Back in 1999, Honda gave birth to a brand new sector in the United States, bringing the Insight hybrid on American soil. It was the beginning of a new era, pretty much continued by new products that had one major thing in common: a hybrid powertrain. All of them were mostly focused on the same criteria: efficiency and low emissions, while paying less attention to other important things, such as exterior design or performance.
The Insight was in its initial form a two-seater hybrid hatchback, but sales failed to reach expectations, barely amounting to 17,020 units since its debut. The Insight however wasn't exactly the best ride on Earth and it was often considered underpowered, slow, uncomfortable and ugly. Things were significantly changed once the Japanese company rolled out the second generation Insight, with the new version involved in a fierce battle with Toyota's Prius.
But Honda took its green efforts further than the Insight. It rolled out a few other hybrid vehicles, some of them "greener" versions of the current models, including Civic and Accord. But one of the nicest things in Honda's lineup is actually the model it calls a "sport hybrid" coupe, a 2+2 seater that's basically supposed to bring a whole new perspective over the hybrid image.
The first time the CR-Z smiled in front of the cameras was in 2006 when Honda proved that it was pondering a potential sporty hybrid coupe that could be released in the following years. It was called Honda Remix and was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The second interpretation came to be one year later, this time under a new name - Honda Small Hybrid Sports - and on European soil - Geneva Motor Show.
Honda CEO Takeo Fukui took the wraps of the last embryonic concept vehicle in October, 2007 at the Tokyo Auto Show, revealing at the same time that the future model will be called CR-Z (Compact Renaissance Zero). Little was known about the production version, but the Japanese official emphasized that fans must expect a sporty and affordable model.
Finally, the CR-Z stepped on stage dressed in production clothes in the United States at the 2010 North American International Auto Show, with sales first commencing in Japan in February, the same year. The car arrived in Europe after a few months, and is projected to be launched in the United States anytime soon.
Honda says the CR-Z "will change current perceptions of hybrids" and uses all kinds of superlatives to describe it. Exciting, sporty, athletic, confident and unique, the CR-Z is, at least in Honda's paradise, the perfect twist of a modern hybrid and a sportier attitude.
Since we're pretty much used to hearing all kind of marketing material, we wanted to find out for ourselves whether the CR-Z is indeed so special. We thus received an European-spec model priced at around 21,000 Euros (all taxes includes), with the 2+2 seating arrangement in place.
Judging by mere appearances, the CR-Z is probably the best interpretation of a sports hybrid coupe. It has the look of a punchy vehicle, but still wears some parts that makes us think of its ancestors.
Remember the 1980s' CR-X? Well, the CR-Z's design reminds of the front-wheel-drive sports compact car, starting with the split level rear glass hatch and ending with the sloping roof line, also seen on the 1999 Insight and the FCX Clarity. But what really evokes the old coupe is actually its purpose. Launched in 1983, the CR-X was first meant to be an ultra efficient model, as Honda aimed to take the leading position in the EPA fuel economy ratings chart by exceeding the 50 mpg (4.7 l/100km) milestone.
Now, about 27 years later, the same purpose is brought back into spotlights. But the building criteria are pretty much the same, with engineers paying more attention to aerodynamics and exterior design.
The result is thus a sporty coupe that expresses its agility right from the front end through the wide headlights with LED daytime running lights. The one piece grille, the unconventional door handles and the hybrid-like rear side are probably on the top of the "I love" list for most CR-Z fans.
But most of the exterior styling parts have been developed with a second thought in mind: aerodynamics. Basically, almost every part from the outside has its more or less important role in the way the vehicle interacts with the air flow.
For instance, the door mirrors are said to have an "ultra aerodynamic shape" and are the results of intense testing in Honda's labs. The rear end looks the way it looks mostly thanks to the results collected after wind tunnel testings, with the shape of the hatch and the glass area contributing to drag reduction. Last but not least, the rear diffuser, which actually hides the exhaust pipe, is the sole manager of the airflow underneath the car and is made entirely of aluminum.
Climb in and the wow starts. A hybrid is a modern piece of technology so Honda tried to reiterate this as often as possible. And the interior is pretty much the living proof that we're actually dealing with some sort of spaceship.
We'll start with what we liked the most: the dashboard. Most controls are pretty close to the driver, including those belonging to air conditioning or audio. The steering wheel however boasts the same gorgeous design used by Honda starting with the Civic, obviously with a few changes, but relying on the same lines. It holds the most critical controls but also plays a key role in the low driving position.
The instrumentation is just fascinating. It looks beautiful at night and it surely catches the eye during the day. The 3D gauge design works "in collaboration" with the 3-Mode Drive System, meaning that colors will be used depending on the driver's settings. "Sport" driving makes the central gauge red, "Normal" turns it blue, while "ECON" brings the natural green back. The same plant icon seen on the Insight that encourages drivers handle the car in a more economical way is also shown every time you switch to ECON mode.
Sadly, the car's interior, pretty much inspired from the CR-Z Concept, has one major downside. The seats. Actually, the rear ones. The driver's and the front passenger's seat are actually quite comfortable and Honda claims the side bolsters have been specifically optimized for an European-sized person. That being said, the driver's seat has a 50mm range of height settings, while both front seats can be moved back or front for around 240mm.
All these figures actually mean nothing and you'll understand it as soon as you scroll down to this chapter's photo gallery and click on the rear bench photo. The rear space is incredibly limited and it's impossible (and when we say impossible, we really mean it, we've tried it) to fit an adult. Children, probably aged between 5 to 10, might feel comfortable in the rear seats if they're able to face a journey without moving their legs. But this is actually what Honda calls "interior flexibility"...
This leads to another issue: luggage volume. The trunk has a total capacity of 214 liters but, if you agree to fold the rear seats and thus destroy your child's hopes to embark in a CR-Z, you get up to 382 liters.
So, what we have here is the so-called sports hybrid coupe. Who has ever heard of such a thing? A hybrid, designed to be extremely efficient, is now able to make you feel like driving a race car. But does it really manage to live up to expectations?
It's difficult to say if the CR-Z is more appropriate for city driving or longer journeys but, taking into account its hybrid powertrain, we'd be tempted to say that urban cruising is the only place that feels like home for the CR-Z. But we'd be wrong. And you'll understand why in a minute.
Hybrids are usually synonymous with fuel efficiency and low emissions, but Honda tried to do things a bit different this time. Featuring a 1.5-liter engine and a manual transmission, the car was supposed to bring the hybrid concept to a new level, the one where performance meets efficiency under a nice, appealing and sporty design.
Driving the CR-Z on the crowded streets of our city was extremely useful, mostly thanks to its fairly small dimensions and superior handling. And although most people would go for an automatic transmission, the manual configuration is clearly above the average we see in today's automotive industry, providing a lot more control to the driver, regardless if we're talking about eco driving or sportiness.
The driving experience can be different, depending on the selected mode. The difference between ECON and Sport is enormous from the point of view of both efficiency and performance.
In ECON mode, the car is a lot slower and, if you're willing to drive by the Shift Indicator Light (SIL), you might get the fuel consumption figures closer to the official ones. But don't expect a thrilling ride; it's like having your 90-year-old grandpa behind the wheel. Honda says fuel consumption should be around 6.1 l/100km (38.5 mpg) in urban conditions, but we couldn't drop below 7.9 l/100km (29.7 mpg) during a morning rush hour. A thing worth mentioning is that the SIL needs premature shifting, with the sixth gear requested at around 55 to 60 km/h.
But this is not at all a bad thing. It actually emphasizes the engine's flexibility as gear ratios will be entirely different in Sport mode. And so will fuel consumption.
The Sport mode offers a sharper throttle response, but also modifies the behavior of the hybrid system and the power steering assistance. In real conditions, you might feel the car a bit faster than it actually is and the 9.9- second official time required to go from naught to sixty two would seem exaggerated.
It might take a while for the driver to get used to the start-stop system. It automatically idles the engine when not in motion and restarts it after the driver depresses the clutch, looking for first gear. In extreme traffic conditions however, the system is a little annoying and there's no way to disable it, unless driving in Sport mode. Plus, depending on a number of factors, including the current state of the battery, engine idling also turns off air conditioning, seriously affecting comfort, especially during hot days.
Every time you'll get the CR-Z outside the city, you'll release a tiny beast. But only if driven in Sport mode. Otherwise, you'll have to deal with a slow, tortoise like vehicle. The difference between ECON and Sport is really that big. The experience you get when driving the sporty hybrid on the highway thus depends on the driver's options.
Although backed by a number of eco-features, fuel consumption is a bit far from what we expected from a hybrid. With cruise control set to 130 km/h (80.7 mph), on the highway, the on-board computer indicated a not-at-all-impressive 6.6 l/100km (35.6 mpg), while dropping to around 5.7 l/100km (41.2 mpg) on regular country roads.
The so-called ECON Cruise Control plays a key role in the final efficiency figures achieved by the CR-Z. Just like on the Insight cousin, the system removes excessive acceleration when passing over descending hills, by reducing unnecessary throttle openings. This way, the selected speed might vary a little bit, with very slow accelerations or decelerations for minimizing the amount of fuel needed for these two operations. In Sport or Normal modes however, the cruise control function works just like on any other car out there, maintaining the selected speed over the entire journey.
Even if there were people who raised concerns over its stability, especially due to its dimensions, the aerodynamic improvements it received plus the Vehicle Stability Assist
function, maintain a pretty decent control even on the highway. Although there are a few annoying exterior noises, the predominant sound is the one of tires rolling on the road.
Rear interior space and luggage volume are once again two of the most important issues. Addressed to young buyers, he CR-Z forgets completely about rear passengers, so it's impossible to go on a holiday with two people in the back. Trust us, we've tested it. The only way to fit an adult on the rear bench is to actually ask him to lay down and, although it might sound very comfortable, it's not.
Supposing you're just thinking to fold the rear seats and increase cargo space, there's another issue that might ruin your plans. Bulky luggage, regardless if we're talking about a box or a bigger bag, might block the driver's rear view, already pretty limited because of the boot lid architecture.