Besides the instrument panel, the really innovative thing about the CR-Z is its hybrid system. Or, more to the point, Honda's packing of a hybrid system into a two-seater sports car. The hybrid system itself is not new, just the same 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with electric motor boost offered in the .
Producing 122 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque in CR-Zs equipped with the continuously variable transmission (CVT), as ours was, this system relies on its electric motor as a kind of turbo, giving extra boost for the gas engine when needed. The hybrid system also enables an idle stop feature in the car, letting the gas engine shut down at traffic lights.
Similar to the Insight, this system has a very rough feel. The engine runs like a coffee grinder, making the times it turns off in traffic all the more peaceful by comparison. Stepping on the gas hard and letting the engine speed stay above the 4,000rpm mark for any length of time produces a drone that is likely to spark homicidal rage.
Having previously driven the manual version, which uses Honda's very enjoyable and precise six-speed, the CVT was a disappointment. The car actually produces about 5 pound-feet less torque with this transmission. Honda tries to maintain its sporty intentions for the CR-Z by including paddle shifters, useful for selecting the transmission's seven manual shift points. It being a CVT, these shift points are virtual gears, but they feel a little sharper and come on more strongly than most automatic transmissions with manual modes.
The car also includes three driving modes, Eco, Normal, and Sport, selectable with buttons on the ends of the instrument panel. Eco detunes the accelerator, making starts a little sluggish. Sport cranks up the engine speed, putting the car's power on tap.
Eco is, of course, supposed to maximize fuel economy. EPA testing puts the CR-Z with its CVT at 35 mpg city and 39 mpg highway, good numbers for gas-only cars, but not star-worthy for a hybrid. Driving the car in all of its modes, on city streets, freeways, and mountain highways, we turned in 32 mpg average.
By contrast, a Mini Cooper, which uses a 1.6-liter direct injection engine, churns out 121 horsepower and gets fuel economy of 29 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. Given those numbers, Honda might have done better to skip the hybrid system for the CR-Z and go with a small-displacement, efficient engine.
What the CR-Z and the Mini Cooper share is a very fun handling characteristic. The CR-Z turns quickly into corners, and holds grip well. It does not have enough power to make long turns all that fun, but over a tighter course it rotates happily at the corners. Put throughearlier this year, the CR-Z proved willing to negotiate tight turns, although the suspension showed some travel, a little comfort tuning.
One big difference between CR-Z and Mini Cooper is the back seat. The CR-Z does not have one. The large parcel shelf behind the seats was actually designed for a rear seat, but Honda felt Americans would find it too small, so removed the cushions. The car is a four-seater in other parts of the world. That weirdly large parcel shelf, combined with the dedicated cargo space under the hatchback, means the CR-Z holds a surprising amount of gear for a two-seater.
Sticking the 2011 Honda CR-Z with a five-year-old navigation system seems a poor strategy for attracting young, tech-oriented buyers. The navigation system is the real anchor on the otherwise passable cabin tech in this car. Other features, such as the phone system and iPod integration, keep the car competitive. Some driver assistance features such as a back-up camera would have been a big advantage given the imperfect external visibility.
The CR-Z's looks make it stand out, which should appeal to a lot of sports car fans. But the car loses points for practicality, with the weird rear parcel shelf offering badly proportioned cargo space that is not very contiguous with the rear cargo area. The onscreen cabin tech interface, while perfectly usable, shows no real graphic design, just ugly, blocky gray buttons.
As for performance tech, the hybrid power train, normally winning tech in our ratings, gets downgraded for its rough character and failure to really justify itself. But the well-tuned steering and suspension keep the car afloat in this category, as it can be very fun to drive.