2015 Honda CR-Z Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
July 6, 2015

If you want small, fun, and fuel-efficient, there are other options to consider, but if you're looking for a two-seat hybrid hatchback coupe, the 2015 Honda CR-Z is really your only choice.

Even now, after five years of slow and dwindling sales, the 2015 Honda CR-Z remains a bit of an oddball in the market. It's a hybrid, but not a terribly fuel-efficient one. It's a two-seat sports coupe (technically a three-door hatchback), but it's not all that sporty to drive. However, it does remain the sole hybrid you can buy with a manual gearbox.

In the beginning, the CR-Z was meant to channel happy memories of the sporty, nippy, fuel-sipping CR-X two-seater of two decades ago. That beloved Honda CR-X was a small Civic-based hatchback with an emphasis on handling and low weight. The CR-Z was going to take that car's concept, add a simple hybrid powertrain for fuel economy, and keep the fun dream of a thrifty, nippy sport coupe alive.

Unfortunately, modern safety and the hybrid powertrain added a lot of weight, and the feeling that resulted just couldn't compare to the CR-X, a car from another era entirely. In a car market that increasingly opts for utility vehicles over passenger cars, the CR-Z's small size and two seats present a major drawback for many--and its very limited cargo capacity undermines its suggestion of hatchback practicality. And its gas mileage--rated by the EPA at 37 mpg combined for the more fuel-efficient model--is walloped by the 50-mpg combined rating of the far larger, more capacious, five-seat Toyota Prius

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The 2015 CR-Z's styling blends elements of the classic CR-X--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 extra vertical rear window in the hatch. 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 and engine revs. The seats are well bolstered, although a number of reviewers have suffered back aches as a result of their limited range of adjustment.

The CR-Z's engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder unit that's paired with a 15-kilowatt (20-horsepower) electric motor sandwiched between the engine and transmission. A 2013 upgrade boosted the output to 130 horsepower, and the six-speed manual version now has rated torque of 140 lb-ft. CR-Zs now also include a boost function: a "Plus Sport System" lets the driver press a steering-wheel button marked "S+" that directs the motor to deliver an extra jolt of electric torque for up to 5 seconds if the battery's charge is sufficient. The battery pack uses lithium-ion cells--the CR-Z was the last Honda to make the switch--which are lighter and have higher energy density than the nickel-metal-hydride pack used in early CR-Zs.

To address some of the criticism that the CR-Z isn't quite sporty enough--finally--Honda will begin offering a kit that should go a long way toward transforming the car's character. For CR-Zs equipped with the manual transmission, the Honda Performance Development (HPD) kit includes a supercharger for the engine, an HPD clutch, a limited-slip differential, new front brakes, a sport suspension, 18-inch wheels, a sport exhaust, and several aero and dress-up parts. Engine output climbs to 187 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque. For CVT-equipped models, the engine is left alone but the other dynamic and aesthetic improvements apply. It's likely that fuel economy will suffer a bit, swinging the CR-Z's balance farther toward sport, but since it's a dealer-installed kit, the setup doesn't get tested by the EPA.

The 2015 CR-Z weighs 2,600 pounds--fully 700 pounds more than the CR-X 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 CR-X had no airbags and would likely be horrifying in today's tougher crash tests.

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 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-in-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 sales have been correspondingly low.

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2015 Honda CR-Z

Styling

The 2015 Honda CR-Z blends modern Honda style with elements of the classic CRX, plus a video-game dash display

The 2015 Honda CR-Z has a distinctive shape. It's a sort of flared-out teardrop with an abruptly truncated rear end. The shape is equal parts sporty and efficient, a blend that's often difficult to get right.

The CR-Z blends influences from three different cars: the much-loved 1983-1991 CRX two-seat hatchback, the 1999-2006 Insight two-seat hybrid coupe, and the later Insight five-door hatchback. The result is distinctive, a compromise that incorporates minimal aerodynamic drag and meets the demands of modern crash structures, something 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. 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. Gauges that switch among blue (normal), green (efficient driving), and red (Sport mode) light up the interior. They're also educational, guiding you toward using less fuel and keeping the displays green as often as possible. As of 2013, there's more storage in the door panels than there was on early models--but this is absolutely a pack-light and leave-the-rest-at-home car.

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2015 Honda CR-Z

Performance

The 2015 Honda CR-Z offers a 'Boost' mode and a six-speed gearbox, making it more sporty than most hybrids

The 2015 Honda CR-Z is a small, tossable two-seat hatchback that's not quite a sports car. It's also not quite an efficiency champ, which is pretty much the summary of its problems: It tries to be two things and succeeds at neither.

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.

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.

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2015 Honda CR-Z

Comfort & Quality

The 2015 Honda CR-Z accommodates two people (and perhaps some soft luggage) but very little else.

The 2015 Honda CR-Z is nice enough inside, with a well-made interior, assuming you don't want to carry more than two people and a limited amount of luggage. It probably works best as a one-person commuter vehicle, as space on a long trip would become a problem.

The seats are supportive and well bolstered, and accommodate even taller drivers. The seating position is low, perhaps lower than almost any other vehicle on the road short of a supercar. But two of our test drivers suffered back-aches within 90 minutes in the seats because of a lack of adjustability. The seats are hemmed in by the rear bulkhead, so they can't be moved in any direction as much as some would like. And although the CR-Z is wide, two tall people may still find their 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 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 an Igloo Cooler cover. A three-position cargo cover that separates the passengers from the cargo area can be folded down to carry golf clubs.

But loading even items that will fit can be a bother. The hatch opening is narrow, and because there's a battery pack below the load floor the liftover is high. Total cargo space is listed as 25.1 cubic feet, but it doesn't even seem that large--and forget about moving even a medium-size cardboard box.

The CR-Z really is that small--and because it's low, the space is organized very differently from the Smart ForTwo, a two-seater that surprises passengers with how much room it has inside. That's definitely not the case with the CR-Z.

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2015 Honda CR-Z

Safety

The 2015 Honda CR-Z doesn't earn the highest crash test scores, and its outward vision to the rear is atrocious.

The CR-Z scores well on nationally recognized crash tests, in part due to Honda redesigning some of the crash structure for 2012, after its first model year.

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.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awards the CR-Z its highest rating of "Good" for frontal offset and side-impact crash tests, as well as for roof strength. Likely due to its meager sales, the IIHS hasn't rated the CR-Z on its new small-overlap crash test. The head restraints and seats are also rated "Good" by the IIHS.

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. Fortunately, all CR-Zs are now equipped with a rearview camera.

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. We also appreciate the hill assist feature, which keeps the brakes engaged on manual-transmission cars when they are stopped on a slope. 

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2015 Honda CR-Z

Features

The 2015 Honda CR-Z has only a few trim levels and options, though it's decently equipped at the price.

The 2015 Honda CR-Z is again available in three trim levels: base, EX, and EX with Navigation.

Even the base car, which comes in at around $21,000, includes plenty of standard equipment. The list includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; a rearview camera; cruise control; keyless entry; automatic climate control--a rarity on smaller cars; and a six-speaker CD audio system rated at 160 watts, including USB connectivity and controls on the steering wheel.

Move up to the 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. While it does add the navigation system for which it's named, with a 6.5-inch touchscreen display, it also includes voice recognition, Pandora internet radio, and an SMS messaging facility. Choosing this top trim also opens up the availability of a more powerful 360-watt stereo system with seven speakers, including a subwoofer.

Note that Honda lets you order the six-speed manual gearbox on all three trim levels. Add in a handful of paint colors, and that's about all the choice CR-Z shoppers have. It's a low-volume car, so the limited selection keeps the process simple and the inventory manageable. The only real drawback is a lack of personalization options for the CR-Z at your local dealer.

That said, new for 2015 is the Honda Performance Development kit, which includes dynamic and aesthetic upgrades to make the CR-Z sportier, including a supercharger for manual-transmission models. It's available as a dealer-installed package.

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2015 Honda CR-Z

Fuel Economy

The 2015 Honda CR-Z's tiny size leads people to think it gets 60 ro 70 mpg, whereas its 37-mpg combined rating isn't even close to a Prius.

While you'll get good--if not world-beating--fuel economy from the 2015 Honda CR-Z, you give up a lot to get it, including a rear seat. The CR-Z gets its best gas mileage with the continuously variable transmission (CVT): an EPA combined rating of 37 mpg (36 mpg city, 39 mpg highway).

The version that's more fun to drive, with the six-speed manual gearbox, requires you to pay the price in fuel efficiency. Its ratings drop to 34 mpg combined (31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway). The CR-Z is, by the way, the sole hybrid vehicle sold in the U.S. that even offers a manual shift.

The problem for the 2015 CR-Z is that any number of hybrids and even a small car or two are larger and more spacious, and handily outdo the littlest Honda on fuel efficiency. That list includes three different models of the Toyota Prius--and even the new Mitsubishi Mirage, which does without a hybrid powertrain.

The Toyota Prius C subcompact, for instance, gets a combined 50-mpg rating, and Honda's own Insight--like the Prius C, a five-door subcompact hatchback--is rated at 42 mpg combined. The Insight was canceled after the 2014 model year, but you can likely still find some on dealer lots.

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 it the fun, sporty coupe that its CRX antecedent was. So you'll give 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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