Join Date: Feb 2004
First Drive: 2011 Honda CR-Z
First Drive: 2011 Honda CR-Z
The Enthusiast's Hybrid
/ By Peter Lyon
/ Photography by Yo****ada Moro
Honda's once-proud sporting image has taken a beating lately. Its last foray into Formula 1 was a disaster, made even more embarrassing by the fact its former team swept the championship the year after it pulled out -- with Mercedes engines. The on-again, off-again NSX supercar program is now truly dead, along with the iconic S2000, both killed in favor of channeling resources toward good, clean family transport like the Fit, Civic and CR-V. But now an unlikely hybrid sports coupe with a 6-speed manual gearbox -- a world first for a hybrid drivetrain -- is set to inject some passion back into Honda's performance heritage. It's called the CR-Z.
The production CR-Z's exterior is nowhere near as taut and tight as that of the concept Honda revealed at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, which sent the blogosphere into a frenzy of anticipation: Was Honda bringing back the CR-X? While the production CR-Z lacks some of the muscularity of the concept, it still looks like nothing else on the road; that large, imposing grille and upslanting headlights start a design motif that finishes with a bold swish for a C-pillar and a sculptured rear deck.
Many readers will remember the wedge-shaped CR-X of the early 80s and see some strategic resemblances. But as project leader Norio Tomobe pointed out at our drive session: "We were not aiming for a modern day CR-X. We wanted to create a totally new type of hybrid sports coupe that would take us into a more discerning and environmentally-conscious 21st century. The fact that's it's a hybrid just adds another intriguing dimension to the sporty mix. If it reminds you of the CR-X then that's purely coincidental."
Built on a slightly shorter, but wider, Insight platform, the CR-Z's wheelbase has been clipped 4.5 in compared with the Insight. It's also 1.2 in lower, and 97 lbs lighter. It seems much more low-slung when you slip into the driver's seat, because the H-point is closer to the floor. There's plenty of headroom for driver's up to 6 ft 5 in, but forget the rear seats, which would struggle to accommodate a 12 year old. Flatten the rear seats and you create 14.1 cubic feet of luggage space, enough for a couple of suitcases, or two golf bags.
At first look, interior trim and quality seems about one and a half levels above that of the Insight's, and the instrumentation boasts more design flair. The CR-Z's dash is well set out, superbly illuminated and intuitive.
Under the hood is the 1.5-liter i-VTEC engine from the Fit, and mated to a revised 6-speed manual transmission lifted out of the European-spec 1.8-liter Civic. The internal combustion engine delivers 112 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 107 pound-feet of torque at 4800 rpm; the CR-Z's brushless DC electric motor -- positioned in place of the flywheel, and powered by nickel metal hydride batteries -- generates 14 horsepower at 1500 rpm and 57 pound-feet at 1000 rpm. Through a complex calculation, which we won't go into here, Honda claims the combined power output of the CR-Z's hybrid system is 122 horsepower at 6000 rpm while combined torque is 128 pound-feet at 1500 rpm.
"Given the 1.5-liter's greater torque we had to redesign the IMA system and gearbox to cope," explains Tomobe. But to experience the full force of this beefy bottom end grunt, Tomobe suggests we first select 'sports mode' from the car's new dash-mounted, 3-mode drive system switches. In sports mode, throttle response mapping is changed, and the electric motor acts as a kind of mild supercharger when accelerating, Tomobe says. The other modes -- 'Normal' and 'Econ' modes -- retard throttle response to reduce fuel consumption and lower emissions.
With world-beating manual gearboxes like those in the S2000, NSX and Civic Type R, the CR-Z's stick shift has a lot to live up to. And thanks to some inspired revision on the European Civic's transmission, the six-speed delivers deliciously short throws and a firm, precise linkage action. For the North American market, Honda will also offer a seven-speed continuously variable transmission (CVT), adapted from the Fit's CVT unit. The CVT requires the engine's torque output to be dropped to 123 pound-feet.
While the old CR-X twin cams were fairly rev-happy, the first thing you notice is the CR-Z's bottom end grunt. With maximum torque on tap from just 1500 rpm, the coupe jumps from rest and reaches 60 mph in 9 seconds flat. Keep the engine spinning between 4000 and 6000 rpm, and the CR-Z will reward any right boot extension, while the specially tuned throatier exhaust adds to this all new sporty hybrid experience. But it will also accelerate strongly from as low as 2000 rpm on an uphill grade thanks to the motor's 'assistance.'
'Econ' mode, which effectively restricts throttle action, enables the car to reach 58 mpg, but we found ourselves leaving it in sports mode as it offers quicker response at both low and high speeds and suits the sporty characteristics of this car down to a tee. Honda claims an average of 48.5 mpg for Japanese spec CR-Zs; U.S.-spec manual cars are expected to achieve an EPA rating of 31/37 mpg city/highway, while the CVT is expected to achieve 37/38 mpg. In global eco-performance car terms, those mileage numbers are a little disappointing, frankly: For example, the bigger, heavier, more powerful, diesel powered VW Golf GTD will deliver 32 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway on the European driving cycle, and is about a full second faster to 60 mph.
The good news for enthusiast drivers is that while the Insight is just plain harsh, the CR-Z is firm but compliant. Enhanced rigidity throughout the body structure and significant revisions to the torsion bar setup on the rear suspension help explain why the car handles and rides much better. Honda has paid special attention to the CR-Z's steering, too. Tomobe had a secret benchmark, the steering of his own BMW 325i Coupe, and the revised EPS steering is therefore superbly weighted and delivers excellent feel.
Honda engineers also required special editions of Bridgestone's Potenza R050 or Yokohama's Advan A10, co-developed with both tiremakers. Tomobe says his handling evaluation team had Keiichi 'Drift King' Tsuchiya do some back to back laps in three sets of tires -- eco tires, high performance gumballs, and the special CR-Z rubber -- with Tsuchiya concluding that the latter type offer the best combination of grip, economy and low noise levels.
While the Insight employs a system that switches between hydraulic and regenerative braking, the CR-Z's main braking system is hydraulic. "We use a full hydraulic brake system that employs the regenerative braking only as an 'assist mechanism'," says Tomobe. Unlike the current crop of hybrids, which deliver a somewhat synthetic feel, the CR-Z offers sure-footed stopping power every time.
Norio Tomobe acknowledges that the CR-Z is a bold step into an uncertain market. But he is convinced Honda has launched the hybrid coupe at the right time. With its bold looks, high quality, and genuine driver appeal, the CR-Z could stimulate interest in hybrids among customers who view the great gas mileage the technology delivers as a useful side benefit, and not simply the reason for buying the car in the first place. Oh, and watch out for the high performance Mugen version in coming in 2011.