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Review: 2011 Honda CR-Z, the first hybrid sports coupe



 The 2011 CR-Z is being billed by Honda as the world's first hybrid sports coupe. Until now performance orient hybrids like the Lexus GS450h and LS600h have sold poorly, no doubt in part due to their high cost. As usual Honda has gone with a different approach that ranges from its mild hybrid Integrated Motor Assist system to a relatively low price.

One look at the CR-Z instantly says that this is like no previous hybrid. Veteran Honda fans will recognize the lineage back to the CR-X of the mid-1980s to early-1990s. There is however nothing retro, about the CR-Z's appearance. Rather, this is a thoroughly modern design that looks like what the CR-X might have evolved into if it had stayed in production all of these years. 

When the CR-Z originally appeared as a concept at the 2008 Paris Motor Show, it was something of a sensation. Unfortunately a combination of production realities and tweaking the shape to reduce aerodynamic drag has made the production model somewhat less stunning. Nonetheless, we like the look and feel that the short, squat proportions gives it much more aggressive stance than other hybrids or even conventional coupes in this segment.

Thankfully, Honda has opted not to include the rudimentary back seat that the Japanese domestic market version has. The 95.9 inch wheel base really doesn't leave enough room for a useable seat. For CR-Zs sold outside of Japan, the seat is replaced with a pair of storage bins and a fold down partition that separates the cargo space. If you want to leave something in the car but out of sight, the partition covers the bins and expands the cargo area from 10.1 to 25.1 cubic feet.

Just as most hatchbacks do, Honda includes a retractable cover for the cargo area which can be removed if you fold down the partition and need space for taller objects. Unlike most other cars, Honda has included a pair of notches along the edge of the cargo floor to snap the cover into so  that you don't have to leave it behind in the garage.

Up front in the passenger space, Honda's designers have have produced a modern looking instrument cluster and dashboard that is ergonomically superior to the five-door Insight hybrid that launched a year ago. The plastic surfaces are all hard but they are reasonably nicely textured and don't look too cheap. The real problem is that there are too many different textures and colors and the entire effect is a bit too busy.

 The gauge cluster has a centrally mounted analog tachometer with a digital speedometer in the center. A shaded circle in front of the speedometer gives the visual effect of the numbers floating in front of the tach. The black circle is surrounded by a glowing halo giving it the look of a solar eclipse. In the normal or econ modes the halo glows blue or green depending on how efficiently you are driving. 

One of the distinguishing features of the CR-Z is the addition of a sport mode which increases the responsiveness of the electronic throttle as well as the effort for the electric power assist steering. Sport mode also brings in full electric motor torque when the driver floors the throttle on manual transmission models.

Speaking of transmissions, the CR-Z is the first Honda hybrid since the original Insight to offer the choice of a manual transmission in addition to the continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CR-Z gets the same slick shifting manual gearbox that we so enjoyed in the non-hybrid Fit. The alternative is the steel belt CVT also found in the Insight and Civic hybrid. While the CVT offers a bit more efficiency than the manual, its characteristics really aren't in keeping with the purported sporting nature of the CR-Z.

Also contributing to that nature are a larger engine than the one found in the other two hybrids. The 1.5-liter inline-four is rated a 113 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. When paired with the 10 kilowatt motor, the net output is lifted to 122 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. While the torque boost doesn't seem like much, it arrives between 1,000 and 1,750 rpm which does much to improve the driveability of the CR-Z.

The rubber on the CR-Z is larger and grippier than what you'll find on the Insight, but it's still of the low rolling resistance variety. That means that grip is limited when trying to get a clean launch in the coupe. By no means is the CR-Z a drag racer but the new powertrain does generate sufficient thrust for some spirited back road driving. The Honda is no 370Z or even Miata but it is a worthy competitor to the Scion tC or the base Mini Cooper. 

When we drove the Insight last year we were extremely disappointed in its ride quality. Small, sharp inputs like frost heaves were not filtered out and the car felt bouncy overall. In spite of its short wheelbase, the chassis engineers did a much better job sorting this one out. Even on the terribly scarred roads that afflict southeast Michigan, the suspension did an admirable job of absorbing the contours while keeping the body roll to a minimum. At the limit the CR-Z still understeers but up to that point it's a fun drive.

Honda's IMA system is a mild hybrid. That means the 10 kW motor is insufficient to propel the car on electricity alone. Once speed drops below 15 mph with the transmission in neutral, the engine shuts off. As soon as the clutch pedal is depressed, the engine seamlessly fires back up. During acceleration, the motor and battery provide extra acceleration boost and then recaptures kinetic energy during braking. Compared to the Civic, the CR-Z's hybrid control is considerably smoother with no noticeable lumps as the regenerative braking is phased out at low speed.

As a hybrid, one might expect excellent fuel economy from the CR-Z and while it does well, this is absolutely no Prius. The EPA rates the CVT version at 35 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. The manual transmission model that we tested is rated at 31 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. Over a week of driving we averaged 36 mpg with time spent in econ, normal and sport modes. That can't approach the 50 mpg that a Prius can achieve, but as mpg rises, the fuel savings flatten out. If gas is $3.00 per gallon and you drive 15,000 miles a year, going from 36 to 50 mpg only yields savings of $345 per year.

The base manual transmission 2011 CR-Z starts at $19,950 including the delivery charge. The EX model with navigation and CVT maxes out at $23,960. A manual transmission EX with navigation like the one that we drove will cost you $23,310. The CR-Z has this high-mileage sport coupe segment more or less to itself for the moment, but when the Hyundai Veloster debuts later this year or early next year, it is rumored to get 40 mpg even without a hybrid system and should come in at a significantly lower price point. It looks like we are in for some interesting times in this segment.  The CR-Z goes on sale in the U.S. on August 24.


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