Automobiles

From cute hybrid to hot hatch: Trackside with the HPD supercharged Honda CR-Z

Honda's CR-Z hybrid gets an aftermarket performance overhaul by the automaker's HPD division. We take a look at the upgrades on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

The Honda CR-Z goes from slightly underwhelming hybrid to properly hot hatch with the aid of HPD's bolt-on upgrades. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Honda CR-Z is certainly sporty, but it's certainly no sports car. And I definitely didn't expect to see a 2014 example parked alongside the Dodge Challenger Hellcat , Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG and Alfa Romeo 4C at a recent media track day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I was even more surprised when it turned out that the little Honda turned out to be one of the most fun cars on the track that day.

It turns out that this particular CR-Z has been modified with a host of bolt-on performance parts from Honda Performance Development (HPD), the automaker's aftermarket parts and racing division. We sat down with HPD find out how any CR-Z owner can literally supercharge their Honda, transforming it from a loveable little hybrid into a bonafide hot hatchback.

The CR-Z has been upgraded with HPD's entire catalog of go-faster parts. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

First, HPD addresses handling and grip upgrades. The transformation starts where the rubber meets the road with the replacement of the CR-Z's stock 195mm width eco all-seasons with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires ($1,054 for the set) sized 215/40ZR18. The new wider, stickier tires are wrapped around 18-inch HPD alloy wheels ($1,260 for the set) and peeking between the new spokes is an upgraded HPD front brake kit ($2,100) that should help the hatchback stop shorter and resist fade. From there, the chassis sits atop an HPD sport suspension kit ($1,550) that lowers the ride height by 10mm.

An HPD rear diffuser ($400) performs triple duty: improving aerodynamics, enhancing the CR-Z's appearance, and framing the new HPD full cat-back exhaust system's ($1,400) twin, center-exit tips. That new exhaust should flow better, freeing a bit of extra power, but it mostly sounds pretty good at full throttle with a deeper, raspier tone than stock.

Next, HPD adds lots and lots of power! The jewel of this performance overhaul is the addition of the HPD supercharger kit ($5,495) to the CR-Z's engine bay. The kit replaces the stock intake with a centrifugal-type supercharger breathing through an air-to-air intercooler. The supercharger leaves the IMA electric motor and lithium ion battery pack untouched, so the CR-Z retains all of its the hybrid functionality. I've heard no word on how the new additions affect the CR-Z's 31 city, 38 highway and 34 combined mpg estimates.

The HPD supercharger kit adds almost 70 horsepower to the CR-Z's bottom line. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The forced induction system boosts the total system power of the 1.5-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder and electric motor to 197 horsepower, and torque to 176 pound-feet, for 2013-2014 model year examples with a manual transmission. That's nearly a 70 horsepower jump over the hybrid's 130 stock horses. 2011 to 2012 models have lower total estimates of 180 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque. At time of my testing, the 2015 model year is currently awaiting emissions certification of the ECU software required for supercharger compatibility.

To deal with the extra power and to add a bit of bite to each shift, the six-speed manual transaxle gets a new Sport Clutch upgrade ($640). To help with traction when accelerating hard or cornering, the CR-Z now splits power between the front wheels via a helical gear type limited-slip differential ($1,375).

At this point, we've bolted on nearly the entire HPD catalog of street performance accessories. HPD completes the look with an HPD emblem ($40) for the rear hatch and a CR-Z sticker kit ($60).

The last step is the most important one: hit the road or the track. I was lucky enough to get a chance at the latter around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

The stock CR-Z's handling was already pretty good, but the augmentations push it to another level. Available grip was excellent, making for confident cornering. The front-driver's tendency toward understeer is still present and could be felt as I explored the broad performance envelope, but the push is easily corrected once noticed and satisfying rotation around the short wheelbase is just a brush of trail braking away. I found the HPD CR-Z was an easy car to drive quickly, thanks to its responsive steering and improved steering wheel feedback.

Many say that the standard CR-Z's hybrid powertrain is its weak point. To be fair, I've not driven a stock CR-Z since 2010, so my comparative memory is a bit hazy. However, the forced induction of about 70 horses goes a very long way toward fixing any issues that I may have had in the past. The supercharger completely transforms the CR-Z. The hybrid pulls effortlessly off of the line, its electric torque handling the first few feet before handing off seamlessly to the compressor. Acceleration is linear and rapid -- there's hardly a flat spot in the CR-Z's torque curve -- which helps the hatchback take advantage of its improved grip to rocket out of corners.

The improved power-to-weight ratio is akin to those of the Volkswagen GTI and Ford Fiesta ST , so the HPD CR-Z will find itself in good hot hatch company at a local autocross or track day. It's certainly as much fun as any of those cars.

The HPD suspension, brakes, and rolling stock upgrades improve on the CR-Z's already good handling. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The CR-Z's sport seats could use more bolstering for the track, but may be supportive enough for the street. I also found the pedal placement made heel-and-toeing tricky and inaccurate, which is a shame because Honda's shifter is as fantastic as ever. Rowing gears is light and effortless without feeling at all vague.

The HPD-upgraded CR-Z was a joy around the track. After multiple sessions, I found that I preferred the modified Honda over the other hot FWD rides available for laps at the Mazda Raceway event, including one of my favorites: the Fiat 500 Abarth . Few cars at the track day experience were as unique, as oddball awesome, or as talked about as the little supercharged hybrid and everyone who took a spin in the HPD CR-Z walked away with a huge grin plastered on their face. "This is the CR-Z that Honda should have built," was the refrain of the day. The twist is that this is the CR-Z that Honda did build; there's just some assembly required.

The HPD-upgraded CR-Z was one of the most talked about cars of the day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Well, some assembly and a whole lot of cash. For those who haven't already done the math, we're looking at about $15,374 in parts on top of the CR-Z's base price of $19,995. Installation is not included. Get those go-faster bits installed at a Honda-certified dealer and they'll come with a 3-year or 36,000-mile warranty. Do the installation yourself and you'll save some money up front, but you'll also be shortening the warranty to just 12 months.

Honda also points out that a dealer install for the supercharger is the only way to maintain the balance of the CR-Z's five-year or 60,0000-mile Honda limited powertrain warranty. Let's ballpark this HPD-augmented 2014 Honda CR-Z at about $40,000 all in. That's a big pill to swallow when you consider that a brand-new 2015 Ford Fiesta ST would probably be just as fast and just as fun on the road and at the track for about $22,000.

No, it probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense to run out and buy a new Honda CR-Z and a full suite of bolt-ons today. However, taken piece by piece over years of ownership, the HPD accessories are excellent upgrades for current CR-Z owners who want to get more performance out of their hybrid hatch.