Honda CR-Z Test Drive Impressions

Marketed as a 'hot hatch' here in Malaysia, the performance of the CR-Z over what is considered 'demanding' conditions is an important consideration for many who are interested in the car. For performance enthusiasts in Malaysia, the 'Genting Run' offers driving demands which many thinks a performance oriented car must do well in. So during my review period with the CR-Z 6MT, I took it on the Genting Run to check out. My experience was quite interesting, with a mixture of good surprises but some frustration as well. This is my short report of that run.

Like all of Honda's IMA hybrids that I drove on the 'Genting Run', I was trying to drive in such a manner that there was a little IMA assist as possible on the way there, when on the Karak Highway. The idea was to conserve IMA battery charge for the main 'Genting run' route. The CR-Z was the only manual IMA that I drove on this route and like all the others, due to the uphill gradient which required a slightly heavier throttle pressure and there was quite consistent very light IMA assist throughout the journey. Eventually I ended up crawling on the leftmost (slowest) lane and found that at a certain throttle position in 4th gear, I could just get along on engine power alone. It was an interesting phenomenon as any other throttle positions - lighter or heavier, will elicit IMA assist. But driving at 50-60kph on the slowest lane on the Karak Highway was risky as heavy vehicles were actually moving faster than this, some of them charging right up to my rear before swerving out to overtake. Eventually when I reach the entrance to the Genting road, my battery level was at 6 bars (out of max of 8).

This experience reinforces my strong opinion that Honda should build in some sort of manual control for the IMA assist and/or forced charging of the battery. While this feature might not be logical in a car like the Insight, for something like the CR-Z, in my opinion it is a very attractive and useful feature whch will be appreciated by enthusiasts owners.

The Genting run - the access road to the Genting Highlands resort consists of three main sections. From the main access entry, it is an uphill climb with tight-ish corners that is good for highspeed cornering. Then there follows a section of downhill roads before the final section where the tight hairpins are, one following another in close proximity. This is the most enjoyable part of the run itself and is where the premium on engine power and response, handling and cornering stability is at its highest.

In the first section of the access road, I started with 6 bars of battery charge. However, I was dissapointed to see that after pushing WOT over only a few corners, no more than 4 or 5, the battery charge had dropped to 3 bars and I could feel the amount of IMA assist dissapearing. However, the CR-Z 6MT was still able to give a reasonable turn of speed, even with minimal assist from the IMA in this section. With fast flowing corners, the presence or absense of IMA assist was not felt that much as I was able to keep the little LEA engine on its main 'power band' most of the time. Still, this section of the Genting run clearly shows up one of the main weakness and source of complaints Honda enthusiasts have about Honda's IMA - the battery is simply too small and the amount of charge it can hold is too little for any extended period of all out 'performance' driving.

Next follows the short section of downhill roads and here I was able to baby the CR-z 6MT, spending as much time as I could with the throttle closed and if possible, also with light brake pressure in order to maximize the charging of the IMA battery. I was successful enough that when I reached the 3rd section where the tight hairpins are, battery charge was up to 7 bars.

With an almost fully charged battery, the CR-Z handled the hairpins quite well. Due to the virtually instantaneous boost from the IMA motor, there was no lag when I open WOT to exit a hairpin. The CR-Z pulled forward without any strain. Although challenging, the Genting run roads are well paved and in good condition so the CR-Z was very stable through the hairpins and I was actually able to enter each one at a fairly OK speed. After exiting from the corner, the 'blast' up the straight to the next hairpin was curtailed by the lack of top-end power from the engine. The initial good pickup tapered off when I reached the high-rpm band. I wasn't able to get to very high speeds on the straights, only up to 90-100kph at the most.

In this section of the route, I had an interesting encounter with a 7Gen 'CM5' Accord, a 2.4 i-VTEC model. This Accord overtook me on the 2nd downhill section so I was surprised when I caught up with it. As I can see the Accord was really pushing, I decided to go for a mild game of cat and mouse, i.e. I decided to 'shadow' the Accord, but at a comfortable distance behind so that hopefully the driver wouldn't feel like I was tail-gating him. My idea is to 'benchmark' the little CR-Z against a family sedan with an engine almost 1-litre larger in capacity and almost 40ps more powerful, albeit with a 5AT.

The CR-Z was fast enough that I was being held back by the Accord. Meaning I had to ease the throttle at times as I would end up right against the Accord's tail if I had pushed the CR-Z to its max. The main advantage of the CR-Z was, as expected, its superior cornering. I would follow the Accord into a hairpin, both of us entering from the outside line. Over the corner, the Accord would drift to the outside of the exit but I could corner tight enough to position the CR-Z on the inside of the exit, side-by-side with the Accord. On the corner exit where we were at WOT, the CR-Z was easily able to keep in pace with the Accord. If I had wanted to, I felt I would have been able to overtake the Accord, but it would be a tight 'race' as the CR-Z can only just outdrag it out of the corner, but doesn't have enough power at the top-end of the rpm-band to significantly pull away from the Accord.

Unfortunately, the battery charge again did not hold up well and after three or four hairpins, the battery charge again ran down to only 2 bars. At this low a level of charge, there was practically no IMA assist and now, the little 1.5l LEA engine was left to struggle on its own. In 2nd gear, it was able to pull the CR-Z over the hairpins but a bit labourous in the effort. Without the IMA assist, I clearly could not have been able to outdrag the Accord.

On the downhill run, it was uneventful and I was able to test the CR-Z to my heart's content. The brakes felt good and the CR-Z was well-balance on hard-braking into a corner. Downhill cornering is more about stability and how confident the car felt and the CR-Z felt great here. However, it did lean slightly too much over the hairpins. The brakes were very good and did not fade at all, even when I intentionally over-used them at one point.

On the Karak highway downhill, hairpins and tight corners are now replaced with wide, fast flowing corners and it was very enjoyable to play with the CR-Z on the fast corners. I gradually took the corners faster and faster and at one time was almost up to 150kph before I decided to ease off for the sake of sanity. This final segment of the Genting run was against unexpectedly 'spiced up' when I noticed an Proton Perdana which I had overtook earlier had started to tail me, probably to satisfy a curiosity about the CR-Z's handling and speed. I had already noticed that this Perdana had a modified exhaust and lowered suspension when I passed it earlier so when curiosity also got the better of me, I pushed the CR-Z over the next few corners, just to 'compare notes'. It was during this time that I reached speeds of almost 150kph over some of the corners. On the rear view mirror, I was pleased to see that the CR-Z was able to pull away from the Perdana whenever I opened WOT into a corner.

The CR-Z ended the 'Genting run' with, in my personal opinion, a good showing. I felt confident and safe whenever I was pushing it hard, both on the uphill and downhill portion of the run, and especially over the very fast corners on the downhill Karak highway run. It handled fine and I was heardly 'squealing' the tyres even on the hairpins, though I have to highlight that the roads are in good condition, even and well paved. The only real let downs were two things: the engine's lack of high-rpm power, and the small IMA battery capacity which runs out after a full WOT run over only three or four hairpins.

Wong KN
September 2012
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