2016 Honda CR-Z Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 2, 2016

The 2016 Honda CR-Z hybrid hatchback two-seater is the sole car in its segment, but other cars are sportier, more fuel-efficient, and carry more people and luggage.

The 2016 Honda CR-Z sets out to do what only a few vehicles in history have done: blend high efficiency with a high-style, hot-hatchback profile.

Like the BMW i8—only not so extravagantly engineered—the CR-Z mashes up its fuel-efficient hybrid powertrain with the profile sporty two-seater. It ends up not terribly convincing in either aspect. It's not all that entertaining to drive, and its gas mileage is handily outpaced by bigger, more accommodating hybrids.

Its sporty credentials lie almost exclusively in this factoid: It remains the sole hybrid offered with a manual gearbox.

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The original design goal was to add a modern hybrid system into a modern version of the sporty, nippy, fuel-sipping CRX two-seater of two decades ago, much beloved even today. But the requirements of modern safety, plus the hybrid powertrain, added a lot of weight—it's about 700 pounds heavier than the old CRX. The feeling that resulted just couldn't compare to the lightweight coupe from another era entirely.

The long hood and long doors of the CR-Z lead to a narrowing tail with a vertical second rear window in the hatch, borrowed from the now-defunct Insight hybrid. It's a good-looking car from most angles, but the sporty looks aren't adequately supported by its actual driving character. It's now the only surviving Honda with a two-tier instrument panel, which uses bright colors to convey vehicle operating information as well as the usual speed and engine revs. The seats are well bolstered, although their limited range of adjustment gave several reviewers back aches. And luggage space is limited to a couple of small, soft bags—forget about carrying any rectangular cardboard boxes.

The CR-Z is powered by 1.5-liter inline-4 and 15-kw (20-horsepower) electric motor sandwiched between engine and transmission. Output is 130 hp, and the 6-speed manual version has a rated torque of 140 pound-feet. In Sport mode, a boost function known as the "Plus Sport System" lets the driver press a steering-wheel button marked "S+" that delivers an extra jolt of electric torque for up to 5 seconds if the battery's charge is sufficient. The small lithium-ion battery pack is located under the cargo-bay floor, one of the reasons luggage space is so minimal.

The much heavier structure lets the CR-Z comply with modern safety tests the CRX's designers never even dreamed of, though its ratings are only so-so. It has a full complement of airbags, and a rear-vision camera is standard. For 2016, Honda has added its clever LaneWatch system, which shows an image of the lane to the right of the car on the central dash display when the driver signals a right-hand turn. It has a full complement of airbags for two people; the CRX had none at all.

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. There are both sportier cars and more fuel-efficient models out there. The CR-Z has suffered from this betwixt-and-between identity since its launch, and sales have been correspondingly low. Many four- and five-seat small cars are now almost as good on gas mileage, including the Honda Fit subcompact—a perennial favorite for its clever Magic Seat and enormous interior flexibility—that is rated at 37 mpg and sits next to the CR-Z on showroom floors.

Fuel efficiency is better with the continuously variable transmission (CVT), at a combined 36 mpg city, 39 highway, 37 combined. The CR-Z is also available with a 6-speed manual gearbox—making it the sole hybrid with a stick—which gives a sportier driving character, but cuts mileage to 31/38/34 mpg. For context, three models of the Toyota Prius—larger, more comfortable, and offering four or five seats--get 50 mpg combined.

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2016 Honda CR-Z

Styling

The 2016 Honda CR-Z evokes a blend of the two-seat Insight and CRX models, but its interior seems modeled after a video game.

The 2016 Honda CR-Z has gotten a few design tweaks to keep the 6-year-old shape looking modern. They include a reshaped front fascia with a more angular, eight-point grille, and a front air diffuser below. There are also new side sills, and a new alloy-wheel design. At the rear, the fascia has been reshaped, with an interesting boomerang-like trim piece wedged into the back bumper.

But the CR-Z's basic shape remains the same. It's a distinctive flared-out teardrop with an abruptly truncated rear end. The CR-Z blends influences from a pair of different two-seat cars: the much-loved 1983-1991 CRX two-seat hatchback, and the ultra-efficient 1999-2006 Insight two-seat hybrid coupe.

Overall, the car conveys presence on the road, even if we're not convinced you could call it attractive. The shape is equal parts sporty and efficient, a blend that's often difficult to get right. In this case, the CR-Z must strike a balance between minimal aerodynamic drag and meeting the demands of modern crash tests. 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.

With this year's Honda Civic returning to a more traditional dash design, the CR-Z is now the only Honda still using a two-tier dashboard. The quality of the dash materials is decent, though no longer as far above other Hondas as it was. A new display audio system is an update this year, but the CR-Z retains its distinctive gauges, which switch among blue (normal), green (efficient driving), and red (Sport mode). They light up the interior, but also serve to educate drivers, guiding them toward using less fuel and keeping the displays green as often as possible.

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2016 Honda CR-Z

Performance

The 2016 Honda CR-Z isn't really a sports car, despite its 'Boost' mode and a six-speed manual option, unusual for a hybrid.

Now in its sixth year, the 2016 Honda CR-Z remains what it's been since launch: a small, tossable two-seat hatchback that attempts to be both a fuel-efficiency champ and a sports car, but succeeds at neither. It's the sole mild-hybrid still sold by Honda, which has phased out the system once used in Insights and Civic Hybrids as well.

The powertrain is comprised of a 1.5-liter inline-4 and a 15-kw (20-horsepower) electric motor sandwiched between engine and transmission. It offers the unique characteristic of a 6-speed manual gearbox—the only manual on any hybrid sold today—though the fuel economy ratings are higher with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that's the other option.

The two power sources together produce 130 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque. But like all mild hybrids, the CR-Z isn't capable of moving away from rest on electric power alone. Battery energy is used instead to power the electric motor as a supplement to engine torque, and restart the engine when the car prepares to move away from a stop.

The powertrain's most interesting feature, in fact, may be the "Plus Sport System" added midway through the CR-Z's life. If the car's lithium-ion battery pack has sufficient charge, it will deliver an extra jolt of electric torque for up to 5 seconds when the driver press a "S+" button on the steering wheel.

Three drive modes are built in: Normal, Econ, and Sport. The slow, grim, joyless Econ mode will likely be ignored by drivers after they try it once. It saps acceleration and lets the car slow rapidly when going uphill—both disconcerting and potentially unsafe. Sport mode, on the other hand, brings the CR-Z closer to the sports car it resembles. This one maps the throttle response, transmission shift points and ratios, and other settings to make the engine more responsive, the accelerator pedal less resistant to full power, and the steering quicker. And it contributes that "Plus Sport" battery boost system as well.

The transition from electric assist to regenerative braking isn't as smooth as in other hybrids. Drivers will feel it in any mode, as the electric motor switches tasks—and they may occasionally feel the transition from regenerative to friction braking as well.

The Honda CR-Z is no Mazda Miata, and its driving and roadholding doesn't particularly encourage you to test its limits. It understeers in hard cornering, like most front-wheel-drive Hondas. There's decent feedback from the electric power steering, but you'll find the ride firm at best, and downright harsh and thumpy on rougher roads. 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.

Around town, it's nimble, though the low seating position may leave some drivers at a disadvantage among taller vehicles. But the wheelbase is short, so it's fun to drive, especially where its short length and nippy character let it scamper around bigger, more ponderous vehicles. And the six-speed manual gearbox boosts its sports-car character, at the price of lower fuel efficiency. The CVT version has paddle shifters that offer simulated "upshifts" and "downshifts" to wring more power out of the high-revving engine.

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2016 Honda CR-Z

Comfort & Quality

The 2016 Honda CR-Z will fit two occupants, a little bit of soft luggage--and that's it. Seriously.

For a small two-seat car, the 2016 Honda CR-Z is nice enough inside, though its luggage space is severely limited. It may be best as a one-person commuter vehicle, as space for any kind of real luggage on a long trip would pose a problem. Because it's low, the space is organized very differently from the Smart ForTwo—also a two-seater, but one that surprises passengers with how much room it has inside. The CR-Z won't do that.

The interior is well-made, with supportive and well-bolstered seats that accommodate even taller drivers. They'll sit low, perhaps as low as any other car on the road—which takes some getting used to in this era of rampant SUVs and tall pickup trucks.

But two separate test drivers both suffered back-aches after just 90 minutes in the seats, due to the lack of adjustability. The pair of seats is hemmed in by the rear bulkhead, so they can't be moved as much as some would like in any direction. Taller occupants may still find their knees touching despite the car's width, and a passenger has to remember to keep his knee clear of the shift lever in the manual-gearbox models. Otherwise the driver ends up repeatedly whacking it into his knee.

Cargo space is severely compromised, and even loading items that do fit can be a challenge. 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. Because there's a battery pack below the load floor, the lift-over height is high, and the hatch opening is narrow as well.

A small shelf behind the seats contains a pair of storage bins in its floor, 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.

In other words, yes, the CR-Z really is that small.

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2016 Honda CR-Z

Safety

The 2016 Honda CR-Z has only mediocre safety ratings, and over-the-shoulder vision is bad for such a small car.

The 2016 Honda CR-Z has safety ratings that aren't terrible, but are far from the top of the pack. The NHTSA gives it four stars overall for safety, one star below the highest level. The CR-Z gets four stars for frontal crash and five stars for rollover, but it only rates three for side impact—one of very few cars left with a three-star rating.

The IIHS gave the CR-Z its highest rating of "Good" for frontal offset and side-impact crash tests, as well as for roof strength. Its head restraints and seats are also rated "Good," but the IIHS hasn't rated the CR-Z on its new and tougher small-overlap crash test. That's likely due to the car's age and consistently low sales.

Honda fits six airbags to the two-seat car: dual front, side, and side-curtain bags, plus active head restraints for the seats. We appreciate its hill assist feature, which keeps the brakes of manual-transmission cars engaged when they stop on a slope. The CR-Z also has the usual suite of electronic safety systems, including anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and tire-pressure warning sensors.

Outward vision, however, is far from a strong point despite the car's small size. 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 rearview mirror in half. That means rear three-quarter vision is almost non-existent.

For 2016, however, Honda has offers the LaneWatch safety system on all but the base LX model. It displays the lane to the right and rear on the center screen in the dashboard, transmitted from a small camera under the right-hand door mirror. It's one of our favorite safety systems, both smart and instinctive once you get used to it, and it goes a fair way to addressing the CR-Z's lousy rear vision—along with the rearview camera that's now fitted to every car as well.

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2016 Honda CR-Z

Features

The 2016 Honda CR-Z gets a handful of feature upgrades to keep it current, though trim levels and options are few.

The 2016 Honda CR-Z has received a handful of new features this year, to keep it in line with other, higher-volume Hondas. Once again, it's available in three trim levels: base, EX, and EX-L with Navigation. Note that Honda makes the 6-speed manual available on all three trim levels.

Standard equipment on all CR-Z models now includes a center console with armrest, an electronic parking brake, keyless ignition, and an entertainment system with 7.0-inch touchscreen. That has been added to an already-good list of standard equipment that includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; keyless entry; automatic climate control—a rarity on smaller cars; a rearview camera; and a six-speaker CD audio system rated at 160 watts, with steering-wheel controls and USB connectivity.

Move up to the EX trim level, and you'll get high-intensity discharge headlamps; fog lamps; leather trim and some metal accents for the interior; and Bluetooth connectivity (which really ought to be standard these days).

At the top of the range comes the EX-L with Navigation model. While it includes a navigation system, it also adds voice recognition, Pandora internet radio, and an text messaging function. A more powerful 360-watt stereo system with seven speakers, including a subwoofer, is also available, as are heated leather seats.

For 2016, Honda's LaneWatch safety system is available on all but the base LX model. For more performance-minded buyers, the Honda Performance Development kit—including dynamic and aesthetic upgrades to make the CR-Z sportier, and a supercharger for manual-transmission models—can be added as a dealer-installed package. Add in a handful of paint colors, and that's about all the choice CR-Z shoppers have.

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2016 Honda CR-Z

Fuel Economy

The 2016 Honda CR-Z's 37-mpg combined rating is decently thrifty, but it's tiny—and a Prius still beats it hands down.

The 2016 Honda CR-Z has some of the higher fuel economy figures in the U.S., but they come at a cost. You don't get a rear seat, for example, and if you want the sportier and more fun-to-drive 6-speed manual transmission, that'll cost you in gas mileage too.

The CR-Z gets its best gas mileage with the continuously variable transmission (CVT): an EPA combined rating of 36 mpg city, 39 highway, 37 combined. With the 6-speed—it's the only hybrid that even offers one—ratings drop to 31/38/34 mpg.

But competitors do much better, including the four-seat, five-door Honda Fit that sits on the same showroom floor—and offers the same 37-mpg combined EPA rating. Then there's the Toyota Prius C subcompact, for instance, which gets a much higher combined 50-mpg rating. 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.

In the end, the problem for the CR-Z is that many hybrids and even a few more conventional small cars are larger and more spacious, while handily outdoing the littlest Honda on fuel efficiency. That list includes three different models of the Toyota Prius—and even the Mitsubishi Mirage, which does without a hybrid powertrain.

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