Fastback Friday: The 2011 Honda CR-Z

Foreground: Honda CR-Z. Background: The environment you're trying to save.

At one point during my week with the 2011 Honda CR-Z, I found myself pacing a late-model Mercedes SL65 Convertible on the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The comparison between the two vehicles is ludicrous: one is a mild-hybrid with a milquetoast 122 horsepower and 128 lb/ft of torque; the other has thrice the cylinders, four times the displacement, five times the horsepower and six times the twist. The Merc’ also costs ten times as much.
Here’s the thing though: that was the third SL65 I’d seen that day. I didn’t see another CR-Z until the end of the week.
So sure, contrasting the two vehicles is like comparing The God of War with The God of Letting People Cut In Front of You At The Supermarket Checkout If They’re Only Buying A Litre of Milk. But there’s a certain appeal to exclusivity when you’re in the market for a sports coupe.

Aggressive looks… but does it back them up?

Buying an SL65 over the excellent SL63 is largely about paying a huge premium for that V12 Biturbo badge. Buying a CR-Z gives you a badge with equal-if-not-greater heft in these eco-sensitive times: it’s a sporty hatch and it says “Hybrid” on the back. Well, a sporty-looking hatch anyway.
The CR-Z has garnered a great deal of stick from the critics for not being the second coming of the beloved CR-X. I haven’t seen so many auto-journos grump disappointedly since the coffee cart didn’t turn up at the 2011 Vancouver Auto Show: truly, this car is our Rapture-fail.
Michael Karesh over at TTAC likened the CR-Z to a modern-day Fiero and on the face of it, the comparison seems fairly apt. GM ruined their MR by cramming in the wheezy and leaden “Iron Duke” V6, and pundits rail that the non-VTEC 1.5L and its tiny electric sidekick are the same sort of weaksauce wasabi. This is the same powertrain that – barely – motivates the somewhat insipid Insight; doesn’t the CRX’s heir deserve a K20? At least?
But let’s leave the a priori notions at the door to the Temple of VTEC. This car ain’t no CR-X: so just what the hell is it?
First off, I think it’s a great-looking car. Sure, that truncated back end flares out and gives a bit of muffin-top effect with narrow wheels failing to fill the swelling arches, but the rest of the car is cutesy-aggressive done perfectly. Park this pissed-off cuttlefish next to a current-gen Mazda3 and see what I mean.
Make sure you back into the spot though: during my time with the CR-Z that low-height, high-overhang front end scraped and ground on enough curbs to garner a Tony Hawk high-score. Futuristic-looking it may be, but one loses a certain amount of street cred every time you crunch to a stop in front of a 7-11 as though needing the assistance of curb-feelers.
Ooh! Blinky!

There’s more of the same futuristic appeal inside, after you awkwardly clamber over the high sills. Here though, the interior is let down a bit by cheapness. Quite frankly, there’s no place for pebbled-dash rubber-elephant hide in Honda’s uber-futuristic cockpit design language; I wish they’d stuck with matte surfaces or faux brushed-aluminum throughout.
Other than that, the driver’s view is pure Blade Runner. There are an overwhelming array of buttons and gauges here: battery charge level, charge/assist bar, real-time fuel economy levels, an optimal-rev gear-shift indicator, and a colour-shifting rev-counter that glows green for planet-saving sluggishness and blue every time you decide to dunk a polar bear.
For all that, mastering the control layout is a bit like attempting Dance Dance Revolution for the first time. There is just so much blinking gee-whizzery that useful information like the upshift-indicator can be drowned out, leaving you wishing you’d gone and played the taxi game instead.
Further, having the A/C controls close-up where an interfering passenger hand can be slapped away is convenient, but it pushes the stereo buttons way out to the periphery; you have to take your eyes off the road for longer than I’d like to fiddle with them, although there are basic redundant controls on the small-diameter steering wheel.
The CR-Z in its natural environment. Outdoors. Unlike other cars. Wait, what?

Visibility-wise, the driver sits low and is as oblivious to what’s going on behind them as the judges on The Voice appear to be. All that stylized swoopery around the CR-Z’s rump has resulted in blind spots the size of – as tested in the field – a 1997 Volvo V70. Two solutions present themselves.
First, the old racer’s trick of adjusting your mirrors just past the point at which you can actually see the sides of the car shrinks the amount of unseen territory from “horrifying” to “barely manageable”. Second, hit the blinkers and watch that “Hybrid” badge work its mojo.
Vancouver drivers are some of the most irately oblivious people outside of mainstream politics. They text while driving and turn left in front of you at the last possible second and honk if you stop for a pedestrian and are universally of the opinion that an indicator is something you put on after you’ve already merged or stopped dead in the middle of an intersection.
Despite all this malfeasance, not once did I get honked at in the CR-Z, and I drove that thing like a Tehran Taxicab. “Go right ahead,” people seemed to be saying, “You’re saving the environment!”
Was I really? Certainly, Honda’s IMA start-stop tech worked nearly flawlessly and without hesitation on startup. Also, the A/C now stays on full-time, even when the car shuts off.
However, a mild-hybrid system can only go so far, and budget-conscious buyers will note that there is merely the slightest of differences between the in-city fuel-economy of small-displacement conventionally-engined car like the Ford Fiesta (7.1L/100km) and the CR-Z (6.5L/100km). Both cars are identical on the highway at 5.3L/100km.
Hitting the “Eco” button doesn’t help either: it’s like bolting on a tent-trailer. Throttle reaction becomes so minimal you’d swear your leg had gone to sleep. Much better to drive carefully in Normal Mode.
Respectable cargo space, particularly for a sports car.

Or hit the “Sport” button… but it brings no Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. Rather, it’s like Bruce Banner changing into the Incredible Sulk, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m mildly irritated.”
A reddish aura pops up around the digital speedo readout and the CR-Z no longer tells you to upshift at 2000rpm. Time to party?
Well, sort of. The short first and second gearing and added torque of the CR-Z’s electric engine – you get peak twist at a lowly 1750rpm – makes the little hatch leap off the line with an adolescent and semi-embarrassing chirping of tires. Press beyond though and you’re just making noise although, it has to be said, it’s not a bad noise.
Unlike its stratospherically-revving Honda brethren, the CR-Z offers little reward for mashing the go-pedal past a certain point. The added down-low power makes a promise that the 1.5L engine just isn’t prepared to back up. So you’ll be shifting a lot.
Good news:this shifter is not quite as good as other Honda products, but it’s still slick enough to have Nissan engineers committing seppuku. The all-metal shift-knob is weighty enough that (frequent) rowing through all six gears is a hoot, although parking in the sun will leave it hot enough to have you re-enacting Arnold Ernst Toht’s burning medallion scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
We ran the little hatch up to Squamish on the Sea-to-Sky to give see how it handled the highways. On one hand, the heavy steering and flat handling meant that the CR-Z strung together corners with aplomb. The ride was excellent for such a short-wheelbase car, although there was a fair amount of road noise.
On the other hand, show the CR-Z a steep hill and you better have planned ahead. All too often on the Sea-to-Sky you can find yourself trapped behind some wallowing galleon of an RV that throws all sheets to the wind any time a passing lane opens up. The only real straight stretch between Vancouver and Squamish is a kilometre that runs straight uphill, upon which lengthy incline the CR-Z didn’t gather a single extra digit of speed until the third downshift.
The real reason the car won Boosted's heart: Honda plied him with beer.

At time of writing, Honda Performance Development has come out with a race-spec’d CR-Z turbo-charged up to 200hp and boasting a Li-ion battery for weight savings. Had you spoken to me during the first few days of my week with the CR-Z, I would have listed 200hp as the bare minimum output for this car.
But as I drove it, I mentally revised that figure downwards by increments. 180 hp would be fine. Even 160. Perhaps 140?
On my last day, I drove the CR-Z back through downtown Vancouver in heavy traffic. I’d been able to tuck the little car in a tiny parking space, last one on the block. The capacious trunk had swallowed both a reasonably bulky ergonomic chair and the rear cargo bins had proved themselves ideally suited as a holder to store 650ml bombers of microbrew.
We carved up the traffic on Georgia street easily, shifted to the outside lane and found ourselves taking the “secret” path through Stanley Park that dodges the congestion on the Causeway. Of all things, we found ourselves pursued by a vintage Porsche 912 along looping, sun-dappled roads ‘neath leafy canopy.
This was, you understand, some pretty low-speed maneuvering: it’s a public park after all. But the CR-Z was flat through the corners, and the heavy steering and responsive throttle made the drive fun – and legal.
The CR-Z is not as fast as it could be. It’s not as fuel-efficient as it could be. It’s not as practical as it could be, and it’s not quite as fun-to-drive as it could be. However, it’s not as boring as it could be either.
It feels like a compromise, but no-one could ever accuse it of being dull. For a hybrid, that’s saying a lot. Now Honda, build an Si version already!

[A special thanks, and a welcome back, to Guest Contributor Boosted Lego Wagon, of Yet Another Damn Beer Blog! Keep this up, and we’re going to force you to become a regular.
Got a topic you’re passionate about? Want to write for Hooniverse? Be like Boosted, and send a sample submission to!]

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  1. James@Carthrottle Avatar

    they didn't make V70's in 1997. [/obligatorypedanticnerdcomment]

  2. tonyola Avatar

    Interesting article. I know I'm not supposed to compare this to a CRX but I can't avoid it. My '84 1.5 weighed around 1,800 pounds, did 0-60 in slightly under 10 seconds, handled like stink, and got 40 mpg in steady 65-mph driving. Also, I don't want to sound like a Luddite here but could you at least provide some mileage statistics in manly God-fearing English units in addition to the Frenchie-commie metric numbers?

  3. Smells_Homeless Avatar

    Erm, I don't really want to be that guy, but "Iron Duke V6?" Nicely done, otherwise.

    1. LTDScott Avatar

      Yup, I was going to point that out too.

  4. SSurfer321 Avatar

    I spy an open container. For shame BoostedLegoWagon!
    Great write up. I like the exterior of the car…but that TRON interior has to go. As does the hamster on the wheel.

    1. Paul_y Avatar

      I've seen swingtops that come with a crown cap on them, and that bottle appears to be one.

      1. SSurfer321 Avatar

        It looks to me like the crown cap is on the bottle below it.

    2. AlexiusG55 Avatar

      If that container is both open and contains beer, there would be beer all over the inside of the car. There isn't. Therefore either it's not open or it's empty.

  5. Paul_y Avatar

    I really want to like the CR-Z. I really do. However, it seems silly to have made it a hybrid. A small VTEC engine would probably be neary as efficient, more powerful, and weigh less, resulting in an even better car, despite a lack of 'HYBRID' badges.

    1. TX_Stig Avatar

      Hopefully this isn't exceeding digressive, but I really find it hard to think of hybrids as anything more than a stopgap measure. I say this, not so much as a car guy, but as an engineer. Hybrids are complex for complexity's sake. All the batteries, the control systems, etc. don't add as much efficiency to a car as they detract from it. With a little more weight savings and slight advancement of the electro-mechanical wizardry of modern engine controls, a simpler, more efficient car can be achieved based on advanced versions of traditional, well proven tech. That would leave R&D resources free to pursue the true next generation of automotive power plants. Just my thoughts…

      1. Paul_y Avatar

        Hell, if we, as a society, are willing to accept 10-12 second 0-60 times, and the need to downshift to pass others, we'd be doing better.

        1. TX_Stig Avatar

          Very true. This post even mentioned the near negligible difference between this, albeit less hybrid-y, hybrid and a very economical though very decent car like a Fiesta. The Europs get along just fine with the sort of car that you describe. But then again, their automotive culture didn't grow up as much around drag strips as a lot of ours did. Besides, one or two downshifts to make a pass on the highway adds a bit more excitement to the drive, I think. Even though I have a car that generally doesn't benefit from doing so much. It accelerates at about the same rate in 5th or 4th.

      2. Deartháir Avatar

        Throw a diesel in it, call it done.

    2. Maymar Avatar

      I don't know if it needed to be a hybrid from a practical perspective (just the stock Fit drivetrain in a lighter, more aerodynamic vehicle would certainly put down some pretty decent numbers. But from a marketing perspective, it's hard to deny that to the general public, hybrid=efficient, or green, or [insert buzzword here].

  6. dragon951 Avatar

    "Background: The environment you're trying to save but not actually saving."
    There, fixed it.

  7. Thrashy Avatar

    As the early rumors about the CR-Z started to come out, I'd put it at the top of the list for eventual replacement cars for current daily driver. Even after news of its production drivetrain came out, I stayed cautiously optimistic; bit now, having read all about the final product and seeing a few examples in the flesh, I just can't bring myself to care. The comparisons to the CRX may be unjust, but they keep cropping up because, after you control for what the intervening years have done for crash safety and creature comforts, Honda has managed to make a car that is inferior in every measurable way to a car that it stopped making two decades ago.

    1. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

      Inferior in every measurable way until you hit a tree at 50 MPH and crawl out alive. That's really the only significant advantage to newer cars, but in a daily driver, it's an important one.

      1. Thrashy Avatar

        Even so, when GRM can put a hum-drum minivan up against a Jaguar E-type and come away with a resounding win, you'd expect the CR-Z to have some tangible performance benefit over a CRX, thanks to twenty years of technological advancement. Alas, it's slower to 60, slower through a slalom, slower around the track, has the same number of seats, marginally more cargo space, is 25% more expensive *after* adjusting for inflation, and does about equivalent in observed fuel economy. The issue is not so much the penalties imposed by additional safety features; MINI, Mazda, and Fiat all do a fine job of building safe-yet-lightweight small cars. IMO, Honda was trying so hard to prove that they could build a sporty hybrid car that they forgot to build a sporty car in the first place.

        1. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

          I agree entirely – just had to rebut the word 'every'. In every other way, aside possibly from passenger comfort, the new model is an inferior car, and that's ridiculous.

  8. waltgator Avatar

    pretty cool looking car & interior

  9. Jim-Bob Avatar

    My biggest problem with it is that it really isn't good on gas compared with other similarly powered hybrids. I guess I am spoiled by my $250 Geo Metro daily driver's ability to regularly hit 45 mpg in pure city driving, but anything that can't hit mid 40's in fuel economy to me just seems like a gas guzzler now. Why is it that the least expensive cars on sale 20 years ago were the most fuel efficient cars you could buy (Metro/Swift/Firefly, CRX HF, Civic VX, Yugo GV, etc.) while today you have to spend double the price of a normal cheap car to get the same efficiency? Sorry but I just don't buy in to the whole hybrid thing. Sell me a Polo Bluemotion, Diesel Smart Fortwo, Toyota Aygo or something similar that is sold in Europe. Those I can afford. An extra $7-10k for a hybrid just isn't worth it.

  10. boostedlegowgn Avatar

    In order:
    -It was a first-gen V70. Maybe they weren't available in the US, but I'm pretty sure the early ones were '97s. Maybe '98 then.
    -Iron Duke mea culpa. Who cares what they call the damn things? Northstar V8 or GTP swap like yesterday.
    -It's a Howe Sound Brewing swingtop.
    -For the love of pete, give me a little heads up on publication! I like to be able to make myself available to respond to comments as they come up. I was on top of a mountain in Port Renfrew with no cel.
    As a follow-up, I had a Fit for a few days last week, and it was an automatic (no paddle shifters). I have to confess that I liked it better.