Honda’s Two-Seat CR-Z Has Lines of a Legend, Heart of a Hybrid

2011 Honda CR-Z EX
The Honda Motor Co. CR-Z hybrid. It has both a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder gas engine and an electric motor, and gets up to 39 miles per gallon on the highway. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

There are a few cars from Honda Motor Co. whose passing I really regret. Models like the low-slung Acura NSX sports car and lithe Legend were mega-cool. Not to mention the CRX, a terrier-sized 1980s hatchback with the heart of a lion.

Rest in peace, fellas.

Honda recently reanimated the ghost of the CRX, dubbed it the CR-Z, and sent it my way for a quasi reunion.

I slide the manual six-speed into third gear, mash on the accelerator and shoot over a crest. Not bad. A two-seater that weighs less than 2,700 pounds, the CR-Z looks like a futuristic CRX, sharing the same basic lines as the legendary Honda. The rear even has the same signature translucent hatch. Sweet.

Almost like seeing an old buddy again. Except that people change, especially when they reach back from beyond the grave.

The CR-Z is no CRX.

First of all, it’s a hybrid. While it comes with a beloved i-VTEC engine -- in this case the 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder found on the Fit eco-box -- it also has an electric motor. The result is a series of trade-offs that dilute the purity of its forebear.

I figure the CR-Z will hit 60 miles per hour in about 8 or 9 seconds -- not particularly quick. Gas mileage is 37 to 39 miles per gallon on the highway, compared with Honda’s Insight hybrid, which gets 43 mpg. Compromises on both sides.

Yet the CR-Z shows the direction that many car companies will travel in an effort to make fun and fast compatible with green and economical.

Sport Hybrid

Honda calls the coupe a sport hybrid, laying claim to a new niche. This is the first small car I’ve driven whose hybrid powertrain isn’t exclusively used for better gas mileage, as in the Insight and Toyota Prius.

Still, the concept of using batteries for added oomph is not unique. BMW and Porsche are using hybrid technology to augment torque and horsepower in the ActiveHybrid 7 and Cayenne Hybrid SUV respectively. Even Ferrari is working on a hybrid.

With a small engine and weight of less than 2,000 pounds, the CRX was fairly eco for its day, getting 33 mpg on the highway. Born in 1984 and living until the early ‘90s, it appealed to teens and 20-somethings. I’d still happily jump in one today.

I wonder if the CR-Z will generate the same excitement. Will 19-year-olds covet one? The price, which starts under $20,000 and tops out with all the amenities, including navigation, for around $24,000, certainly helps.

It is a stylish little thing. Whether you like the forward- tilted shape and snub nose, the CR-Z certainly offers a distinct point of view. Even with cloth seats, the interior is a success, with a funky, tiered front dash and dynamic instrument cluster.

Cubby Hole

No back seats though. Instead there is a plastic cubby hole for storage.

New technologies are tricky. When you’re done admiring the design and actually begin driving, the CR-Z suffers from a rubbery, artificial feel.

As soon as you step on the gas something seems amiss. While acceleration pedals were historically connected by mechanical cables, the CR-Z’s is basically an electronic sensor. The lack of tactile feedback is akin to the auditory difference between a vinyl record and an MP3 file.

This disconnect is further complicated by three driving modes: econ, normal and sport. Depending on your selection, a computer decides how much power it will dole out from the 113-horse gas engine and 13-horse electric motor.

Sleepy Start

Step hard on the gas in econ mode and it seems more a suggestion than an imperative. The powertrain indolently awakens like a sleepy St. Bernard who’s been sampling the cask around his neck.

It should be noted that the EPA figures of 35 city and 39 mpg highway were calculated in normal mode. You’ll likely get better in econ.

On back roads I switched into sport and began shifting gears at the highest revs allowed. Under this type of driving the electric motor’s job is to deliver extra power rather than gas savings.

After 50 miles of hard driving, the computer told me that I’d managed a scant 22.5 mpg. “I bet that’s a record,” muttered a colleague.

I was testing a model with a six-speed manual, the first time I’ve ever seen one on a hybrid. It’s a happy surprise that Honda spent the time and money to develop it. (I recently wrote about the oncoming death of manual transmissions.)

The stick goes a long way to overcoming the computer-like essence of the car. Think of it as an olive branch to purists. Otherwise you can opt for a CVT transmission, similar to the one you’ll find on the Insight. You can still approximate gear changes via paddle shifting, although it’s less fun.

Light Weight

Two other bright spots: braking feel is quite good, without the sponginess of many regenerative systems that use braking energy to replenish batteries. And given its steady steering and relatively light weight, the CR-Z handles decently in the curves. You can throw it around -- almost like an old CRX.

Which makes me wonder: What if Honda had done without the hybrid stuff and simply put in a high-revving (and still pretty green) gas motor from the Honda Civic Si?

That’s a ghost I’m dying to meet.

The 2011 Honda CR-Z at a Glance

Engine: 1.5-liter 4-cylinder and electric motor, with combined 122 horsepower (total hp varies from sum of parts) and 128 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: 6-speed manual or continuous variable transmission.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 9 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 31 city, 37 highway with manual; 35, 39 with CVT.

Price as tested: $24,000.

Best features: Cunning exterior and interior design.

Worst feature: Artificial driving feel.

Target buyer: The sporting tree-lover.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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