2014 Honda CR-Z Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
August 18, 2014

If you're looking for a two-seat hybrid hatchback coupe, the 2014 Honda CR-Z is your only choice--but many other small cars offer more driving fun, or higher fuel efficiency, often at equal cost.

The 2014 Honda CR-Z is the lowest-selling car across the Japanese maker's lineup, and it's never really found its niche. It may be the only hybrid car in the world that's a two-seat hatchback small enough to rate the designation of subcompact. Regrettably, the little CR-Z is neither quick nor lithe enough to be sporty, but neither are its fuel economy numbers remarkable. In fact, they pale against those of many other, larger four- and five-seat cars.

Originally, the CR-Z was intended to marry the rollerskate character and handling agility of the much-loved 1983-1991 Honda CRX to a modern, fuel-efficient hybrid powertrain--the same one used in the Honda Insight five-door hybrid hatchback, which was expected to sell in much higher volumes than it has. But both cars are let down by their mild hybrid systems, and the CR-Z in particular ends up as neither fish nor fowl. By today's standards, it's a tiny car for just two people, with almost no cargo space. But its gas mileage--rated by the EPA at 37 mpg combined for the more fuel-efficient model--isn't all that good. In fact, it's walloped by the 50-mpg combined rating of the larger, more capacious Toyota Prius.

The CR-Z's engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder unit that's paired with a 15-kilowatt (20-horsepower) electric motor between the engine and transmission. Last year's upgrade boosted the output to 130 horsepower, and the six-speed manual version now has rated torque of 140 lb-ft. Last year also saw the addition of a boost function: a "Plus Sport System" lets the driver press a steering-wheel button marked "S+" that directs the battery to deliver an extra jolt of electric torque for up to 5 seconds if its charge is sufficient. The battery pack now uses lithium-ion cells--the CR-Z was the last Honda to make the switch, last year--which are lighter and have higher energy density than the previous nickel-metal-hydride pack used in the 2011-2012 CR-Z.

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Fuel efficiency depends on the transmission you choose. Get the continuously variable transmission (CVT), and the car is rated a combined 37 mpg (36 mpg city, 39 mpg highway). It's also available with a six-speed manual gearbox--making it one of very few hybrids indeed with a stick--which gives it a sportier driving character, but reduces mileage to 34 mpg combined (31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway).

The Honda CR-Z's styling blends elements of the classic CRX--long hood, long doors, not much behind that--with a few cues from the first-generation Insight hybrid two-seater. Those include the narrowing tail and the vertical second rear window in the tailgate. It's a good-looking car from most angles, but its sporty looks aren't adequately backed up by its driving character.

Inside, the two-tier instrument panel uses bright colors to convey vehicle operating information as well as the usual speed, engine revs, and the rest. The seats are well bolstered, although a number of reviewers have suffered back aches as a result of their limited range of adjustment. The interior received a few mild upgrades last year, as did the running gear.

Part of the challenge in designing the CR-Z was simply meeting modern safety requirements in a small car, which adds weight. The 2014 CR-Z weighs 2,600 pounds--fully 700 pounds more than the CRX of 30 years ago--and its fuel efficiency ratings are notably lower than those of the original (much slower) Insight. It has a full complement of airbags for two people, and its longer front end reflects considerably more robust crash structures. The old CRX had no airbags and would likely be horrifying in today's tougher crash tests.

Competitors for the CR-Z range from the Scion tC, a sportier prospect altogether; several models of the sprawling MINI Cooper line; the Fiat 500; and perhaps even the larger Volkswagen Beetle. The base price of the cheaper manual-gearbox version will likely remain at less than $21,000 including delivery, though top-of-the-line versions can reach around $25,000.

The CR-Z's challenge is that there are sportier cars out there, but there are also more fuel-efficient models. The Chevrolet Sonic and updated-for-2014 Ford Fiesta are both five-door subcompact hatchbacks that offer more space and real-world fuel efficiency in the low 30s for less money. If you want sporty, there's the Fiat 500 Abarth, the Chevy Sonic RS, the Ford Fiesta ST, and the standard Mazda 2. Or if you're all about fuel efficiency, four separate Toyota Prius models are all rated higher than the CR-Z--though none of them are remotely sporty. The CR-Z has suffered from this betwixt-and-between identity since its launch, and its sales have been correspondingly low.

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2014 Honda CR-Z

Styling

The 2014 Honda CR-Z updates classic CRX style cues for a new era, complete with video-game interior.

The 2014 Honda CR-Z is all but unchanged in its fourth year. It's still a distinctive shape: a low, wide rollerskate of a hatchback on a very short wheelbase, with seemingly half its length in front of the steeply raked windshield and an oddly truncated high tail.

The goal was to blend influences from three different cars: the much-loved 1983-1991 CRX two-seat hatchback, the 1999-2006 Insight two-seat hybrid coupe, and today's Insight subcompact five-door hatchback. The result is distinctive, a compromise that incorporates minimal aerodynamic drag and the dictates of modern crash structures in a way that the CRX never had to. The CR-Z's tall tail, with a vertical glass panel to improve rear visibility, was a theme of both the CRX and the first Insight.

Last year's CR-Z got a slightly updated nose and tail, including blue tinted headlamps and tail lamps. but the differences won't be visible unless you're an aficionado. Overall, the car conveys presence on the road, even if we're not convinced you could call it attractive.

Inside, the wraparound dashboard has the two tier layout familiar to Civic and Insight drivers. Unlike certain grim Honda interiors, the dash is covered in soft-touch materials. As of last year, there's more storage in the door panels than early models--but this is absolutely a pack-light and leave-the-rest-at-home car.

Gauges that switch among blue (normal), green (efficient driving), and red (Sport mode) light up the interior. They're also educational: Drivers can be guided toward using less fuel if they work to keep the displays as green as possible. The CR-Z is small enough that you could consider it something like a video game on wheels.

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2014 Honda CR-Z

Performance

The 20143 Honda CR-Z performs better than most hybrids, with a boost mode for acceleration; we prefer the six-speed manual.

The 2014 Honda CR-Z is a small, tossable two-seat hatchback that's not quite a sports car. It's also not quite an uber-efficient fuel economy champ, which is pretty much the summary of its problems: It tries to be two things and succeeds at neither.

On the road, the CR-Z understeers in hard cornering, as do most front-wheel-drive Hondas. The seating position is low, the wheelbase is short, and at least it has more power than the Insight five-door hatchback (whose running gear it shares). So it's fun to drive, especially where its short length and nippy character let it scamper around bigger, more ponderous vehicles.

But it's no Mazda Miata, and you're not likely to find yourself testing its limits regularly. The six-speed manual gearbox vastly increases the sports car character, at the price of lower fuel efficiency. The version with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) also has paddle shifters that provide simulated "upshifts" and "downshifts" to wring more power out of the high-revving engine.The CR-Z has decent feedback from the electric power steering, but you'll find its ride firm at best, and downright harsh and thumpy on rougher roads.

The CR-Z's powertrain is similar to that used in the Honda Civic Hybrid: a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a 15-kilowatt (20-horsepower) electric motor sandwiched between engine and transmission. It's rated at 130 horsepower combined, with torque of 140 lb-ft. Its most interesting feature may be the "Plus Sport System," which lets the driver press a "S+" button on the steering wheel to deliver an extra jolt of electric torque for up to 5 seconds (if the lithium-ion battery has sufficient charge).

Like all of Honda's mild hybrids using its Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, the CR-Z can't move away from rest on electric power alone. The battery energy instead turns the electric motor to supplement engine torque, and restart the engine when the car prepares to move away from a stop.

Few drivers will voluntarily use the joyless, slow, and frustrating Econ mode more than once. It slows the CR-Z's acceleration and lets the car rapidly lose momentum on hills, which is somewhere between disconcerting and unsafe. It also reduces the climate-control output. At the other end of the scale is the Sport mode, which brings the CR-Z closer to the sports car it looks like.

Drivers will feel the transition from electric assist to regenerative braking in any mode, as the electric motor switches tasks-- and they may occasionally feel the transition from regenerative to friction braking as well. But the Sport mode maps the throttle response, transmission shift points and ratios, and other settings differently. It makes the steering quicker, the engine more responsive, and the accelerator pedal less resistant to full power--and adds that "Plus Sport" battery boost system as well.

The CR-Z is rated at 37 mpg combined with the CVT, 34 mpg combined with the six-speed manual. That's very close to far larger and less expensive subcompacts that will actually let you carry more than one piece of soft luggage per person. We suspect that buyers might be more forgiving of its limitations if the CR-Z were a minimalist two-seat convertible in the vein of the old MG Midget. Sadly, it's not.

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2014 Honda CR-Z

Comfort & Quality

The 2014 Honda CR-Z is comfortable enough for two people with one piece of soft lugage each; that's it.

The 2014 Honda CR-Z may have less room inside it than any other car on the market below $50,000. It even makes the Mazda Miata look capacious. At least the Mazda has a trunk, rather than a tiny cargo bay with high load floor that's crammed between the backs of the front seats and the truncated tail.

At a little more than 13 feet long, the CR-Z has to meet today's crash-safety standards, meaning that almost half its length sits ahead of the occupants. The two seats are supportive and well bolstered, and accommodate even taller drivers. But two of our test drivers suffered back-aches within 90 minutes in the seats. The seating position is low, perhaps lower than almost any other vehicle on the road short of a supercar.

One problem: The seats are hemmed in by the rear bulkhead and side doors, so they're not nearly as adjustable in any dimension as we would have liked. And although the CR-Z is wide, two tall people may still find their inside knees touching. The passenger has to keep his left leg clear of the manual transmission shift lever, otherwise the driver ends up whacking it into his knee. Over and over and over. 

Behind the two seats is a small shelf, whose floor contains a pair of storage bins with the inside volume of kitchen dishpans. They're under a flip-down panel that resembles nothing so much as an Igloo Cooler cover. A three-position cargo cover that separates the passengers from the load bay can be folded down to carry golf clubs.

But the hatch opening is narrow, and the liftover is high--because there's a battery pack below the load floor. Total cargo space is listed as 25.1 cubic feet, but it doesn't seem that big--and forget about those 3' x 3' x 5' cardboard boxes. Just rent a truck.

The CR-Z really is that small--and because it's low, the space is organized very different from the Smart ForTwo, a two-seater that surprises passengers with how much room it has inside. That's not the case with the CR-Z.  Did we mention that the CR-Z is a small, low car with not a lot of space inside?

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2014 Honda CR-Z

Safety

The 2014 Honda CR-Z has appalling rear visibility, and its crash safety test scores aren't the highest either.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded the 2014 Honda CR-Z its highest rating of "Good" for frontal offset and side-impact crash tests, as well as for roof strength. The institute rated the earlier 2011 model only as "Acceptable" for roof strength, with Honda modifying the car to improve its score. Due to its meager sales, the IIHS hasn't rated the CR-Z on its new small-overlap crash test.

The CR-Z gets an overall four-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)--one star below the highest level. It gets four stars for frontal crash and five stars for rollover, but only three for side impact. Again, the 2011 model scored even lower, and 2012 and later models were upgraded and re-tested.

Perhaps the car's most obvious safety flaw is the appalling lack of outward visibility to the rear. While the little Honda can slot into the most minimal parking space, the process of getting it in won't be any fun.

The CR-Z's roof pillars are thick, its rear quarter windows are minuscule, and the bar that connects the two slit-like tailgate windows--one short and vertical, the other long but almost horizontal--splits the scene in the rear-view mirror in half. That means rear three-quarter vision is almost non-existent; and there are no good angles to show the driver what's behind and to the side of the car.

We did, however, appreciate the hill assist feature. It keeps the brakes engaged on manual-transmission cars when they are stopped on a slope. Honda fits six airbags to the two-seat car: dual front, side, and side-curtain bags, plus active head restraints for the seats. And the CR-Z has the usual suite of electronic safety systems, including anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and tire-pressure warning sensors.

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2014 Honda CR-Z

Features

Every 2014 Honda CR-Z, even the base trim, is nicely equipped, but options are few and dealer add-ons are lacking too.

The 2014 Honda CR-Z has three simple trim levels, with plentiful features even on the base car, which comes in at around $21,000 with delivery. All CR-Z models come with power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; keyless entry; automatic climate control--a rare fitting on smaller two-seaters; and a six-speaker CD audio system rated at 160 watts, including USB connectivity and controls on the steering wheel.

Move up to the middle EX trim level, and you'll get leather trim; high-intensity discharge headlamps; fog lamps; some metal trim accents for the interior; and Bluetooth connectivity (which really ought to be standard these days).

Finally, there's the EX with Navigation model, new last year. In fact, it's not just the navigation system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen display that differentiates this model, but also voice commands, Pandora internet radio, and an SMS messaging facility. It also features an optional and much more powerful 360-watt stereo system with seven speakers, including a subwoofer.

Including a handful of paint colors, that's about the extent of the variations you can have in a CR-Z. It's a low-volume car, so the limited selection keeps the process simple and the number of variations manageable . Note that Honda lets you order the six-speed manual gearbox on all of the three trim levels. The only real drawback is a woeful lack of personalization options for the CR-Z at your local dealer, unlike Scion and MINI, to name two small-car brands that excel at letting buyers customize their new cars. Even for custom wheels, you'll have to go to the aftermarket.

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2014 Honda CR-Z

Fuel Economy

The 2014 Honda CR-Z earns a respectable 37 mpg combined rating (with the CVT), but it's no Prius.

The 2014 Honda CR-Z with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) gets a reasonable EPA combined rating of 37 mpg (36 mpg city, 39 mpg highway). For our money, the version with the six-speed manual gearbox--the only one fitted to any hybrid sold in the U.S.--is more rewarding to drive, but you'll pay the price in fuel efficiency. Its ratings drop to 34 mpg (31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway). And these are some of the lowest ratings for any hybrid this small.

So while the CR-Z gets good fuel economy, you give up a lot--including a rear seat--to get it. There are any number of hybrids that are larger and more capacious that outdo the littlest Honda on fuel efficiency too, including three different models of the Toyota Prius--and even the new Mitsubishi Mirage, which does without a hybrid. The Toyota Prius C subcompact, for instance, gets a combined 50-mpg rating, and even Honda's own Insight--like the Prius C, a five-door subcompact hatchback--is rated at 42 mpg combined.

Moreover, the CR-Z's mild hybrid system doesn't offer the allure of all-electric running, unlike any of those Prius models. Nor is the fun, sporty coupe that its CRX antecedent was. So you've given up two seats and most of your luggage volume for a car that doesn't really deliver on its sporty appearance. To put the CR-Z at the top of your shopping list, you really have to want a very small two-seat hatchback that also gets 34 to 37 mpg. 

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