Published on Saturday 19 April 2014 15:31
Ten Second Review
Honda's improved smarter, more powerful CR-Z is an affordably-priced livewire sports coupe that, rather uniquely, uses hybrid power for fun as well as frugality. Sensible, it seems, can also be sporty.
Do environmentally-friendly vehicles really have to forgo any semblance of excitement? You might think that - but Honda doesn't. For proof, they delivered us this car in 2010, the little CR-Z sports coupe, a hybrid, we were told, that people without hemp sandals and a lentil-based diet might want to drive.
On paper, it was based on the same petrol/electric IMA technology that brought us this Japanese maker's very first attempt at hybrid coupe motoring, the stodgy, faintly futuristic and thoroughly odd first generation Insight model of 1999. But in reality, the creators of this car were inspired by a far more appealing Honda design, the brilliant little CR-X sports coupe of the 1980s. That car was - and still is - one of more favourite small, affordable sportscars, perfect for its era, just as this one is today. And this CR-Z echoes more than just its predecessor's looks, with fun as high a priority as frugality, saving the future of enthusiast motoring at the same time as saving the planet.
And doing so with a little extra zip in the improved, more powerful revised version we're going to look at here, launched at the very end of 2012 to try and revitalise sales in the face of increasing small coupe segment competition. Smarter to look at and still fiendishly smart beneath the bonnet, it's certainly an unusual choice. But one you might enjoy making? Let's find out.
Just how much fun is it really possible to have with only 1.5-litres of engine beneath the bonnet, a petrol powerplant lacking either turbocharging or supercharging to wake it up? Quite a lot as it happens. For one thing, this unit does have an extra ingredient that gives it a bit of extra zip - namely an electric motor that sits between the engine and the gearbox and throws in an extra 20PS when required to boost total power to 136PS.
At the wheel, the really neat bit is this Honda's 3-Mode Drive System. This is basically a way of adapting the IMA hybrid technology according to driver preferences via 'Sport', 'Normal' and 'Econ' modes selected through rocker switches adjacent to the steering wheel. Selecting 'Sport' not only changes the instrument hue to red to get you in the mood but also delivers more torque from the electric motor (there's now 190Nm of it) at the same time as sharpening both throttle and steering response. You'll need it if you're to get close to Honda's claimed 0-62mph sprint time of just over 9 seconds (around half a second quicker than the original version of this car), reached en route to an unchanged top speed of 124mph.
To achieve that mind you, you're going to need to make liberal use of the 'S+' 'Plus Sport' button on the steering wheel, which is probably the most important extra feature added to this improved first generation model. It'll only work if the battery - now new-tech Lithium Ion rather than old-tech Nickel-metal hydride - is more than 50% charged, offering up a useful extra electric power boost for up to ten seconds that may be just the thing to get you past irritating dawdlers and heavy artics. And back to having fun.
Design and Build
The CR-Z looks exactly like a Honda sportscar should, its wedgy profile and chopped-back tail showing us precisely what an Eighties CR-X coupe would look like if it were modernised for a very different world. Smartening tweaks to this improved model include revisions to the front bumper and grille, while at the rear, there's a more aerodynamic diffuser design. The interior is almost exactly as before, apart from the addition of a prominent 'S+' button on the steering wheel for extra acceleration when you need it. But then, vast changes weren't really needed here. Yes, it would be nice to see the cabin built from higher quality soft touch furnishings, but then Honda designers are rather good at building great cabins from pretty average materials: and this is a great cabin. You sit in big, winged sports seats and, as in almost every Honda, you're perfectly placed to feel totally at one with the car and engage with an array of space-age hi-tech instruments that could have been lifted out of the Starship Enterprise.
Back seat accommodation is for small children only, unless you've some particularly accommodating friends who need a lift home from the pub. The boot's reasonable though, with 225-litres on offer despite the necessarily raised height of the floor to accommodate the new lithium Ion batteries beneath. Fold down the rear seats and you can extend this to 401-litres, enough for a couple of suitcases or two golfbags.
Market and Model
Original pricing for this CR-Z started from around £17,000 when it was first launched, but since then, Honda has reduced the range of models on offer to only the two plushest 'Sport' and 'GT' variants. Which means that you'll need a budget of around £21,000 for the 'Sport' and around £23,000 for the 'GT' with its leather trim and larger 17-inch wheels.
Without realistic sporty hybrid competition, Honda feel confident that this car remains in a class of its own but potential buyers who aren't just considering it as a hybrid will also have their eye on other frugally-minded yet sporty coupes. If you're looking at the 'Sport' model, then a MINI Coupe Cooper D would save you a little and be slightly cleaner and more economic - but it would be noisier and run on pricier black pump fuel. The same objections apply to the two most obvious affordable-to-run small coupe rivals you'd pitch against the top 'GT' model, Peugeot's RCZ HDi and Volkswagen's Scirocco 2.0 TDI. And all this is assuming that you are comparing this car to small affordable coupes, rather than the many diesel hot hatches you'll find in the same kind of price bracket.
Whichever CR-Z you choose, you should find it to be decently equipped. In line with the high-tech feel of the car, even the basic model gets features like heated mirrors, daytime running lights, climate control, Honda's Vehicle Stability Assist technology and six airbags. At the very top of the range, there's a hands free telephone kit, a panoramic glass roof, xenon headlights, heated seats and full leather trim.
Cost of Ownership
Enthusiastic drivers may find it hard to believe that there's almost as much satisfaction to be had in eco-friendly driving as there is at full chat, but that's precisely Honda's thinking with this car. If the traffic flow won't let you switch to 'Sport', then simply flip back to 'Economy' or 'Normal' and grow your plants. I'd better explain. Keep the instrument glow to green rather than blue by feathering the throttle, watching the econometer and obeying the gearshift light and you're rewarded with the appearance of 'leaves' in a section of the instrument pack. These eventually grow into a flower if you continue to drive frugally, watching the gauge that tells you how much the system is charging the battery or taking from it.
Get all this right and there's the potential to achieve up to 56.5mpg on the combined cycle, with emissions of CO2 measured at 117g/km. That's in the Sport model. Go for the top-spec GT with its larger 17-inch wheels and those figures drop to 54.3mpg and 122g/km. In both cases, a stop/start system maximises efficiency by cutting the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. A trip computer enables you to continually gauge how close you're getting to these figures by enabling you to recall the average fuel consumption over your last three trips, results that may not be quite as good as you could have got from a comparable sporty diesel rival.
This remains a fascinating car, a futuristic attempt to fuse frugality with a healthy helping of sheer fun. For the money of course, there are more dynamic and powerful sportscars and hot hatches. And naturally, there are more efficient hybrids. But there's nothing else that enables you to bring the two extremes together with such a guilt-free glow.
The most recent changes to this car are welcome, especially the extra power which has provided a spark it previously lacked. But its basic appeal hasn't changed. This is a design that, at a stroke, makes you feel more hopeful about the future of motoring. And about Honda's credentials for remaining at the forefront of cutting edge technology. Some won't get it. Others will fail to see the point. But if speed isn't everything, you've a passion for fast, fun cars and you're one of those who thinks outside the box, then I think you'll love it.