Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: 2011 Honda CR-Z EX—A "sport hybrid" needing a bit more sport and MPG

2011 Honda CR-Z EX - Subcompact CultureThe CR-Z is billed as a “sport hybrid”—sporty driving characteristics and hybrid fuel economy. The CR-Z is a two-door two-seater, much like the beloved Honda CR-X from days gone by. Unlike other current hybrids, the CR-Z is available with a six-speed manual transmission, aiding in its sporty offerings. Make no mistake about it: The CR-Z is a small, tech-laden vehicle that talks big about “sport” and “hybrid.” It certainly looks sporty, but does it deliver on MPGs?

2011 Honda CR-Z EX - Subcompact CultureEXTERIOR: Ultra-modern, sporty

The CR-Z looks good in person. It’s ultra-modern and certainly sporty looking with its 17” wheels and tires, low-to-the-ground stance, and swooping bodywork. In fact, I think the car looks a good deal better in person than in print or on the Web. And yes, I’ve got to say it: The rear end—especially the glass—does harken back to the good ol’ CR-X. On the outside, Honda does achieve “sport” with this sport hybrid. And yes, it turned heads, especially in eco-conscious Portland, OR. I had a few people stop me and ask me, “Is that the new Honda hybrid?”

2011 Honda CR-Z EX - Subcompact CultureINTERIOR: Spaceship, party of two

The interior of this car makes me feel like I’m piloting a space ship. The dashboard has a digital speedometer surrounded by a host of gauges and readouts. There’s a battery charge gauge, a charge/assist gauge, a fuel tank gauge, a fuel economy gauge, and upshift and downshift arrows. Plus, there’s a trip computer that allows for a variety of functions from temperature to other fuel-economy-related readouts.

2011 Honda CR-Z EX - Subcompact CultureOn the left side of the dash are three buttons that allow you to select Eco, Normal, or Sport modes, each eliciting a different colored glowing ring around the speedometer, too. On the right side is the ultra-compact, ultra-simple climate control. I loved how basic and easy-to-use it is. My test model also came with the company’s navigation system, which has a host of other audio features, too. All worked pretty well, and sound quality is above average. Oddly, satellite radio is not available (a sign of things to come?).

Seats are sporty and comfortable, but a bit more side bolstering would been nice. The area behind the seats, which looks like two jump seats, is not for people; they’re just areas to put stuff. The cargo area is spacious, and the rear divider folds down for more cargo carrying ability.

There’s a lot going on in this futuristic interior; perhaps too much. Sometimes I felt a bit distracted with the amount of information presented to me while driving. Overall, it’s a fine interior, but it’s a bit on the highly caffeinated side.

2011 Honda CR-Z EX - Subcompact CultureDRIVING: Not that sporty, not that efficient

This hybrid drives decidedly un-hybrid like, especially in Normal and Sport modes. The 1.5-liter engine is also found in the Fit, but the CR-Z gets Integrated Motor Assist thanks to an electric motor. There are definite differences when switching into the three modes, too. Shifter action is the usual Honda greatness. The engine is a bit noisy, though.

This car features stop/start technology, which shuts the gasoline engine off when the car is not in gear—good for fuel economy. However, I found it to be a bit wonky on a hill with the manual transmission. When you put the car in gear, the engine turns back on. It’s easy to roll back or kill the car. I did both. Several times.

Well shoot. I really wanted this thing to be like a go kart, but it’s more like, well, a low-to-the-ground Honda Fit with half the doors and half the seating. In Eco mode, the CR-Z is glacially slow, but it should return the best fuel economy. Normal is, of course, better on go, worse on gas. Sport mode makes quite the difference in thrust, since you can feel the electric motor’s torque. Yes, the MPGs will go down, but “sport” is surely up.

The suspension is on the softer side. There is more body roll than I expected, and when pushed into a corner, the nose does seem to dive. The car is tossable, but I’d like to see a bit stiffer springs.

My fuel economy was downright disappointing. Rated at 31/37, I got a measly 28 mpg in a combination of all three modes, and I didn’t lead-foot it around, either. Most of my driving was in the city. Well, that’s not very hybrid-like is it? To be fair, I am not accustomed to driving hybrids, and I know there are techniques to squeeze out the MPG. Some folks on CRZForum.com are reporting much better numbers with the manual trans. Maybe it’s just me.

The CR-Z’s ride is quite good. It feels very substantial and fairly weighty. Then again, it isn’t exactly a lightweight at 2,654 lbs. Sportier than an Insight? Yes. A canyon carver? Not exactly, but not bad.

TECHNOLOGY: A metric ton of tech

This car offers more tech than you’ll ever need, and possibly ever want. I could write volumes about the amount of tech. From the Integrated Motor Assist, the cryptic fuel readouts in the trip computer (I still don’t know what some of those readouts were), the start/stop tech, and so on. If you’re gadget person, a techie, or someone that wants to feel like they’re piloting a miniature USS Enterprise, this is the car for you. The only reason it doesn’t get a 10 is because 1) It’s almost distracting how much stuff there is and 2) it rides on a torsion-beam solid rear axle.

2011 Honda CR-Z EX - Subcompact Culture

OVERALL: A mixed personality, a mixed bag

At more than $23,000 with destination, the CR-Z EX with navi is a pricey little bugger. There are a lot of vehicles that are less expensive but get slightly less EPA-rated fuel economy, are more practical, and more fun to drive. However, the CR-Z buyer will likely know what they’re getting themselves into. For comparison’s sake, my slightly modified Toyota Yaris is getting 37-39 MPG combined and it cost $14,000 and has a back seat (and no battery). I’m just sayin’ ... it seems like a chunk of change for something not that sporty and with EPA number that aren’t that high.

Oh Honda CR-Z, how I wanted to love thee. Yes, this is the first attempt at a sporty hybrid, and it is by no means “bad.” But it is not that sporty or that efficient, or at least that was my impression. I’m sure hypermilers will be able to get 50+ MPG from the vehicle, and there might even be a lofty aftermarket for the car (I know there will be a few hopped-up versions at this November’s SEMA Show). Heck, it might even be a game changer if it catches on. To me, the car has a bit of a confused personality.

But hey, this is a first attempt. Perhaps a sporty Si variant will come out. Then again, that’d lower the fuel economy. Let’s remember that the original CRX everyone is so quick to compare this car to wasn’t exactly a rocketship, either. It was, however, very miserly with the gasoline in certain trim levels. I actually wonder if Honda had released a non-hybrid CR-Z alongside the battery/electric version, what would its mileage would be, and would it be more fun to drive?

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