Honda's marketing peeps say the new CR-Z is the world's first sporty hybrid. They claim that its stylish looks help it to stand out among other 'green' cars and that it offers huge thrills on the road, thanks to its agile handling and a low driving position. But can we really have our cake and eat it, or is this £17,000 motor all mouth and no ethically sourced trousers?
The CR-Z is a very attractive car. Beauty is, admittedly, in the eye of the beholder, but, judging by the number of beholders fixing their eyes on the CR-Z during our time with it, it's fair to say it's a real looker. Its design harks back to the seminal Honda CR-X hatchback of the 1980s. It sports the same shallow roof line, split-level rear glass hatch, and distinctive wedge-shaped profile, all of which give it the look of a performance-focused coupé .
The CR-Z is especially appealing from the front, thanks to its muscular bonnet, sinister Audi-style LED day-running headlamps, and a front air intake that's big enough to swallow a small horse. The rear isn't bad-looking either, although it could be improved markedly with the addition of some phat exhausts and wider rear wheels.
The interior of the car is slightly too beige perhaps, but the cabin's a pleasant place to be, on the whole. The front seats are comfortable, bucket-style pews, mounted low in the chassis, giving driver and passenger the impression they're in something very sporty. Like all sports seats, though, their positioning makes it difficult to get in and out of the car without flashing your knickers.
Sadly, there's absolutely no room for normally sized people in the rear. Not even Kylie Minogue could squeeze into one of the pair of tiny seats in the back.
IMA let you finish, but Toyota...
The CR-Z differs from its '80s predecessor in the fact that it sports a hybrid propulsion system, known as IMA (Integrated Motor Assist). This is designed to provide several benefits. It increases the car's rate of acceleration and reduces the burden on the petrol engine, while increasing fuel economy and reducing CO2 emissions.
Honda cleverly markets the power-boosting element of the IMA system as 'scramble assist'. Essentially, IMA monitors how far the car's accelerator pedal is being depressed and increases the level of assistance you get from the electric motor accordingly. The more you mash the go pedal, the more the electric motor helps the petrol engine, and the faster the CR-Z accelerates.
The electric motor in the IMA is powered primarily by an on-board nickel-metal hydride battery pack, mounted in the floor of the car. It's not possible to charge the batteries via the mains, but that's not a problem, as the car handles this chore itself. It has a regenerative braking system that recoups some of the heat energy lost during braking, storing it in the batteries for later use. Also, while the engine idles under braking, IMA diverts any surplus power to the motor, turning it into a generator that provides charge for the batteries.
Sadly, Honda's IMA system isn't as advanced as rival systems from Toyota. It's a mild, rather than a full, hybrid, and lacks the ability to drive the car on electric power alone. The system is in place solely to support the petrol engine.
The futuristic nature of IMA is reflected perfectly in the CR-Z's instrument binnacle. The cluster of gadgets that show the vehicle's current speed, engine revs and other associated driving data is among the prettiest we've seen in any car.
The speedo, located in a centrally-mounted circle, is entirely digital, with an analogue rev counter spanning its circumference. That's nothing out of the ordinary, but Honda's spiced things up by placing a circle of light between the circumference of the speedo and rev counter, which illuminates in different colours to show how economically the car is being driven, or which of the CR-Z's driving modes is currently being employed.
The CR-Z has three different driving modes, selected via a trio of buttons mounted to the right of the steering wheel. Select the 'econ' setting and the drive system causes the lights on the dashboard to glow green. It enables a gentle (read: lethargic) accelerator-pedal response, makes the steering lighter, and activates a stop-start system that disables the engine when you come to a standstill and restarts it again as you lift the clutch.
The 'normal' mode notches the throttle response up a tad, while maintaining the stop-start feature. Hit the 'sport' button, however, and the CR-Z becomes more aggressive. The stop-start system is disabled entirely, the steering weight is artificially increased and the gentlest of caresses on the accelerator pedal causes an eruption of engine revs. It also demands more power assistance from the electric motor, providing the maximum possible acceleration when overtaking.
The CR-Z was designed to offer a sporty driving feel and, for the most part, driving it is a fun experience. Its wheelbase -- the distance between its front and rear wheels -- is relatively short, which should aid agility. Its track -- the distance between the wheels on either side of the car -- is relatively wide, which, theoretically, gives the CR-Z a solid, planted feel.
All this theory bears some fruit in the real world, as the car feels very agile. The suspension is firm but giving, and offers a good blend of comfort and corner stability. The steering feels slightly vague during extreme manoeuvres, so it can be difficult to gauge when the car is about to lose traction, but, on the whole, driving the CR-Z is oddly reminiscent of driving a go-cart.
The CR-Z is let down by its straight-line speed, though -- it's not the sort of car that puts an involuntary smile on your face. On the contrary, you'll have a look of terror plastered across your mug when attempting to overtake because the CR-Z simply doesn't have the power required to pass anyone but the most ponderous of learner drivers.
Puff and greenery
The CR-Z is a hybrid, and not a particularly fast one, so you could be forgiven for assuming it's kind to the environment and delivers good fuel economy. Indeed, it does, but the figures won't blow you away. The car spews out 117g of carbon dioxide per kilometre, which is good compared to other sporty coupés, but pretty bad when compared to other hybrids.
The CR-Z's fuel economy isn't spectacular, either. After hundreds of miles of motorway driving in econ mode at an average speed of 60mph, we managed 46mpg. Honda claims 64.2mpg on the highway and 56.4mpg combined, but, even if we did get anywhere near those figures, the Toyota Auris Hybrid's 74.3mpg combined economy and 89g/km CO2 emissions have the CR-Z beaten hands down.
The CR-Z has plenty of annoying foibles when it comes to its cabin tech. Why, for example, does the stereo have audio inputs for PC Cards? It's a format that gained absolutely no traction in the world of computing and is even more pointless in the world of car stereos. Also, why is there no Bluetooth audio so you can listen to your portable device wirelessly over the CR-Z's speakers? And why does the sat-nav annoy at every turn?
While passing junctions on the A1, the sat-nav kept telling us to take the third exit at various roundabouts in order to carry on going straight. That would have been fine -- straight is where we were headed -- but there are no roundabouts on the A1. Anywhere.
Also, while travelling from Trafalgar Square to south-east London, the sat-nav insisted, for no good reason, that we take a route heading in the opposite direction to our destination. Only after ignoring those instructions and going straight, instead of back on ourselves, did the sat-nav decide -- after absolutely ages of recalculation -- that the quickest way south was in fact to head in the opposite direction of north.
As if that weren't frustrating enough, the sat-nav system also had a potentially dangerous tendency to suggest illegal turns and to direct us into one-way streets. We could probably forgive the system these foibles if its mapping data had been compiled in the '80s, but the system is based on Navteq's latest 2009-10 data.
Honda would like potential customers to compare the CR-Z to sporty coupés like the Volkswagen Scirocco and Peugeot RCZ -- and for good reason. The CR-Z is almost as attractive as those cars, emits less CO2 and provides better fuel economy. But, given the fact that the CR-Z isn't quite as sporty as the Scirocco and RCZ, it might be more pertinent to compare it to other small eco cars, such as the Toyota Auris Hybrid.
Sadly, the CR-Z doesn't fare particularly well in that contest. The Auris Hybrid has far superior fuel economy (74mpg versus 56mpg), far lower emissions (89g/km of CO2 versus 117g/km), an electric-only driving mode, and similar handling and performance. The Auris Hybrid is a far uglier car, but, if your eco conscience outweighs your need for a sexy bodyshell, then Toyota's offering is the way to go.
The Honda CR-Z is the most beautiful hybrid car in its segment and will earn you plenty of admiring glances. Despite its aggressive, purposeful appearance, however, the CR-Z is a car that sits on the fence and plays it too safe for our liking. It's not quite green enough to appeal to all-out hippies and not quite fast enough to appeal to petrolheads.
Edited by Charles Kloet