In recent years, Japanese sports cars seemed to be an endangered species. Honda discontinued the S2000 and the Acura NSX this decade. Toyota hasn't had a real sports car since the MR2, while Nissan's entrant, the GT-R, is too pricey for most mortals. The ubiquitous Mazda Miata became the last car standing.
With the 2011 CR-Z, Honda attempts to reintroduce the Japanese sports car, giving it a green edge to make it more welcome in a newly energy-conscious market. The result is a unique-looking and very tossable car with a body style that echoes that of the Honda CR-X, which ceased production in 1991.
But the CR-Z relies on Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) gas-electric hybrid system, which has never been particularly efficient and suffers from very rough driving characteristics. Looking at fuel economy and power output numbers, Honda's hybrid system offers little advantage over a high-revving, low-displacement pure gas engine.
Honda gives the CR-Z a futuristic dashboard that should appeal to the marque's fans. Adorned with the kind of accent lighting found at auto parts stores for pimped rides, this dashboard's only analog feature is the tachometer. And even that comes embedded with a digital speedometer and an ambient light ring that changes color based on driving style.
Ambient lighting on the instrument panel goes from green to blue to red, depending on driving style.
The instrumentation may look like it got here by time travel, but the navigation next to it is clearly from the past. DVD-based maps appear only in 2D, and show poor resolution, with jagged street names and lines. Forget current amenities such as traffic overlays; the CR-Z's maps only offer the most basic information. This navigation system is, essentially, the same equipment Honda has been offering for many years.
The CR-Z's voice command system is also a relic of Honda's past, but as that system was cutting-edge when it came out, it still holds its own against competitors. This system offers good control over navigation, and responds to questions such as, "What time is it?"
But as has been the problem with other Honda models, the CR-Z uses two separate voice command systems, with two sets of buttons, one for navigation and other car functions, and one for the phone system. The buttons pile on each other between the left spokes of the steering wheel.
The phone system shows more recent technology than the navigation system, as it can import a paired phone's contact list. The interface for looking up contacts is not the most usable for drivers, as it uses a search paradigm rather than a simple list of names.
As with other Honda vehicles that use this head unit, getting at the CD player involves opening up the LCD, not the most elegant arrangement. And indicative of the age of this equipment is the PC Card slot behind the LCD, an audio source that never caught on in cars, or anywhere else for that matter.
The head unit LCD motors open, revealing a CD and PC Card slot.
Honda included a USB pigtail, sticking out of a compartment under the head unit. Along with USB drives, that pigtail works with an iPod. The iPod integration works well, and most people buying a CR-Z would probably rely on it or the XM satellite radio instead of CDs.
The audio system is also a little better than you would expect from an economy car. Along with six speakers, Honda has fitted it with a subwoofer and 360-watt amp, anticipating that a CR-Z buyer would enjoy music. Although not really audiophile quality, this system is better than average, the amp making a big difference with its powerful output. The subwoofer serves to enrich the music without being intrusive.
Although the CR-Z has an LCD for navigation, there is no back-up camera option, something that would benefit even a car this small. With the car's styling, the rear hatch window is nearly horizontal, while a smaller, tinted window below the lip of the hatch provides minimal rearward visibility. The side visibility also seemed a hampered by the body of the car, with largish blind spots. However, Honda does not offer a blind-spot detection system.
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 Honda Insight.
The car's CVT has seven virtual gears, which have some real effect.
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.
On an autocross course, the CR-Z tries to lift a leg.
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 through an autocross at a Honda event earlier 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.