This isn’t what I’d been led to expect. The new 2010 Honda CR-Z hybrid coupe is billed as ‘the world’s first sporty hybrid’, so I’d anticipated something a bit more electric and 21st century; something weird, whooshy, torquey and maybe a bit aloof. But instead of being fast-forwarded a decade, it’s all gone a bit Life on Mars. The new CR-Z hybrid feels a bit retro.
I’m driving something that – cockpit visuals aside – shows absolutely no evidence of being a hybrid, but instead feels every bit the ’80s hot hatch; a great exhaust note that promises more than the engine delivers in raw grunt, but the steering, body control and brakes to make the most of it. The Honda CR-Z feels like the sort of car we thought the car makers didn’t – or couldn’t – make any more.
So is the new CR-Z the future, or a throwback to the past?
What it is – in engineering terms – is a two-door, 2+2 small coupe built on a very heavily made-over Insight platform with 115mm chopped out of the wheelbase to get the length down to just over 4m, and 25mm added to the track. The new layout ought to improve handling, but it definitely helps the stance; the mad origami styling is original and entirely modern but references Honda’s sharp, ’80s CR-X baby coupe and the original 1999 Insight; also a hybrid coupe, but far from sporty.
The engine is a 1497cc, 16-valve VTEC petrol pinched from the US-market Jazz, offered for the first time in Europe and fitted with Honda’s IMA integrated motor assist hybrid system, in which an electric motor sits between the engine and gearbox and helps out when there’s enough charge in the nickel metal-hydride batteries housed under the boot. The petrol engine alone makes 113bhp at 6100rpm and 107lb ft at 4800rpm, but total system output from both motors is 124bhp and 128lb ft between just 1000-1500rpm.
Not, frankly, figures you’d associate with a modern hot hatch, now that Clios come with 200bhp. Nor will Honda’s IMA system power itself electrically with the engine entirely stopped, as a Prius will. And its environmental credentials – a claimed 56.5mpg and 117g/km – are comprehensively outstripped by some conventionally powered, eco-tweaked hatches, like a Golf Bluemotion or a BMW 116d, and well behind the 64.2mpg and 101g/km of the Insight.
Yes, read the numbers alone and you’re left thinking that the Honda CR-Z will have to do a lot on the road to justify its sporty hybrid claims, and left wondering if it possibly can when the related Insight and Civic IMA are such blanks dynamically.
>> Click ‘Next’ to read more of CAR’s first drive review of the Honda CR-Z
How does the Honda CR-Z (2010) drive?
Only one way to find out. Open the CR-Z and it’s quickly apparent Honda hasn’t worked any packaging miracles under that truncated rear end; the boot is shallow and small at 225 litres and Honda’s blurb tellingly describes how the ‘2+2 layout gives the option of carrying children in the rear’: it’s only an option, adults aren’t welcome, and you suspect that most CR-Zs will have the back seats permanently flipped forward.
The front half of the cockpit is much better. While other car makers endlessly search out ever-more luscious plastics, Honda somehow manages to build great cabins from some pretty average materials; the appeal is in precision with which they’re assembled, the intelligence with which they’re laid out and the palpable engineering quality behind them.
The CR-Z is no exception. You sit low in big, winged sports chairs; more under-thigh support would be good. For a small, sporty car there’s masses of storage with three cupholders and big bins and boxes. There’s no conventional central console; instead the air-con and driving-mode controls - of which more later - are grouped in two pods to either side of the main instrument binnacle and just behind your hands as they rest on the wheel. The whole layout is focussed, fresh, and intuitive to use.
Honda CR-Z: pick your driving mode
The CR-Z offers three driving modes, selected with switches on the pods behind the wheel. Eco neuters the engine in the interests of economy but leaves it with more than enough urge for city driving. Normal is, well, normal, and Sport sharpens the throttle response, primes the hybrid system to assist more and adds weight to the steering. Around town and on motorways the CR-Z feels fine in any of the three modes. The ride is surprisingly good for a sporty car with Insight underpinnings; the bespoke springs and dampers produce some surface-sensitivity and a stiff-ish response to bigger intrusions, but nothing too harsh given the car’s sporting intent.
Is the CR-Z a back-road thriller?
The real surprise comes when you select Sport and head for a B-road. As you run the engine out to the redline the noise – like a Civic Type-R at two-thirds volume – is great, but not matched by much forward progress; Honda claims an uninspiring 10.2sec to 62mph. There also isn’t the low-end torque-thump you’d hope for from an electrically-assisted drivetrain; the engine builds power in a linear manner but does its best work once the VTEC system changes cam profile around 4000rpm, the electric motor just helping to fill in the low-end torque hole of the small capacity, naturally aspirated petrol engine.
So rather than being the expected party-piece, the drivetrain is a little underwhelming. The revelation is in the handling. The Sport button sharpens the steering response noticeably, and the gearing is already quick at just 2.5 turns between locks. This, combined with terrific primary body control through bends and over vertical undulations, seemingly unbreakable traction, brakes that are almost over-sharp and utterly unlike the vague stoppers fitted to most hybrids, and diminutive dimensions right-sized for British roads together mean the CR-Z goads you to maintain all the momentum the engine can summon, and probably more than is good for the planet or your licence. I don’t know what fuel figures I got as I drove repeated laps of my benchmark B-road route, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t 56.5mpg.
Honda CR-Z: the CAR verdict
The CR-Z is exactly the kind of oddball, flawed, contradictory car that Japan occasionally, inadvertently produces; an impractical hybrid that is out-eco’d by plenty of ‘normal’ cars, yet out-handles most of them too. Most of you just won’t see the point, but a handful will buy it for the looks, or the handling, or even just the hybrid badge, and love it. And long may Honda continue to boldly build cars for that one per cent.