Finally it's my turn to take the CR-Z, Honda's only 'sports-car' in their current line-up, for a full review. The CR-Z has received very good reception since its launch here and Honda Malaysia has already taken a few hundred bookings for the car. Key to its success is the extremely attractive pricing due to tax exemptions for hybrid and electric vehicles from the Malaysian government.
With really no other outrightly 'sporty' cars available from Honda except for this CR-Z, I did a comprehensive series of tests on the car for this review.
Having the CR-Z at my disposal for almost 4 days means I was a CR-Z 'owner' for that period of time. I found this experience to be quite interesting. For one, the CR-Z is definitely a good looking car, with clean and sporty lines. On the road, this extracts lots of admiring stares from other road users, to whom the CR-Z is a bona fide sports car since it looks like one. I was surprised too that many gave me a wide berth on the roads even on the few occasions during the first couple of days where I unintentionally swerved out into their path when attempting to change lanes, due to unfamiliarity with the car. I received no such courtesy in the other cars I had from Honda. Even more interesting was how I was spared attention from 'road warriors', modified cars which I had originally feared would try to 'provoke' me for a race but they also kept a respectable distance as well. Perhaps they had not had the chance to tangle with any CR-Z's before and the sporty looks served well enough to deter them, convincing them that this was a car with serious performance. In fact, the only problems I had with rude vehicles on the roads were the common bane of our Malaysian roads - the segment of motorbike 'road terrors' that all car drivers in Malaysia are familiar with.
In the cabin, I personally felt the CR-Z is well designed as well, and very good material are used. The seat is nice and supportive with especially good lower back support. Adjustment is plenty and excellent - forward, back, back tilt, etc. The steering wheel and gear-stick are placed nicely and I was able to get into a very comfortable driving position easily. I felt the interior materials are very good, even when judged against European cars like an Alfa 148 or VW Golf GTi for e.g. The dashboard provides lots of information on the display console and lots of buttons and labels. But the main instrument cluster design is clean, bright and easily visible. This cluster is dominated by a large center integrated tachometer/speedometer dial. The tachometer is a standard analog guage while the speedo is digital, the readout displayed through a round magnifying glass in the middle of the tacho. As a result, the numbers are big and easy to read. However, there is too much lag in the speed readout. Consequenty, when slowing down to a stop, the car can actually already be stationary but the speedometer can still be lazily dropping the speed readout. On more than one occasion, the speedo readout was showing a speed above 10kph eventhough I was already stopped.
Like the 8G Civic, there are lots of indicators on the main instrumnet cluster which means it lights up like a christmas tree when first turning the ignition key to the 'on' position. Yet every indicator has its specific function and there is none which is redundant or unnecessary. The video on the right shows this.
Unlike the Insight and like the Civic Hybrid, the CR-Z features both an IMA assist/charging meter plus a battery charge meter. The battery charge meter is most useful for planning journeys for e.g. like my Genting Run test where I was able to use it to ensure I had a good level of battery charge remaining when I reached the point where I was to do the main 'charge' up to the Genting Highlands resort. The battery charge indicator has a similar behaviour to the standard fuel tank guage in that it is not linear. It is discrete in readout, using eight 'bars' for full charge. From full charge which I was only able to achieve not more than five times over the entire duration of my review period, the top two bars (i.e. 7, and 8) lasted comparatively long, and I was able to push the car quite a bit without the battery charge level dropping below 7 bars. However once the charge level drops to 6 bars, it seems to drain relatively quickly. Or rather I suspect the charge meter is now more sensitive in this range. With just a little bit of aggressive driving, the meter can drop to only 2 bars. But once at 2 bars, it stabilizes again. I only got down to 1 bar a couple of times over my review period. It was actually easier to hit a full charge of 8 bars, then to get down to only 1 bar of battery charge. I never hit zero bar (i.e. supposedly totally drained battery). But even with only 1 or 2 bars of battery charge on the meter, I was still getting some IMA assist whenever I floored the throttle but as expected, the car now feels comparatively a lot more sluggish. But when there is enough charge (4 and above), the CR-Z felt really preppy. The ECU will go into forced light charging on light throttle cruising once the battery charge meter goes down to 2 or 3 bars.
The biggest issue I have with the cabin is its well below average visibility. Front visibility is OK but the rear '3/4' is totally blind. The photo on the left shows this blind spot clearly. On the first two days with the car, this blindspot caused me to swerve out into an on-coming car a few times. In migitation, the side mirrors are large and offers good visibility and I was able to make use of them to partially compensate for the blind spot. But with this blind spot, when coupled with the less than stellar rear visibility and a somewhat slow acting reverse sensor, I always felt I was engaging in a bit of a chancey manuever whenever I had to reverse the car. I felt 'half blind' under such circumstances, especially when the reverse sensor doesn't emit any sound until the rear obstacle was quite near. I believe an actual owner will eventually get used to this but personally I felt rear visibility really needs improvement. By comparison, the old CR-X, eventhough having a similar hatch design had much better rear visibility. The CR-Z will benefit nicely from a reverse camera.
Driving the CR-Z, the biggest (positive) impression on me was the feel of the gearbox. It feels very smooth in operation and has very sure, purposeful and precision feel at the gate of each gear, where the synchros engages. It feels very much like putting together two very precisely machined part at this point. Once past the gate however, the rest of the gear change engages with almost no resistance. This differs from the gearboxes of cars like the Type-Rs or the S2000 where the gear-shift is nicely weighted all through the shift. Personally for me, this doesn't detract too much from the gear shift experience so I consider the gearshifts to be 'good' though this may not be true for all Honda enthusiasts.
The throttle pedal feels firm. The LDA (engine) is a DBW design so the throttle pedal 'weight' comes from the return springs on the pedal. There is no resistance from a throttle cable, or a throttle body butterfly. Consequently the throttle pedal has a consistent linear feel. In terms of 'throttle response', i.e. how the engine responds to the throttle input, this varies according to the drive setting: Econ, Normal or Sports. To pre-empt things, none of the three modes actually causes any power output difference. I confirmed this when I dyno'ed the CR-Z. They only influence how the engine reacts to throttle input. Firstly, ECON mode severely numbs the throttle response. In ECON mode, the engine doesn't really reacts until the throttle is pushed down quite a bit. So there is actually little or no 'response' from the engine to light pushes on the throttle pedal and this feels as if the engine is unresponsive, very 'lethargic' and unwilling to rev unless really prodded.
NORMAL mode on the other hand gives nice acceleration when needed and the throttle response is more normal and direct, more intuitive. The throttle response is quite linear in this mode and I spent the bulk of my driving in this mode. It really is more than sufficient for most conditions encountered during normal driving, even when I needed sudden surges of acceleration like for overtaking, or accelerating out of the way of in-coming vehicles.
Finally SPORTS mode dials in very aggressive throttle response. The engine revs climbs a lot for comparable throttle input compared to Normal and especially ECON mode. This makes the CRZ feels very preppy and when the throttle is actively worked, the car can even surge forward a bit. But the downside to this is there is a lot more engine braking upon throttle lift-off. So the car will be a bit jerky when driving in SPORTS mode under normal traffic conditions.
For the other two pedals, the clutch pedal is light, easy to use, and the engagement is purposeful and precise. There is no 'grabbiness' and the clutch engages decisively without any feeling of slippage. But on the unit I had, the clutch pedal was a bit 'sticky' upon lift-off - where I could feel as if the pedal gets stuck on something momentarily before freeing itself and 'popping up' to the fully released position. Finally, the brake pedal is firm with little give and the brake bites quite well and exudes confidence on hard braking. There is quite good progressive braking feel to brake pedal pressure.
The steering wheel feel is light but not too light. There is nice centering without any vague feel on centering. It is standard EPS steering feel but with a bit more 'weight' dialed in.
The general performance of the CR-Z is really actually quite good. This was especially surprising, and pleasing, when coming from a prejudiced point of view with low expectations - as I had - based on paper specifications, when I first got into the car. On the go, the CR-Z constantly surprised me with its acceleration ability, despite its lowish power rating. Many times I thought I would block on-coming or in-coming cars when I switched lanes for overtaking, either from the middle to the fast/overtaking lane, or out into the opposite lane against incoming traffic. But in all cases, I ended up quite seriously under-estimating the ability of the CR-Z. In none of the occasions did other cars came close enough to be blocked by me, eventhough in a few instances, the on-coming car on the fast lane was charging up quite fast and was clearly not going to slow down for me.
On heavy throttle openings, there is a nice 'boost' from the IMA electric motor on low rpms even in 6th gear. The car never feels like bogging or slogging unlike a purely NA or even FI car when in the wrong gear. When throttle is pushed, there is a nice initial pull and this is available in all gears including 6th. It is not very strong but it is still a very significant boost to the engine. This boost comes in even at very low rpms but tapers off once high rpms are reached.
It was only when I absent-minded drove the CR-Z like I would drive one of the VTEC Hondas of old, like the DOHC VTECs or even the great SOHC VTECs like D15B Civics, that I ended up frustrated with the lack of 'stamina' from the engine. The initial good surge of power, reinforced by the IMA assist, fades off upon sustained WOT and the pull from the engine dulls after the initial few seconds of 'rush'. Because the red-line/rev-limit of 6200rpm is really very low for a VTEC engine, this means I cannot indulge in more 'exuberant' driving manuevres, e.g. overtaking a train of stubborn road-hoggers or going for a 'full-blooded' charge up hill on the Genting Run. The engine eventhough running out of steam after the initial few seconds of a WOT run, still pulls reasonably well but red-line then comes up way too early and kills the fun. In the absolute term, the engine 'power' really do feels 'OK' and if the rev-limit can be moved up a K more, say to 7300rpm like the D15Bs of old, the CR-Z's 'fun' factor will increase multi-fold.
So overall, I would say that the CR-Z is able to handle itself well enough when a sudden surge of speed and acceleration is needed - as long as one is level headed and don't take unnecessary risks. One thing I would really disagree with is what is oft said by detractors - that the CR-Z is 'hopelessly slow'. For me, the CR-Z is definitely no 'lame duck' on the road and can take care of itself for most situations and againsts all the common, normal cars it might meet on the road. It will put in some pretty OK performance if there is a need to. And this is from 'only' NORMAL mode. SPORTS mode really endows the CR-Z with a level of performance not commensurate with its rather 'normal' 124ps power rating. The initial surge of power from the engine and IMA boost is really quite strong in absolute terms and over short distances, I was able to tackle cars with larger engines, right up to a 7G pre-MMC Accord 2.4 during my 'ownership tenure'. So my main lament here is that this level of performance doesn't hold up to sustained WOT. And also doesn't hold out for very long once the IMA battery charge starts depleting.
Like the 8G Civic and City/Jazz, Honda tuned a nice sporty roar into the exhaust note. Of course this is not the legendary 'VTEC roar'. But it is still quite sporty sounding and is a nice move by Honda, much better than some of the lame thinny exhaust sounds we had from models from just a decade ago. The only lament I have with the CR-Z's exhaust note is that it reminds me that no Honda cars on sale today delivers anything near the 'VTEC Roar' that us hardcore Honda fans loves and I am starting to wonder if we will ever be able to enjoy that again.
On the twisties, generally the CR-Z handles quite well when it is within its limit. And the limits are quite highly really. It actually reminds me of the very memorable memories I had of driving an FN2R a few years ago, thanks to the generousity of a TOVA reader when I visited Singapore. It is not in the league of the FN2R on absolute terms - it has a softer suspension. Maybe I should say it reminds me of what I would expect from a Fit/Jazz SiR or Fit/Jazz Type-R instead. Ultimately the springs can be considered a bit soft and so ride is nice and pliant but with sacrifices to handling. So the CR-Z is comfortable and confident at cruising speeds right up to 160-170kph.
But over uneven roads, the CR-Z will become unsettled, especially the rear. As the car starts to bounce along with the unevenness, I could feel traction lessening. When taking a tight corner close to the limit, an uneven surface can cause the CR-Z to almost lose grip. In those instances, perhaps by coincidence or maybe because of the suspension layout, it is the rear which 'lightens' up first. I had a few occasions where the bouncing almost caused the rear of the CR-Z to 'skip' over the uneven road surface on a tight corner, the rear feeling almost like a skipping stone over the surface of a body of water. To its credit, immediately but gradually lifting off the throttle allowed the car to quickly settle down again.
Finally, braking is progressive and nicely firm, and the CR-Z was nicely stable and gives lots of confidence even during hard braking from high speeds.
Very important for ASEAN car owners, the air-cond on the CR-Z is quite adequate and it cools the interior down quite adequately even on hot days, though we didn't get a really really hot day over the test weekend. Interestingly, unlike the air-cond system on other Hondas, in the CR-Z, the fan speed is still shown on the LCD display even when in fully automatic mode. The sound quality from the sound system is 'OK', with the standard artificial bass boom boost, I think it might even be considered 'good' or even 'very good' for most people.
As for the all important issue of fuel economy - after all, this is a hybrid and fuel economy is one of the key features of a hybrid - I think it is excellent but not class-leading for hybrids. What I mean is that the fuel economy I could get from the CR-Z I would consider to be superb for a sporty car but not when compared to other hybrids like the Insight or HCH which will return better FE for the same effort. Of course, they on the other hand will never deliver the same level of performance as the CR-Z. With some babying of the throttle and appropriate effort, 20km/l is possible for a mixture of highway and city driving. On highway only, better FE is of course possible, up to 25km/l but only when speed is kept to within 80-90kph. At this kind of driving, the engine is nicely quiet and with Yoko Advan A10 tyres, noise at high speed cruising is not that bad, almost as good as the Civic. But I'll admit that it was really tough for me to drive like this for any period of time on the CR-Z during the review period. If I was a 'real owner' I think I will eventually be driving for long periods of time like this but as I was only 'owner' for 4 days, understandbly I never did have the patience for that.
The autostop function on the CR-Z acts on every mode. It activates only when the gearbox is in neutral and only at very very low speeds. The car goes into auto-stop when the gearbox is put into neutral and speed has dropped to, it seemed to me, below 5kph or so. The engine will restart when any gear is engaged even when the car is slowing down. And unlike the Insight and HCH, the CR-Z engine won't start when the car is stationary and the brake pedal is released if it is in neutral.
Before the review, I had often wondered how the brake will work without the engine running, as there is no vacumn for the brake pump assist. But brake boost is still present in auto-stop mode and the brake is as effective as when the engine is running. Furthermore, once in autostop mode, push the brake pedal hard and the engine will come alive.
However the engine's constant on-off in autostop mode can be troublesome in slow moving traffic jams, especially if one has the habit of putting the car into neutral and coasting in really slow moving traffic. When restarting, the engine takes a bit of time. It is only a split second but still it can be caught out if the driver reacts very fast. For e.g. when coasting slowly in neutral, auto-stop will activate. Now, the front car moves off and the driver quickly engages 1st to follow suit. But the engine takes bit of time to completely fire up and in such situations, will threaten to stall if the clutch is released immediately. This happened to me a few times though I was able to de-clutch in time in all the occasions and avoid the engine stalling.
HSA or Hill Start Assist is not really that apparent on the CR-Z compared to the Insight for e.g. At times I didn't even realize the CR-Z is supposed to have HSA as I had to work with the hand brake quite a lot of times when I had to move off after stopping on a backward slopping road.
Without any real expectations, especially of performance, the CR-Z was a nice surprise to me and was quite impressive despite its quirks and flaws here and there. It out delivers what is promised by its paper specs. The straight line performance especially exceeds what its max power rating suggests while its handling is illustrative of what Honda engineers have managed to achieve with the lowly strut-beam suspension. While it is ultimately not a Type-R, in fact not even an SiR, nevertheless I personally have no problems calling it an entry level 'sports car'.
So the CR-Z feels like a sports car when owned and when driven. Yes, it is not as good as the SiRs or Type-Rs that legends are made of, but one thing the CR-Z does share with those cars is that it is a joy to be driven fast. As long as it it within its limits. So it's just that 'fast' in this case, is relative. In later articles of this review series, I will explore deeper into what I mean by this.
Next Up : I took the CR-Z on the 'Genting Run' to see what it's really made of.