Honda CR-Z — Only takes two to tango

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Let’s just put aside the fact that the sporty little two-seat 2011 Honda CR-Z hatchback is a hybrid. Let’s think of it as a stylish, diminutive, agile machine with scads of cargo space (25 cubic feet) for its size.  Let’s think of it as a fun, go-anywhere car that just happens to derive exceptional gas mileage of 31/37 or 35/39 depending on transmission choice.

Let’s think of it — at least in six-speed manual mode — as a fun-to-drive darter that looks great, is a hoot to drive and takes up small spaces in crowded parking lots. But a word to the wise: the giant sized coupe door can make ingress and egress a challenge in tight spaces.

Oh, and by the way, it carries a hybrid drivetrain similar to the one Honda incorporates in its sub-compact Insight sedan. The fact that it doesn’t hit 40 miles to the gallon has seemed to stress several of our colleagues. That’s of no concern to us. We do agree with those same reviewers that the CR-Z is not — at least in the conventional meaning — a sports car.

It is not a front-wheel drive reincarnation of the recently departed rear-driven and high-revving S2000. But it's a blast to toss around, nonetheless. More than adequate handling on the winding roads and nimbleness in stop and go city driving are its strongest suits. And it can easily achieve 35-mpg-plus in everyday driving. Frankly, we don’t care if that very appealing mileage comes from a mild Honda hybrid or from a very frugal 4-cylinder engine.

What Honda has done is come up with a modern version of its popular little CRX, produced from the mid ’80s to the early ’90s. If CRX production had continued, the CR-Z is how we envision the car evolving. Unfortunately CR-Z inherited the one thing we didn’t like on the CRX, the split sightline through the rear hatch.

The CR-Z alters the hybrid formula that says all vehicles with a hybrid drivetrain must have four doors and seat at least four adults. Yes we do remember that short-lived Honda two-door hybrid experiment in 2000, the small Insight that got incredible mileage.

Since then nothing in the affordable mainstream has boasted any kind of sporty pretensions. Everything up until now has been serious gas-sipping business.

The CR-Z makes perfect sense for the person who doesn’t need more than two seats and who is loath to spend a big chunk of their disposal income for transportation; here retail prices range from around 20 grand up to about $24,000.

The CR-Z is built on the current compact Insight sedan hybrid platform and uses the same Integrated Motor Assist mild-hybrid system. It shares its structure and suspension design but is a foot shorter with a widened track and reduced height.

It gets a slightly bigger gas engine than found in the Insight; a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder that produces 112 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque and an electric motor that generates another 13 horsepower and 58 pound-feet of torque.

The biggest difference is that the CR-Z can be purchased with a 6-speed manual transmission option, the first hybrid with a shift-it-yourself gear box, and it’s what makes the CR-Z drive like a conventional 4-cylinder. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) as found in the Insight is also available for those who must have an automatic.

There are also choices in the driving scheme. Before pushing the CR-Z hard, activate the “sport” mode via a button to the left of the steering column. Throttle sensitivity is increased, the steering tightens and the electric motor provides more assistance. This will not produce blistering starts, but it gives the CR-Z a good feel measured in a 0-to-60 time in the mid 9-second range.

For optimum fuel sipping use the “Economy” mode. In Econ, throttle response is dulled (you can definitely feel the difference), fan speed is turned down and the compressor used for the air conditioning is minimized, and power and torque are reduced by 4 percent.

The third choice is “normal” a middle of the road contrivance, so to speak. It offers better fuel economy than “sport” and a better drive than” econ.”

Steering feel with the electric power steering is very good, as are the car’s overall handling characteristics. Compared to most economical two-door hatchbacks, it acquits itself quite nicely, capable of inducing a smile on a somber day.

The ride is good — we would say, smooth — as well despite the coupe’s short 96-inch wheelbase. The fact that the suspension is not tightened down surely contributes to a bit more body roll on the fast curves, but overall the CR-Z handles the twists and turns of back-road driving in a satisfactory manner.

We like the gauge layout with its large digital speedometer front and center, surrounded by the analog tachometer. Hybrid gauges are on the left and the gas gauge is on the right.

We found getting a satisfying seating position with the manual seat adjustments an easy task. The seats are wide and comfortable. The hatch opens wide for excellent cargo storage, limited only by the curving back glass. A covered rear cargo divider is a neat touch allowing occupants to hide their stuff while away from the car.

What the CR-Z doesn’t have are a sunroof option (we can very easily live without that), heated seats, keyless ignition, and back seats. Honda has experience with the two-seat hatch concept and it has put its knowledge to good use with the new CR-Z. But where do you put the baby seat? The answer is not in the back of this car. In the Japanese domestic market and in Europe the rear package tray has cushions ensconced in the cutouts and the appropriate belts. Not so here, Honda believing that the area is so small that Americans would never believe it’s a real 2+2 considering that a small dog would have fits trying to get comfortable. The area as is will hold two moderately filled grocery bags.

The CR-Z can be outfitted in top EX trim with Honda’s very intuitive and useful voice-activated navigation system, steering wheel controls and satellite radio. Also included in the EX are full power accessories, automatic climate control, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, xenon headlights and a decent-sounding six-speaker audio system.  

The standout thing here is that the best CR-Z available goes out the door for a very reasonable $23,310 with the manual transmission or $23,960 with the CVT, including destination charge.

If you can get by with two seats, the CR-Z is a dandy, fuel-efficient, affordable machine that you won’t tire of driving. And forget about the hybrid thing. Just rejoice in good gas mileage, good performance and damn good looks.

Base price: $19,950; as driven, $23,310 ($23,960 with CVT)
Engine: 1.5-liter 4-cylinder, 10-kilowatt electric motor
Horsepower: 122 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 123 foot-pounds @ 1,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual & CVT
Seating: 2
Wheelbase: 95.9 inches
Length: 160.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,707 pounds
Turning circle: 35.4 feet
Cargo capacity: 25 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 37 mpg highway, 31 mpg city (39/35 with CVT)
0-60: 10 seconds (MotorWeek)
Also consider: Ford Fiesta, Mini Cooper, Sion tC

The Good:
• Sporty head-turning good looks
• Nimble handling
• Excellent fuel economy

The Bad:
• Poor rearward visibility

The Ugly:
• The thought of a 2+2