First Drive: Honda CR-Z

First Drive: Honda CR-Z

“It doesn’t know what it’s trying to be, what’s it meant to be? Too schizophrenic for me.” These are the words of a fellow scribe who has also just spent the last 90 minutes in the East Midlands countryside driving Honda’s new hybrid offering – the CR-Z.

I personally don’t agree with this assessment, though even Honda themselves admit there’s no real competitor to its Honda Insight successor. Nevertheless, curious and intrigued by a car whose chassis designer claimed the Elise partly inspired the CR-Z, I popped along a week ahead of its UK launch to see what all the hype was about.


Honda CR-Z

Since Honda showed the CR-Z Concept in 2007, a red hot public response saw them rush the car from concept to reality and four years on we finally get to drive it. Dubbed proudly by the Japanese marque as “the world’s first sporty hybrid”, there’s no denying that the wedged shape appearance of the CR-Z is eye-catching and unique.

The big marketing point of the car though is that it’s a hybrid via a petrol-electric combination. A 112bhp 1.5 litre i-VTEC motor (lifted from the US Honda Jazz) is mated to a 13.5bhp electric motor to give a combined 122bhp when the two are working simultaneously. Honda has branded this technology as Integrated Motor Assist (IMA), but for all intents and purposes it just means hybrid. The engine also features changes to the valve timing to allow for one intake valve to be deactivated at lower speeds which Honda claims creates and additional swirl effect for faster combination and higher exhaust gas circulation. Or in simple speak, better fuel consumption and fewer emissions.

On the topic of emissions, the CR-Z puts out 117g/km of CO2 and on a combined cycle should achieve 56.5mpg. Honda admits that whilst they are by no means bad figures, they don’t leap off the page in the context of hybrids. One would imagine most potential customers would be sold on the fact the CR-Z is heavily branded as a hybrid and the feel good factor that this generates, rather than the underlying ‘detail’ of precisely how green it is. Honda is targeting the CR-Z at 25-35 year old urban based professionals, so it’s up to them to find the CR-Z something they can agree on both stylistically and philosophically.


Honda CR-Zs ready to go

From the first moment we saw the CR-Z it definitely fitted the description “eye catching”. Personally I’m a big fan of the shape from all angles. It looks mean and purposeful without being too aggressive and going outside of Honda’s remit of providing sensible cars for sensible people.

One of the most notable features of the car is a shallow split-roof that gives a flat appearance to the CR-Z. It looks even better in reality and one wonders about the cost of mass producing such a sculpted design – as with Peugeot’s RCZ, so hats off to Honda for getting this in a production car priced under £20,000. Elsewhere there are huge cuts into the front of the car to give it an aggressive look, with the steeply angled back front windscreen adding to the sporty feel of the CR-Z.

The CR-Z sits on 16” wheels which help accentuate its tough and sporty appearance and there are plenty of other neat finishes to the final design, such as the discreet door handles that don’t spoil the lines and classy daylight LED running lights – all touches usually seen on much more expensive cars.


Striking neon dashboard

The first thing you notice when sat behind the wheel of the CR-Z is the neon glowing dashboard, jam packed with digitally presented information about the car’s present state. It’s all neatly laid out and not confusing at all, allowing you to focus on the driving instead of learning the various ergonomics. To your right by the door handle are three buttons – Sport, Normal and Econ. They’re all pretty self explanatory, with Econ mode leaning earlier on the battery at lower speeds, whilst Sport noticeably tightens up the steering and sharpens throttle response, for when you fancy making brisk progress. Another nice touch is a glowing halo ring around the digital speedometer that changes colour from blue to red the harder you squeeze the right pedal.

In the GT model we tested you get leather seats that are reasonably sporty – they hug your hips and ribcage more than a standard no-frills car but equally not like the full wraparound experience you get from an Impreza or Evo, so just right for the market the CR-Z is after. A large SatNav dominates the central area and whilst not as pretty graphically as a TomTom, it’s reliable and will do the job for most customers without issue.

The CR-Z interior

Another immediate thought when sat in the car is the sheer wealth of buttons on display, which could be overwhelming for some. It doesn’t ruin the get-in-and-go experience, but it could feel cluttered to some, especially around the steering wheel and dashboard area where one can’t help but think buttons like “KPH/MPH” would be best toggled as a software rather than button hardware option.

Now to one major issue with the CR-Z. It’s been marketed as a 2+2 but I’d have to say even Ronnie Corbett would be asking for the driver to push his seat forward a little. There really is no room whatsoever for anyone in the rear despite the presence of seats. Whilst this isn’t a complaint at Honda – most 2+2s are anything but – perhaps it would have been best to make the EU CR-Z a pure 2-seater outright with more luggage space like it has in the US.

Sporty leather seats come with the GT model

Conversely, up front the seats are very low slung which adds to the sporting feel and as someone who is 6”4, I can confirm that despite the shallow roofline and wedge shape of the car, there is excellent headroom available inside in the cabin.

So what’s it like to drive?

On The Road

As stated, I had 90 minutes in the CR-Z on a variety of roads that allowed me to take in pretty much every environment you would encounter in the life of such a car – pottering around towns and villages, motorways, open A-roads a couple of tricky B-roads. Unfortunately with it being a very warm day, coupled to the fact it’s a bank holiday weekend here in the UK, every man and his dog was on the roads which put a dampener somewhat on opportunities to fully stretch the CR-Z’s legs. In any case I still gained a pretty good insight into what the CR-Z is all about.

The Honda CR-Z is a neutrally balanced delight on the open road

I’ll cut to what most of you will be interested in – how it drives. As I said earlier, you sit extremely low down in the CR-Z in a position more reminiscent of a sports car than a traditional hatch back. In conjunction with the very short-throw six-speed manual, you really feel like you’re behind something with a lot of kick before you even turn the key. This may sound odd, but getting into the CR-Z reminds me of firing up an Aston Martin DB9 – you insert a key and then push a huge engine start button, followed shortly by witnessing a pretty dashboard run through its system launch checks. Sadly – and rather obviously – once fired up the aural qualities of the CR-Z don’t quite match the thunder of the DB9…

Honda said that the exhaust has been fettled to provide a sportier note, though in reality the noise made no lasting impression on me either positively or negatively, it just sounded like a conventional VTEC and therefore better than any other 4-cylinder hybrid on the market.

Choose from Econ, Normal and Sport

I spent most of my time with the car driving in Normal mode, although Sport was soon selected once on the twisty stuff. The CR-Z is happy to cruise along in any gear meaning that mpg can happily float between 50 and 60 during a regular cruise without any issue. Interested in whether its sporty looks are matched by sporty performance, I pushed the nose of the CR-Z as hard as I could on some of the larger roundabouts and was rewarded by a distinct lack of understeer despite plenty of provocation. With Honda aiming the CR-Z at those looking for sporty looks but with benign handling, this will be a re-assuring trait.

Despite only putting out a combined 122bhp from the CR-Z’s two power sources, I found myself going far faster than I first thought would be possible which is testament of the smoothness and effectiveness of the IMA technology. Honda’s VTEC is known to need plenty of revs to perform well but with the assistance of the electric motor at low revs, there is a strong run of torque throughout the entire rev range. 60mph seems to arrive far more quickly than the quoted 10 seconds and I was impressed at how strongly it continued the pull thereafter. You still have to make sure you are in exactly the right gear when attempting to overtake – the electric motor isn’t strong enough to allow you to just put your foot down in any gear and sail on by.

The long glass roof - pretty but provides viewing issues

Whilst I was enjoying myself in Sport mode, comfortably keeping up with an enthusiastic Peugeot 206 GTi driver in the corners, one thing kept nagging me throughout the drive. The view out of the back of the CR-Z, or rather the lack of it, is a real hindrance in the daily usage of Honda’s new hybrid coupe. Because of the lovely roof structure being predominantly glass, the Honda engineers have fitted a beam through the centre across the back to strengthen the chassis. This is fine from an engineering and safety point of view, but comes at the considerable expense of rear vision. The problem is exacerbated further by the narrowness of the rear window, meaning you end up feeling like you’re peering through two letter boxes rather than ideally one large window.

Unfortunately with merely 122bhp, the CR-Z isn’t quick enough to this ignore issue with such a quipped cliché like “Well, it’s fast enough that you’ll never need to look in your mirrors.” I’m all for extra unique visual touches, but not to the detriment of the fundamental ability to drive safely.

Another issue crops up when planning the overtake, this time concerning the CR-Z’s side vision. Having selected the correct gear and matched the revs for the planned overtake, I did my usual glance in the rear view mirror (seeing those two letter boxes again), then right hand mirror and then shoulder check. The problem is when I went to check over my shoulder I couldn’t see a thing due to width of the B pillar. With this issue and the aforementioned rear view problems, the CR-Z is almost like driving a van at times so you have to become far more reliant on your side-mirrors.

Should I Buy One?

This is a difficult decision and will probably come down to emotion over logic. There’s no doubting the CR-Z is a striking looking car, particularly as a hybrid where its eco-competitors have all tended to choose function over form.

I thoroughly enjoyed the low seating position, easy selection of the three engine modes and how the six speed gearbox is fun to use, regardless of the type of journey. Even when I tried to push hard for half a minute – before traffic halted me – the battery still had plenty of charge thanks to the regeneration of power via the braking system, so you’d always be able to take advantage of the technology in the car unless you were driving like an idiot without braking for a long time. With the suspension adequately mopping up the myriad potholes on British roads without issue, the experience of driving is an enjoyable one in the CR-Z.

The narrow letterbox look to the rear window

As much as I love driving briskly, I can’t get over the lack of vision afforded rearwards or to my sides. I could probably tolerate just one area being poor but losing 180-degrees is far too much of a blind spot for me and makes for nervous overtaking and lane changing. Another gripe is that by building such a futuristic looking dashboard, the rest of the interior looks decidedly dull by comparison – with too much cheap plastic on show. It’s a shame really as it cheapens the look of what is externally a very classy looking car.

Honda may also have a problem to face shortly with London Mayor Boris Johnson yesterday announcing plans to scrap the “all Hybrids may enter the Congestion Zone” free policy to instead be only valid for those putting out less than 100g CO2 per km, which would rule out the CR-Z by 17g/km.

I was told Honda plan to sell 3,500 CR-Zs per year and I’d be confident that they will achieve this, especially since when the CR-Z was launched in February in Japan it sold 10,000 cars in just one month. I’d recommend the Sport version (£17,999) instead of the GT which is the middle of the three available models, which has pretty much all of the toys fitted on the GT (bar leather seats, SatNav and a couple of other tidbits) but for £2,000 less. You could argue that a diesel BMW 1 series would be a better buy in terms of economy but then it may fall down on looks or you may not be after a RWD car. This argument could run again with a Mini, eventually it all comes down to personal taste. Get an CR-Z though and you’ll have something truly unique and for some that, that will be very appealing in a world full of German hatches.

Honda CR-Z - a hit in Japan, but will it hit it off in Europe?

I’d agree with Honda that it’s difficult to classify the CR-Z but I wouldn’t say it was schizophrenic. For some it’d be the perfect car, marrying style and a green conscience and for that reason I predict it will be a success. Just be sure to take a test drive first to see whether you like the look of what you both can and can’t see.