New & Used Honda CR-Z: In Depth
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Honda intends for its CR-Z to be a sporty hybrid, and with only two seats, is the smallest hybrid on sale today. Accentuating its sporty intent, the CR-Z has a low-slung cabin and an available manual transmission for more driver involvement in the fuel-efficient process.
Competitors for the CR-Z are few and include the Hyundai Veloster, MINI Cooper Coupe, and the Fiat 500 Abarth, but none of those are hybrids and all offer at least some kind of back seat, even if it is compromised.
Closely related to the Honda Insight hybrid hatchback that was discontinued after the 2014 model year, the CR-Z is Honda's smallest current offering and its only two-seater in the U.S.
MORE: Read our 2015 Honda CR-Z review
From a styling perspective, the CR-Z evokes the design heritage of Honda's famed CRX coupe of the Eighties and Nineties. But sales have hardly been stellar, and the CR-Z turns out to face a kind of existential crisis: It's neither the most efficient two-seat car nor the sportiest. In working to balance between those two qualities, Honda has built a car that's not top of the class for either.
The Honda CR-Z was introduced as a totally new model for 2011, and for 2013, Honda gave it a mild freshening with a new grille and bumper, revised front styling, an air inlet molding, and daytime LED running lights in the headlamps.
Opinions on the CR-Z's design vary a lot; some feel the little hatchback looks great, while others see it as nothing more than a squashed two-door Insight, with a tall hoodline and incoherent interior themes. Anyone who's been in a recent Civic or Insight will recognize the two-level instrument panel, but its colors and shapes are edgier than those of the Insight, and your choice of performance mode--and driving style--will cause the gauge cluster to change color, from green (most efficient) through blue to red (highest output, lowest gas mileage).
The CR-Z's 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is mated to Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system, giving a combined peak output 122 horsepower. As in the Insight and the Civic Hybrid, the IMA hardware is technically a mild-hybrid system, since it can't move the vehicle from a stoplight on electric power alone. It does permit electric-only cruising for very short distances with the gasoline engine off, but only under an extremely limited set of running conditions.
Honda's mild-hybrid IMA system has been around for several years in a handful of models; the CR-Z is the low-volume member of the group. The IMA equipment includes a small electric motor that restarts the 1.3- or 1.5-liter engine after stops and also contributes additional torque under heavy load. The helper motor allows fitment of a smaller engine than would otherwise be needed in the vehicle. But like other such cars, the CR-Z can't run solely on electricity, as do full hybrids. Honda has said its future small hybrids will add that capability.
The CR-Z saw some updates for the 2013 model year, with the most important pertaining to the engine and hybrid system; the engine was retuned to boost its output to 119 horsepower, and the electric motor was enlarged from 10 kilowatts (15 hp) to 15 kW (22 hp). A new, smaller lithium-ion battery pack similar to the one used in the 2012 Honda Civic replaced the previous nickel-metal-hydride pack, cutting both its size and weight. A new "boost" button was added that allows the driver to call on the electric motor for extra torque, assuming the battery is more than 50 percent charged.
The CR-Z is a rarity among hybrids, as it offers a manual transmission in addition to the usual continuously variable transmission (CVT). The manual makes the car more fun, with the electric boost acting like a turbo when it kicks in. The CVT does provide better fuel economy, which is the tradeoff for driver involvement. Even with the manual, the CR-Z doesn't have the handling or performance that its looks suggest. Because of the hybrid equipment, it's heavier than it would be with just a small engine. The result is sluggish acceleration and more body roll than with other small coupes.
Honda offers three driving modes--Sport, Normal, and Economy--to let drivers chose to optimize fuel efficiency or maximize performance. Each has its own calibration for the engine and transmission mapping and adjusts the stiffness and speed of the power steering and throttle response. The CR-Z's character changes for the better in Sport mode, feeling more nimble and responsive behind the wheel.
Like most small two-seaters, the packaging of the CR-Z is tight. Its two seats are roomy and supportive, though the driving position is a bit low--taller drivers often end up with significant back aches, with no satisfactory angle of adjustment. Where a back seat might be, there is instead a pair of storage wells. Total cargo space is a decent 25 cubic feet, but the load deck is high, so the cargo area just isn't very tall--which keeps it from being truly useful.
Standard features in the CR-Z have included automatic climate control, keyless entry, power accessories, and a six-speaker sound system with USB connectivity. But Bluetooth connectivity is reserved for the EX models. Otherwise a 360-watt premium sound system, bundled with a navigation system, is also on offer.
For the 2015 model year, Honda began offering a kit that should go a long way toward transforming the car's character. For CR-Zs equipped with the manual transmission, the Honda Performance Development (HPD) kit includes a supercharger for the engine, an HPD clutch, a limited-slip differential, new front brakes, a sport suspension, 18-inch wheels, a sport exhaust, and several aero and dress-up parts. Engine output climbs to 187 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque. For CVT-equipped models, the engine is left alone but the other dynamic and aesthetic improvements apply. It's likely that fuel economy will suffer a bit, swinging the CR-Z's balance farther toward sport, but since it's a dealer-installed kit, the setup doesn't get tested by the EPA.
Honda chose to discontinue the Insight for 2015; the five-door hatchback was closely related to the CR-Z, sharing powertrain components, and its extinction probably doesn't bode well for the little hybrid coupe. Rumors surrounding the little hatch suggest that the next version might adopt a fuel-efficient turbocharged four-cylinder in place of the current hybrid setup. This would let the model lose substantial weight and bring it more in line with its sporty intentions. Honda has also shown lightweight versions of the CR-Z in the past, and even let journalists drive one of them. If the model does stick around, it would likely get a pretty comprehensive rethink, and maybe even a new name if the changes are far-reaching enough.