- Smart styling stands out
- Only small hybrid with stick shift
- 'Boost' mode adds power jolt
- Superb gauge, display graphics
- Fuel efficiency not all that high
- Ride deteriorates on rough roads
- CVT hurts any pretense of sporty driving
- Remarkably little luggage space
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.
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.