in Sport mode, though the presence of Integrated Motor Assist (IMA is Honda’s name for the hybrid battery/electric motor system) doesn’t make it feel especially torquey. Above launch speed, the CR-Z accelerates at a modest pace; quickly enough to be semi-entertaining, but slowly enough to make you wish for more. Winding the engine out doesn’t reveal a big horsepower peak waiting to be discovered either. 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque can only do so much. The power to weight ratio of the CR-Z is about the same as a Mini or a Fit, though, and to its credit the CR-Z feels a little more potent than either of these cars. But, if you want fast, you simply need more power and you’ll almost certainly go up in price and down in mileage.
One last positive comment about the CR-Z may be important, which is that I found the CR-Z surprisingly free of hybrid weirdness. The IMA system is completely transparent under acceleration, though there are times when the engine shutoff and restart seems a little odd. And thankfully, the brakes don’t seem to be part of the battery charging system, so the brakes are impressively linear in contradistinction to most other hybrid systems.
The CR-Z is a worthy competitor to the Mini Cooper, and in my mind that’s lavishing some serious praise on the car. I do have the impression that the greenformance market is more interested in a CR-Z that competes with the Mini Cooper S, and that might cause some people who are never going to shell out for a Cooper S to overlook the CR-Z, which would be a missed opportunity. If you recognize that the elevated pricing of cars like the Cooper S is too rich for you or if the CR-Z’s genuinely high mileage appeals, then you may appreciate that the CR-Z gets more of the aspects of being a true driver’s car right than almost any other competitive car.