The CR-Z attempts to fill a U.S. market void few thought existed: the sporty hybrid. As Honda's second recent debut of a hybrid-exclusive bodystyle, the CR-Z is less practical than the four-door hatchback Insight but that's not surprising due to its sportier mission. Due to the 2011 CR-Z's small size, its U.S. sales potential is minimal compared to volume models like the Civic and CR-V. For the rare buyer who only wants a two-door Honda and can't stand the Civic coupe, the CR-Z is ready to go.
Industry rumors have suggested that Honda may be considering a CR-Z that does not use a hybrid powertrain, but we have yet to see much concrete information from Honda on such a model. Before that potential model sees the light of a U.S. showroom floor, though, the CR-Z is best bought by those who want a boldly styled small commuter car with decent fuel economy.
What distinguishes the CR-Z from every hybrid now available is that the four-cylinder Honda offers a six-speed manual transmission in addition to a CVT. Unfortunately, the mileage on the six-speed manual transmission car is noticeably lower than that on the CVT model. The 2011 Honda CR-Z with a manual gets 31 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway. The less sporty CVT model is rated 35/39 mpg city/highway.
Soon, Hyundai will release a small hatchback called the Veloster, which will compete with the Honda CR-Z. Without a hybrid engine, Hyundai claims the Veloster will get 40 mpg on the highway. While that's more than the CR-Z can currently muster, we'll be watching to see whether the Veloster can come close to the CR-Z's mileage in the city, where the efficiency of hybrids are maximized.
The 2011 Honda CR-Z has a combined horsepower rating of 122 at 6000 rpm and 128 pound-feet of torque at 1000-1750 rpm in the manual transmission car and 123 pound-feet of torque at 1000-2000 rpm in the CVT-equipped car. Honda combines a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a 10-kilowatt electric motor. Unlike the new 2012 Civic Hybrid, the 2011 CR-Z has a nickel-metal hydride battery pack instead of lithium-ion.
That's all swell, you're thinking, but how does it drive? When Motor Trend first tested a U.S.-spec 2011 Honda CR-Z, editors were mildly impressed. In Sport mode, Motor Trend appreciated the sporty steering with less electric power assist. The editors found the handling limits of the CR-Z to be low, but rewarding to drive. A bit too much body roll was a disappointment, though the chassis behavior was described as "delightfully neutral."
In other markets, Honda offers the CR-Z with two rear seats. In the U.S., the rear bench has been removed, perhaps for weight reasons. The U.S. car has been tested accelerating from 0-60 mph in 8.3 to 8.8 seconds. Those results were probably not achieved with the 2011 CR-Z in Economy mode. Standard on every CR-Z is a three-mode drive system with Sport, Normal, and Economy modes. The Sport mode tweaks the electric power steering effort, the power delivery curve for the electric motor and a ring of red appears in the tachometer.
Another interesting CR-Z feature is incorporated on manual transmission models: Hill Start Assist. The technology maintains brake pressure for about 1.5 seconds to help prevent the car from rolling backward before the driver applies the gas pedal after releasing the brakes. In the more strict 2011 crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the CR-Z was given three stars in the front and side crash tests and five out of five stars in the rollover test.
Being first in a new automotive segment is not always easy. Honda's CR-Z tries to be equal parts sporty and efficient. The end result is a stylish and very small car with a few compromises. Honda's target buyer may not care. The Japanese automaker is likely to sell more Civics every month in 2011 than the CR-Z will sell in the entire year. Until Honda makes some mid-cycle changes to the CR-Z, that exclusivity factor will help keep the car a worthwhile addition to the lineup.