Autocar.co.uk Road Test - Honda CR-Z
Test date: 01 April 2010 Price as tested: £19,999
For: Styling, value, performance and economy balance, instrumentation
Against: Poor rear seat packaging, not especially brisk, chassis needs polish
Hybrids aren’t usually cars to quicken the blood. They’re technically impressive and sometimes generate interesting levels of torque, but they’re usually as sporty as slippers with zips.
So this Honda CR-Z hybrid is something different as a compact, 2+2 coupé whose electric motor is as much about giving its 1.5-litre petrol engine boosts of torque as it is about saving fuel. Though that is, of course, a major mission of the CR-Z, whose 56.5mpg combined consumption and 117g/km of CO2 emissions make it one of the most economical compact coupés on sale – in theory, at least.
The CR-Z is part of Honda’s mission to sell 500,000 hybrids around the world by the end of 2010, in company with the Civic Hybrid, the upcoming hybrid Jazz and the Insight (the latter pair share a platform with this coupé).
Platform sharing helps the CR-Z to keen pricing. The base S costs an attractive £16,999, the better-equipped Sport is £17,999 and the GT tested here is priced at £19,999. Question is, has Honda married driver appeal to the frugality and urge the CR-Z’s hybrid system should provide?
The CR-Z generates more power and torque than the Insight hatch. Which it should, given that it has a 112bhp 1.5-litre engine to the Insight’s 87bhp 1.3 litre, and its electric motor, redesigned to cope with the larger powertrain’s combined 128lb ft of torque, produces 14bhp for a total power output of 122bhp.
The electric motor generates its 58lb ft torque peak at just 1000rpm; it strengthens acceleration in the same way as a supercharger, Honda says, to produce an unusually flat torque curve. The CR-Z’s 1.5-litre petrol engine is a VTEC unit derived from the US-market Fit (aka Jazz), but here it’s configured to allow one intake valve to be deactivated at low revs for more fuel-saving swirl. And the Insight’s CVT transmission has been discarded in favour of a modified Civic six-speed manual ’box, with a short-throw shift.
The CR-Z’s core is based on the Insight and the yet-to-be-seen hybrid Jazz; its platform is identical from the forward floor section forward. The rear differs because 115mm has been chopped from the wheelbase to create a car considerably shorter than the Insight. It’s usefully lower too (the roof drops by 33mm) and wider, with a track that’s broader by 20mm at the front and 25mm at the rear. All of this improves stability, as does a centre of gravity further lowered by the battery’s location beneath the boot floor.
Enhanced dynamic credentials are also promised by a body that’s more rigid than the Insight’s. Indeed, its stiffness is virtually the same as the Civic Type R’s, thanks to fewer body openings and some buttressing at the rear. That partly explains its weight of 1185kg, which is not vastly less than the 1240kg of the bigger Insight.
The suspension (MacPherson struts at the front, torsion beam at the rear) is essentially the same as the Insight’s, but the front lower arms are forged from aluminium rather than steel, cutting four kilos from the unsprung mass as well as improving their rigidity, and the H-section torsion beam’s trailing arms are strengthened.
Dampers, springs and anti-roll bars are recalibrated, while the duty capacity of the steering’s electric motor is 30 per cent greater to suit the CR-Z’s stiffer shell, quicker rack and more enthusiastic inputs from the driver.
On The Road
This is not a high-performance coupé, although it’s brisk enough to be fun, especially if you engage the Sport button. This not only changes the characteristics of the hybrid drive by serving more torque from the electric motor, but also sharpens the throttle and increases steering effort.
In this mode the Honda scores a 9.1sec 0-60mph time, bettering the VW Scirocco TDI, if not the 2.0 TDI Audi TT, which hits 60mph in 7.7sec. The Honda feels peppy and no more than that, although it is intriguing to feel the strength of the electric motor’s contribution at around 1500rpm.
It’s also present at higher revs, an effect you’ll notice as much by its absence when the nickel-metal hydride battery is depleted as you do when it’s on full assist.
The entertainment value is heightened by a tuned exhaust that generates lightly encouraging noises, and the usual hard induction hum of a hard-working Honda engine. It can sound a little frantic when you’re in a hurry, though it’s not unpleasant.
Allowing yourself to indulge the Sport mode is difficult with so much eco symbolism in the car. As well as the econometer and (if you’re not in Sport) the changing hues of the tacho, there’s a shift light to admonish you. Better to relax a bit, and grow plants. You can do this in either the Normal or Eco modes; visual rewards are provided by the appearance of leaves in a section of the instrument pack. These eventually grow into a flower if you continue to drive economically.
All of which adds to the pleasure of driving the CR-Z, besides improving economy by up to 10 per cent if you respond to this electronic coaching. Standard stop-start helps too – and the CR-Z’s starter-generator electric motor serves impressively smooth restarts.
In the real world the Honda achieved 43.1mpg, which is good for a petrol-engined car, but not so special considering its size, accommodation and weight; the Audi TT 2.0 TDI manages 48mpg, for example, while the much faster 208bhp Scirocco TSI GT petrol is not so far off, at 39mpg.
As with other hybrids, then, the fuel consumption of an equivalent diesel is only just achieved, and with considerable extra complication. But a petrol engine’s NOx and particulate emissions will be usefully lower.
The good news first: the CR-Z handles with a great deal more enthusiasm than the Insight. It changes direction with zeal, rolls very little, musters decent body control and is pretty good fun on a B-road.
Yet something of the Insight’s inert chassis character underpins this experience, so the CR-Z fails to produce the kind of enthusiasm that made the second-gen CR-X such fun. That’s partly down to the steering, which, despite being a lot more direct, precise and sportingly weighted, still talks to you through a reaction-dulled veil of electric assistance.
The chassis’s mild directional torpor also contributes to this feeling, to produce a car that’s a bit bland when it comes to charging curves. Yet that changes, and quite considerably, if you find some wide, open bends and dare to tackle them fast enough to make the back end react. Some of that liveliness could do with appearing at lower speeds to make more of a dynamic entertainer of this car.
Which isn’t to say that it’s dull. The eager sound of the engine, that low driving position, the electric motor’s thrust, a quick-snicking gearchange and good brake feel all provide the right signals. But this car does not better the Mini Cooper that Honda cites as a dynamic target, and certainly not the Lotus Elise that it also mentions as an inspiration.
Curiously, the CR-Z rides better than the softer Insight. The suspension isn’t so crashy over harsh bumps, it’s more composed through corners and doesn’t pitch as much. It can turn oddly bouncy on a badly surfaced B- road, although the dampers keep the bounces to a staccato rather than a swell. Refinement in other directions is acceptable rather than exceptional; the gradual build-up of wind and road noise is noticeable at higher speeds, although the petrol engine quietens down effectively at a cruise.
The CR-Z’s cabin is as intriguing as the exterior, especially once you’ve turned on the ignition, which electrifies a colourful 3D instrument pack. As with the Insight, the colour of this display blends from blue to green if you drive more economically, while in Sport the illuminations turn red.
Minor instrumentation includes an ‘eco-drive bar’, indicating whether you’re drawing current from the battery or regenerating it, an econometer, a fuel gauge and an energy path display, as well as the usual journey statistics. You can also recall the average fuel consumption over your last three trips.
Add in a gearchange shift light and the ‘leaves’ which reward economical driving, and there’s plenty to divert beyond the normal driving. Clusters of minor switches flank the steering column to complete a busy confection of controls and readouts that are nevertheless reasonably easy to use.
You sit lower than you do aboard an Insight, but there is still decent room for two in every direction. The same can’t be said of the rear seats, which are barely worthy of the term. This confined space is best used for luggage. The boot is fairly big, at 225 litres with the rear seats up, but much space is lost to a foam tool tray (there’s no spare wheel) beneath the floor.
Though a £20k car in GT trim, the base CR-Z S’s £16,999 price makes it look like a bargain against admittedly roomier, faster and better-finished models like the Audi TT, which starts at £24,435. However, a base Mini Cooper D is over £1500 less.
For the Sport’s additional £1000 you get ambient lighting, alloy pedals, cruise control, a multi-function wheel, a 240W stereo and parking sensors, while the GT tested here costs another £2000 but adds leather heated seats, xenons, auto lights and wipers, a glass roof and the option of sat-nav. Running costs ought to be low, not least because residuals should be high.