Hybrid cars are all well and good if you’re keen to be seen as green, but aren’t they all a bit… well, boring? And don’t they always have those CVT gearboxes that make them sound like they’re suffering from permanent clutch-slip?
Honda doesn’t think all hybrids need to be this way, and in 2010, they launched this, the Honda CR-Z. It’s a sporty two-door coupe that draws a not insubstantial degree of inspiration from the legendary CR-X, and for 2013, it’s received a range of revisions to boost power and tweak the styling.
It’s a handsome package – pert, even, particularly at the rear, with a subtle rear diffuser and a shallow sloping roofline that drops to the tailgate via a split-level window. From most angles, there’s a wide and low look on display, enhanced by the flared wheel-arches, while the curved windscreen blends into the side glass thanks to blackened A-pillars, creating a look not unlike a mini Koenigsegg.
Although the CR-Z shares components with both the Insight and Jazz, much of what lurks beneath the floor has been fettled and honed. Compared with the Insight, it’s 310mm shorter overall, with a 115mm shorter wheelbase, making it more agile. The track has been widened, too (by 20mm at the front and 25mm at the rear), while the suspension makes use of various purpose-designed lightweight components as well as unique springs and dampers. Honda say the CR-Z’s platform is as stiff as a Civic Type-R’s.
Tucked under the boot floor are a stack of Lithium-Ion batteries, replacing the original Nickel Metal-Hydride (NiMH) cells, while co-habiting under the bonnet are a 121PS 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and a 20PS electric motor. The two join forces to deliver 137PS at 6,600rpm (121 + 20 = 137 in hybrid-land, because the petrol and electric motors produce their peak power at different points).
Torque is more interesting, however. While the petrol engine develops a modest 146Nm, the electric motor chips in with a further 78Nm, and can do so practically immediately. Combined, there’s 190Nm to play with from 1,000 – 2,000rpm; that’s about the same as a Civic Type-R, but a lot lower in the rev range.
Honda call their hybrid system Integrated Motor Assist, as its role is to provide additional power during acceleration, rather than drive the car directly. There’s no electric-only mode in the CR-Z; instead, the IMA system allows Honda to use a smaller engine, and it’s this approach that leads to the bulk of the efficiency gains.
Inside, there are a pair of sportily-sculptured front seats with an ambitious-looking pair of rear seats behind, but realistically the CR-Z is a 2+2. The front seats offer a wide range of adjustment, more than enough even for tall drivers, and the steering wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake. The rearward view is hampered somewhat by the tailgate spoiler, however.
The controls are arranged around the steering wheel in a pair of ‘wings’ with the climate functions on the left and switchgear for the mirrors, Sport, Normal and Econ modes on the right (more that later).
The instrument cluster is dominated by a central rev counter with a digital speedometer in the middle of the dial. Either side are bar graphs for the state of the battery, fuel level, current MPG, a charge/assist indicator, and a shift up/down indicator. There’s also a separate display that can show journey time, average fuel economy and speed, status of the motor and engine, and an Eco Assist display that grows ‘leaves’ the more economically you drive. Switch off the engine at the end of your journey, and this display rewards you with a report of how efficient you’ve been.
Rather than force you to glare at the various read-outs to keep an eye on how much planet-saving you’ve been doing, Honda came up with a way to illustrate this in a more literal way. While much of the dash normally glows in a cool blue, drive economically and the instruments glow green.
While some may dismiss all this as a gimmick, we found it added a pleasurable extra dimension to the task of driving. The eco-symbolism of the dashboard never crosses into the realms of nagging, preferring instead to remain polite and helpful, and Honda say there are efficiency gains of up to 10% to be had if you respond favourably to its delicate coaching.
We never tired of setting ourselves personal goals: how quickly can I recharge the battery? How much of the journey can I manage without losing more than one battery segment? It’s a great cure for road-rage.
If you’re feeling particularly parsimonious, you can choose to engage Econ mode which smoothes out the throttle response, applies more economical engine mapping, reduces air conditioning compressor use, and reconfigures the IMA system to use the electric motor to improve fuel economy rather than performance.
We found Econ mode neutered the CR-Z a little too much, and keeping up with traffic required a determined right hoof on the accelerator, partially negating any savings on offer. However, one compelling justification for Econ mode is its effect on the cruise control.
With normal cruise control systems, a steep incline can cause the system to apply large throttle openings to maintain the target speed, leading to greater fuel consumption. In Econ mode, the CR-Z’s cruise control is intelligent enough to sacrifice a few clicks on the speedo in order to preserve economy. Smart thinking.
The start/stop system is equally well thought out, too. Coast up to a set of traffic lights in second or third gear with the clutch held in, and the engine will have stopped before you do, whereas most systems rely on you to select neutral before the engine will cut out. It restarts, almost imperceptibly, as soon as you slot the lever into first.
Of course, if all this eco-mentalism is rather too much for you, the CR-Z has another side to its personality: Sport mode.
Sport buttons are becoming ubiquitous these days, but the CR-Z’s implementation is the most convincing.
Engage Sport mode, and the instruments turn red, the throttle response sharpens, steering assistance is dialled back, and the electric motor now provides greater assistance during acceleration. On the face of it, these changes should yield little more than a mild tweaking at the edges of the driving experience, but in practice the CR-Z’s whole character seems to change.
The chassis displays eager turn-in and confidence-inspiring flat cornering that will have you zinging from corner to corner with little thought for how many ‘leaves’ your dashboard is growing.
This engaging demeanour doesn’t come at the expense of the ride quality, thankfully, which while firm, remains composed even over the worst surfaces our road network has to offer. There is a higher degree of tyre roar on some surfaces, but it’s not enough to prove wearing.
The brakes have an appealing sense of urgency, with an almost complete absence of free-play in the pedal, while the six-speed manual gearbox has a beautifully short throw and a slick shift action, together with a set of extremely well-judged ratios.
The official figures reveal a 9.1 second 0-62mph time but, as you rifle your way through the ratios, the CR-Z feels quicker than that. It’s no track day weapon, but it oozes a peppy character that’s difficult not to fall for. There’s even a modest rortiness to the exhaust note to help back up the sporting encouragement.
The surprises don’t end there, however. Arrive at your destination having overtaken everything in sight, remove the ignition key, and you’ll be rewarded with a healthy set of leaves and a warm glow from being shown that, likely as not, you still managed to achieve a mid-40s mpg figure (the official combined cycle figure is 56.5mpg).
The Honda CR-Z is available in two models: the £20,750 Sport and £23,275 GT. Both models are equipped with cruise control, climate control, automatic lights and wipers, premium hifi with USB port and subwoofer, electric windows, rear parking sensors, and power folding door mirrors. The GT adds 17-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, Bluetooth connectivity, panoramic roof and HID headlights.
Satellite navigation is available for an extra £995, with metallic paint at £450. CO2 emissions are 116 g/km for the Sport placing it in VED Band C (£30 pa), while the GT just tips into Band D (£105 pa) at 122 g/km.
With the CR-Z, Honda set out to create a sporty coupe with, in their words, “a healthy respect for the environment.” We’d say they’ve gone further than that. The CR-Z is genuinely engaging in its own right – not just as a hybrid, but as a sports car.
Rather than be saddled with a truculent automatic gearbox and low rolling-resistance tyres, the CR-Z flouts convention with a slick-shifting manual and an enthusiastic demeanour to cornering. Even on a rainy Monday morning commute in heavy traffic, the little Honda is ready with party games in its dashboard and a sense of fun that’s impossible to resist.
Hybrids, it seems, were not all created equal.