The 2013 Honda CR-Z makes an effort to boost its performance credentials, with a more powerful electric motor and a boost mode for short bursts of added acceleration. But it's still no rollerskate CRX, whose crisp performance (in a car so lightweight that it would never survive safety testing today) has passed into legend.
The CR-Z can be fun, especially with the six-speed manual gearbox, since its engine likes to rev--though some will invariably add, "well, for a hybrid, anyway." The powertrain is roughly the same one that's used in the Honda Civic Hybrid, with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a 15-kilowatt (20-horsepower) electric motor sandwiched between engine and transmission. The hybrid Civic doesn't offer the six-speed manual, though.
The CR-Z's powertrain has gained slightly more performance--130 hp combined, versus last year's 122--and the torque of the manual-shift version has risen from 128 pounds-feet to 140 lb-ft. In addition, Honda has added a "Plus Sport System" that lets the driver press a "S+" button on the steering wheel to deliver an extra boost of electric torque for up to 5 seconds if the battery has sufficient charge.
The changes are courtesy of a new lithium-ion battery pack, first introduced on the 2012 Civic Hybrid, which replaces the CR-Z's former nickel-metal-hydride pack. Still,, like all mild hybrids from Honda, the CR-Z can't move away from rest on electric power alone. Instead, the battery energy is used to supplement engine torque and restart the engine when the car moves away from a stop.
The six-speed CR-Z (available on all three trim levels, to Honda's credit) may be fun to drive, but the version with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) gets a combined gas-mileage rating of 37 mpg--which is 3 mpg better than the manual. We suspect it's not nearly as enjoyable as the manual, despite paddle shifters that provide simulated "upshifts" and "downshifts" to wring more power out of the otherwise uber-economical engine programming.
There's not only an "Econ" button on the dash, like every new Honda, but also a Sport mode. Each of the three modes (including Normal) maps the throttle response, transmission shift points and ratios, and other settings differently. Few will voluntarily use the joyless, slow, and frustrating Econ mode, which slows acceleration and has a disconcerting habit of rapidly losing momentum on hills. It also reduces the climate-control output.
The Sport mode--with its added boost function for 2013--brings the CR-Z closer to the sports car it looks like. Drivers will still feel the transition from electric assist to regenerative braking as the electric motor switches tasks, and they may occasionally feel the transition from regenerative to friction braking as well, but the Sport mode makes the steering quicker, the engine more responsive, and the accelerator pedal less resistant to full power.
Handling-wise, the CR-Z is small and chuckable. It's not quite a sports car, but it's definitely not a traditional hybrid hatchback. Like most front-wheel drive Hondas, it understeers at the limit, scrubbing off speed with the front tires. It has nowhere near the balance of a Mazda Miata, but with a lower seating position, a shorter wheelbase, and more power than the Insight, it may be the most fun hybrid on the road south of the German and Japanese luxury makes.It's not so much fun to drive that you'll find yourself testing the limits regularly, though.
The electric power steering is decently weighted and provides some feedback (not all Japanese makers have mastered that trick), but the short wheelbase and torsion-beam rear suspension mean the ride starts at firm and can degenerate into crashy on bad road surfaces.
With combined ratings of 34 mpg (manual) or 37 mpg (CVT), former CRX owners will likely whine that their cars got better mileage than that--which they likely did. But they also had minimal safety equipment, far fewer features, polluted more, and weighed 700 pounds less. In other words, you couldn't legally sell a brand-new CRX today--so the CR-Z may be as good as you're going to get.