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Honda CR-Z review
The hybrid that's supposed to put the fun into environmentally conscious motoring.

Don't believe the hype, Honda's new CR-Z is not the world's first sporting hybrid. That title goes to the original Insight, an aerodynamic hybrid coupé sold in tiny numbers in the Eighties. It lost Honda a packet, but proved that fun and the hybrid were not mutually exclusive bedfellows. So why hasn't it been done since?

That, my dear Holmes, is down to weight, as a hybrid is effectively a car with two motors and a socking battery pack, which blunts performance and athleticism. Sports cars are also used faster and harder than most, so the opportunities to recoup engine braking as electrical current are shorter and more intense, which limits a hybrid's economy.

Yet Honda's parallel Integrated Motor Assist is best suited to peppier cars. It weighs 132lb (60kg) and it's simple; the two-inch-wide electric motor fits between engine and six-speed manual transmission, with the Panasonic nickel-metal hydride battery and power electronics beneath the boot floor. It also leaves the driver in charge, with the electric motor adding its shoulder to the wheels under hard acceleration and at top speed, and acting as a generator in overrun or under braking.

The results are impressive. The 1.5-litre petrol engine delivers 112bhp and 107lb ft and the electric motor adds 13.8bhp and 58lb ft. The four-valve engine gives more oomph than Honda's standard two-valve eco engine, but doesn't have that car's valve-closing feature to reduce pumping losses on overrun and thus increase the charging potential. It does, however, close one of its two inlet valves at idle speeds to improve consumption slightly.

Given Honda's propensity to make engines that work best near the red line, the advantage of the electric motor is that it delivers its torque from very low engine revs. The result is a little two-plus-two coupé that goes from 0-62mph in a briskish 9.9sec, tops out at 124mph and delivers 56.5mpg in the Combined cycle.

Variable pedal pressures have been in the news lately as American Toyota Prius owners begin a class action over brake pedals that varied in required effort in snow and icy conditions. All hybrids potentially suffer from this trait as part of the braking is performed by the generator and when the battery is full, there's nowhere for that power to go.
Previous Honda hybrids have dumped excess current to earth via an air-cooled resistance, but the CR-Z brake system is controlled by software modulating regeneration and friction braking according to an electronic deceleration map. Not brake-by-wire exactly, more brake-feel-by-wire.

The CR-Z also has a version of the new Insight's driver system, with three positions; Sport, Normal and Econ. Sport simultaneously increases steering weight, sharpens the throttle response and allows more of the battery's output to power the car. Econ has softer acceleration and steering and reduces air-conditioning. Normal exists somewhere between the two. To confirm which mode you have selected, the dashboard backlighting changes from red, through blue, to green. There's also Honda's irritating driver-training system with leaf icons that show how feather-footed you are.

Unlike the disappointing Insight, the CR-Z has a pleasant cabin. It's light and airy with the long (and heavy) optional glass sunroof. The rear seats are practical shopping carriers, but unsuitable for humans with the usual quotient of limbs. The boot is reasonably commodious and has a proper luggage cover. The rear seats fold down to make the load space even bigger and there is a modest under-floor space in which to hide valuables.

The dashboard has surface changes, sharp binnacles and a squillion confusing lights and switches. The steering wheel, for example, has 18 switches on it. The UK range has three trim levels; S, Sport and GT with prices starting at about £17,000 rising to £22,179 for a top spec GT model with satellite navigation and metallic paint. Ironically the weight of the glass sunroof, which is standard on the Sport and GT models, means they are slower than the base S model.

There's some pleasingly impractical coupé stuff such as the abysmal rear three-quarter views and, while the front screen is gently curved to increase vision, thick windscreen pillars still obstruct views into tight corners. And like the much missed Eighties CRX coupé from which the CR-Z's coachwork style is derived, the split glass hatchback divides the rear view into road and sky and almost completely obscures the following police car.

Not that you'll be worrying the police over much in the CR-Z, although it feels more sporting than the performance figures suggest. The driveline is strong from the off and in Sport you feel the surge as the electric motor joins in.

The engine likes to rev, but the hybrid system fills the bottom end. The engine is raucous and boomy when used hard. By contrast the gearbox is a smashing unit, with short, sharp shifts and a well-spaced set of ratios. While the stop/start system is refined it managed to cut the engine at a slow coast, which was embarrassing when we subsequently tried to pull away again.

The brake pedal feels wooden and the steering is artificial, but the ride is comfortable and the MacPherson-strut front, twist-beam rear suspension soaks up the bumps. There's too much body roll, however, the rear of the car heaves unpleasantly over long undulations and there's an unpleasant on/off torque reaction to the handling and steering in Sport mode.

While it's sporting by hybrid standards, the CR-Z is hardly the most agile small coupé and the diesel BMW 1-series would eat it alive and be more economical.

Economy is the hybrid's Achillies Heel and outside of suburban areas the CR-Z will not get near to its published economy figures. So in the end, like all hybrids in the UK, the Honda will sell on its exemption to the £8 a day London congestion charge and a nebulous miasma of "greenness".

This is a shame as the CR-Z is a likeable little car which ought to be a more desirable thing in its own right just as the original Insight was.

PRICE/ON SALE from £17,000/July
POWER/TORQUE engine: 112bhp @ 6,100rpm/107lb ft @ 4,800rpm, electric motor 13.8bhp @ 1,500rpm/58lb ft @ 1,000rpm
TOP SPEED 124mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 9.9sec
FUEL ECONOMY (Combined) 56.5mpg
VED BAND C (£30 a year)
VERDICT A worthy attempt to make a more enjoyable hybrid driving experience, which succeeds but still isn't a patch on a good diesel.
ON THE STEREO Kid Charlamagne by Steely Dan
TELEGRAPH RATING Four out of five

Renault Mégane Coupé 1.5 dCi 86 from £17,557
Attractive and spacious with less outright performance than the Honda, but better economy figures, which will stand up better in real-life motoring. Cheaper, but doesn't feel as special and you have to pay the congestion charge.

BMW 118d Coupé from £21,100
An impressive performer, economical and real-world fast, with good residuals, but it costs more to start with.

Used original Honda Insight from £3,500
All-aluminium screamer from the masters of tiny engineering. Great looks and a practical hybrid driveline, although this was strictly a two-seater with a modicum of space for luggage.

Article Found At: Honda CR-Z review - Telegraph
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