2013 Honda CR-Z Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
January 9, 2013

The 2013 Honda CR-Z is your best choice if you're looking for a two-seat hybrid sport coupe, but it doesn't excel in either handling or fuel economy.

The 2013 Honda CR-Z is the sole two-seat hybrid hatchback coupe on the market. That seems to be a very small niche, one that may not find all that many buyers. Now in its third year, the CR-Z indeed hasn't lived up to the expectations raised by its launch.

The hope was that the CR-Z would combine the quick, agile handling of the classic CRX sports coupe with the extreme fuel efficiency of the first Insight hybrid, also a two-seat hatchback. Modern safety and feature requirements being what they are, the CR-Z did neither. It weighs 2,600 pounds--the CRX was 700 pounds lighter--and gets notably lower fuel economy ratings than the original (and slower) Insight.

Perhaps if Honda had called the car something different--Insight Coupe? Insight Sport?--there wouldn't have been quite so many expectations.

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So the Honda CR-Z has ended up a subcompact, two-seat hatchback coupe that's zippy enough, but hardly the rollerskate that the CRX was 20 years ago. It delivers decent but not stellar gas mileage, at a combined 37 mpg (36 mpg city, 39 mpg highway) if you order it with the continuously variable transmission (CVT). You can also specify a six-speed manual gearbox, very rare for a hybrid, that makes it sportier to drive but knocks down the mileage to 34 mpg combined (31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway).

Under the skin, the 2013 CR-Z uses much of the same running gear as the Honda Insight, a hybrid subcompact hatchback. That car, launched in 2010, was updated two years later. The CR-Z, launched the next year, follows with its own updates for 2013, which include mild styling updates, interior upgrades, a more powerful electric motor, and a boost function for a burst of extra electric power. The powertrain upgrades come courtesy of a new lithium-ion battery pack, replacing the previous nickel-metal-hydride pack.

The 2013 Honda CR-Z remains a good-looking car from most angles, and it's comfortable for two people to travel in--assuming they're willing to pack light, since luggage space is hardly abundant. With a base price under $21,000 (including delivery) for the manual version, it competes with the MINI Cooper (especially the new two-seat MINI Cooper Coupe), and perhaps the new Volkswagen Beetle, along with the Scion tC. Top-of-the-line models reach about $25,000.

But buyers really have to want a two-seat car to buy the Insight. For that same money--or less--the new Chevrolet Sonic and Ford Fiesta subcompacts seat twice as many people, hold more cargo, and are just as much fun to toss around. Both are good cars, and deliver close to the same highway gas mileage. And the 2013 Chevy Sonic RS adds a dash of hot hatch, too. Or if you want to maximize fuel economy, there are now four separate Prius hybrid models that do better than Honda's hybrid hatchback coupe. Which seems to leave the CR-Z in a very small niche indeed.

7

2013 Honda CR-Z

Styling

The 2013 Honda CR-Z wants to remind you of the classic CRX, but its proportions are off; inside, the instrument colors verge on the gaudy.

The 2013 Honda CR-Z, just three years old, has received some mild styling updates, but the basic--and distinctive--shape remains the same. Despite its small footprint, the two-seat hatchback coupe has a substantial presence on the road, in part due to the wide cabin on such a short wheelbase.

The 2013 CR-Z blends elements of its 1983-1991 CRX ancestor, the first Insight two-seat hybrid coupe of 1999, and elements of the modern-day Insight subcompact whose running gear it shares. Modern-day crash requirements extend the length of the hood and front end, which make the two-seat cabin look very short. The high tail was a theme of both the CRX and first Insight, complete with vertical glass panel for better rear visibility.

The CR-Z's windshield is steeply raked, and the long doors and rising beltline makes the triangular rear side windows very small. Overall the effect is sporty--even if the profile is slightly unbalanced from certain angles. While it's distinctive, we're not convinced that it rises to the level of attractive.

For 2013, Honda has updated the front fascia and given both the headlamps and tail lamps a blue tint, similar to that added to the Insight last year. The CR-Z's front grille now has a mesh texture, rather than horizontal bars, and the rear bumper has an added diffuser section that's aerodynanically functional.

Two new colors also joined the list for 2013, including the deep purple Passion Berry Pearl, and Polished Metal Metallic.

Inside, the dashboard carries over the two-tier display familiar from not only the Insight hybrid but also two generations of the Civic line.The top of the dash wraps around toward the driver, and it's covered in pleasantly soft-touch materials--unlike other, grimmer Honda interiors.

Gauges in blue, green, and red add splashes of color to the CR-Z, and are far more visually appealing than the monochrome scatter of icons, numbers, and displays in some Prius models. Plus, they're educational: The colors can guide you toward more economical driving, with bright, angry red showing maximum performance (high gas consumption), while the more soothing cool green and blue colors show more fuel efficient driving styles.

For 2013, Honda has updated the trim finishes and revised the CR-Z's door panels, which now offer more storage space and feature bottle holders.

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2013 Honda CR-Z

Performance

The 2013 Honda CR-Z adds a boost mode for acceleration, and performs better than most hybrids; the six-speed manual is the most fun.

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.

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2013 Honda CR-Z

Comfort & Quality

The 2013 Honda CR-Z will force you to pack light--and to pick just one special friend to travel with.

The 2013 Honda CR-Z is a small, low, two-seat hatchback coupe just a bit more than 13 feet long--that much is obvious. But with a low roofline, a battery pack under the rear deck, and a plethora of tough modern crash-safety regulations to meet, it's even smaller inside than you might expect.

The two front seats are roomy and supportive, though the seating position is lower than in the Insight. The cloth seats are well bolstered, and are both wide and tall, meaning most drivers will fit comfortably. But two of our test drivers suffered back-aches within 90 minutes in the seats, which aren't as adjustable as we would have liked.

Up front, two adult men may still find their knees touching if they have long legs. Also, the passenger must remember to keep his left leg clear of the six-speed manual transmission shift lever, so the driver doesn't whack it into his knee. The cargo bay's high floor means you'd better pack in soft luggage and forgo any rectangular boxes larger than, say, a shoebox.

Where other markets get vestigial rear seats--U.S. rear-seat headrest rules precluded them here--there are only a pair of storage bins with about the volume of dishpans inside. They're under a flip-down panel that resembles nothing so much as an Igloo Cooler cover. Then there's the cargo cover, which has three positions and folds down so two sets of golf clubs can be carried. But golfers and others will find the liftover high and the hatch opening narrow. Total cargo space is given as 25.1 cubic feet, far less than the capacity of a subcompact five-door hatch with its rear seat folded down.

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Did we mention that the CR-Z is a small, low car with not a lot of space inside?
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2013 Honda CR-Z

Safety

The 2013 Honda CR-Z doesn't have the highest crash-test scores, and rear visibility is severely compromised.

The 2013 Honda CR-Z received the highest rating of "Good" for frontal offset and side-impact crash tests, as well as for roof strength, from the the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). It's worth noting that the earlier 2011 model, however, was rated by the IIHS only as "Acceptable" for roof strength. The CR-Z hasn't yet been rated by the IIHS on its new Small Overlap Front crash test.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), however, gives the 2013 CR-Z an overall four-star safety rating. It gets five stars for rollover, four stars for frontal crash, but only three stars for side impact. Both the overall and frontal crash ratings were one star lower for the 2011 CR-Z model, however.

One place the 2013 CR-Z falls down safety-wise is its lack of outward visibility. The roof pillars are thick, the quarter windows are tiny, and the scene in the rear-view mirror is split by the bar connecting the two slit-like tailgate windows--one short and vertical, the other long but almost horizontal. That means the rear three-quarter view is almost non-existent; there are no good angles to show the driver what's to the side and 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 has a feature we particularly like, known as hill assist, which keeps the brakes engaged on manual-transmission cars when they are stopped on a slope. It comes standard with dual front, side, and side-curtain airbags, along with active head restraints for the seats. And the 2013 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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2013 Honda CR-Z

Features

Even base 2013 Honda CR-Z models have a decent level of features, though dealer accessories are lacking.

There are just three trim levels for the 2013 Honda CR-Z: the base car, slightly less than $21,000 with delivery; the fancier EX version, which adds $1,690 to the price; and the EX with navigation, which adds another $1,500. Because it's a low-volume car, that keeps the process simple and the number of variations to a manageable number. And credit Honda with offering the six-speed manual on all three trim levels.

But the features are plentiful even on the base CR-Z. They include power locks, windows, and door mirrors; automatic climate control (which is rare on smaller two-seaters); cruise control; keyless entry; and a 160-Watt, six-speaker CD audio system with steering-wheel mounted controls and USB connectivity.

The higher-level EX model adds leather trim; fog lamps and high-intensity discharge headlamps; some metal trim accents for the interior; and Bluetooth connectivity (which we think should be standard by now). New for 2013, the EX with the navigation system gets a 6.5-inch touchscreen display with not only voice recognition, but also Pandora internet radio and an SMS messaging facility. A more powerful 360-Watt stereo system with seven speakers, including a subwoofer, is an option.

The one drawback for buyers who want to personalize their CR-Zs is the woeful lack of dealer-installed options. Unlike Scion--which set the bar in dealer accessories--there are no fancy graphics, drilled pedals, fancy doorplates, interior lighting, or tuner-look options. The aftermarket offers lots of gear, especially wheels, but you'll have to seek it out, because your Honda dealer doesn't.

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2013 Honda CR-Z

Fuel Economy

The 2013 Honda CR-Z is rated at a combined 37 mpg with the CVT, a respectable number--though far from the highest.

If you opt for the continuously variable transmission, the 2013 Honda CR-Z gets a combined EPA fuel efficiency rating of 37 mpg (36 mpg city, 39 mpg highway). The six-speed manual gearbox, which is far more fun to drive, brings that combined rating down to 34 mpg (31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway). These ratings are marginally better than those of the 2011 and 2012 models, but they're far from the top of the heap for hybrids.

So in absolute terms, the Honda CR-Z gets quite good but not record-breaking fuel economy. The challenge is that if you're buying for its efficiency, you're giving up a lot of space for people and goods. 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.

And unlike the Prius C, the CR-Z's mild hybrid system compromises the driving fun that you would expect from a sporty two-seat hatchback coupe. The CR-Z is as heavy as the more efficient Insight, but holds half as many people and less luggage. In trying to strike a compromise among sporty styling, the character of a coupe, and the fuel efficiency of a hybrid, the Honda CR-Z ends up excelling in none of those qualities.

Which means that you really have to want a small two-seat hatchback that also gets 34 to 37 mpg to put the CR-Z at the top of your shopping list.

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