DRIVEN: HONDA CR-Z
Has Honda really made the world's first genuinely sporty hybrid?
I really want to like the Honda CR-Z. Whatever you think of hybrids (and I can think of plenty of unpublishable but appropriate adjectives), they are here to stay. So if we have to put up with their existence, then making them sporty can be no bad thing.
Question is: can you really make a truly fun hybrid, or is the CR-Z too much of a compromise, a car that's neither sporty enough nor green enough?
Honda is certainly keen to talk up the CR-Z's sporting CV. "During the development of the CR-Z the Lotus Elise kept on inspiring us throughout the whole development process", says Terukazu Torikai, the CR-Z's chief chassis engineer. That's big talk.
Still, despite the Norfolk-sourced inspiration, Torikai-san says the CR-Z is really aiming at slightly less extreme rivals. "The base concept of this car is the fun-to-drive," he says. "We therefore wanted to realise the agile handling of the Mini and easy to drive performance for daily use."
But the CR-Z's development team are naturally going to be biased - we're not going to just take their word on the CR-Z's abilities as Gospel. Which is why I find myself at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport - to get the PH-eye view on the CR-Z. Is it indeed a Lotus-inspired Mini-beating hybrid coupe or, er, something else?
Visually the CR-Z seems to set the right tones, to these eyes at least. The bold nose has an aggression to it that telegraphs its sporting intent, while the wedgy profile will put those with long memories in mind of the chunky, nippy and well-liked 1980s CR-X. It can look a little gawky from some angles, though - whether you can forgive that is the key to whether you will like the way it looks.
The CR-Z's on-paper credentials are definitely a bit mixed, however. There's a six-speed manual gearbox (a first for a hybrid - although the original 1999 Honda Insight hybrid had a five-speed manual), which is a good thing, as is the relatively light 1198kg kerb weight.
Less exciting on paper is the 122bhp power output engine, which comes from a combination of a 113bhp 1.5-litre four-pot and a 14bhp electric motor, both driving the front wheels. This translates to a 0-62mph time of 9.9secs (10.1secs if you go for the equipment-laden top-spec version) and a top speed of 124mph - the CR-Z is not a car that is going to set the Tarmac alight.
On the road the CR-Z begins impressively. The gearchange is a typically light, accurate and direct Honda shift, while the zippy engine provides a pleasingly sharp throttle response, especially with the 'sport' mode engaged (the usage of which also tweaks the exhaust for a sportier note and firms up the electric power steering). The 6300rpm red line is disappointingly low for a company famed for its revvy motors, but the extra shove of low-down torque (available from 1500rpm) that the electric motor provides helps to make up for the absence of a stratospheric top end.
Find a decent bend or two (which we managed to do once or twice on our Dutch drive - the Swiss Alps the Netherlands is not), and the CR-Z does reveal a light-on-its-toes agility and an essentially neutral, balanced chassis. Perhaps there's something in this Elise inspiration, although the accurate but numb electronic power steering is hardly the stuff of Lotus dreams.
Push on beyond the grip limits of the modest 195/55 R16 tyres with the ESP off, however, and you'll soon experience pretty terminal understeer. Keep the electronics working, though, and the understeer is unobtrusively kept in check.
The CR-Z's brain works equally hard to keep the brakes controlled, too. A perennial problem with hybrids is how to effectively remove the electric power from the driveline, with the result that brake feel is often an unpredictable affair. The CR-Z deals with this by constantly monitoring braking pressure from both the pedal and the engine and creating a braking curve of how the driver will expect to stop. The result is a predictable, if wooden brake pedal.
The CR-Z is so close to being a modern day Ford Puma with a green twist that it hurts - a lively chassis coupled to a lively if not super-fast motor. Ultimately, though, the hybrid drivetrain forces the CR-Z to make too many compromises. Oh, and at £20k for the top-end model and £17k for the cheapest version it's hardly the bargain of the century either. Like I said, I really want to like this car. It just won't let me.
Article Found At: PistonHeads Headlines