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.