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.