Honda CR-Z sporty hybrid e-car
Miserly with fuel, entertaining to drive
Review The three major Japanese car makers are taking a distinctly different approach to the imminent arrival of the electric car. Nissan has jumped in with both feet and will launch Leaf, its battery-powered e-car, at the end of the year. Toyota is putting its eggs in the true hybrid basket - its Prius is capable of both battery- and petrol-powered drive.
Honda's CR-Z: Ford Puma de nos jours?
Honda, however, sees the electric motor as an economy and performance enhancer rather than as a sole method of propulsion. That's not to say Honda doesn't see the e-car as the future, it just reckons the battery tech isn't quite there yet.
And don't forget it has a big finger in the hydrogen pie.
One thing all three car makers had in common though was the view that electric and hybrid cars are not sports cars. That has changed with the launch of the Honda CR-Z, a hybrid coupé based on Insight underpinnings and pitched at the same market as cars like the old Ford Puma - a fun-to-drive roadster rather than an out-and-out performance vehicle.
The CR-Z's looks are nothing if not striking, with what Honda calls the One-Motion Wedge style surviving almost intact from the initial concept car. Shorter, wider and lower than the Insight, the CR-Z is a very much a 2+2. I'm not sure about the Europe-only daytime running lights - I don't like the LED eye-lashes on the new Audis and their presence on the CR-Z hasn't changed my mind.
Audi-style eye-lash lighting, alas
In the back you can fit a child or child seat but not an adult - cramped would be a polite way of describing it. Luggage space is reasonable, though, with a golf bag-swallowing 233 litres available with the back seats up and 401 litres up for grabs with them down. And there's a 19L litre cubbyhole under the boot floor. Up front, it's snug but comfortable, with the driver environment clearly being a variation on the Insight theme.
The CR-Z's 1.5 litre single-overhead camshaft i-VTEC engine is new to Honda in Europe though it is currently used in the North American and Asian model Jazz. Producing 112bhp at 6100 rpm and 107 lb-ft of torque at 4800, it is a huge improvement on the anaemic 1.3 litre engine in the Insight and revs enthusiastically.
The engine has been Jazz'd up
The battery and electric motor are taken directly from the Insight - reviewed here  - with the latter producing an identical 13.8bhp (10.3kW) of power and 57lb-ft (77.3Nm) of torque. In Sport mode, that's a combination that will get the CR-Z to 62mph in 9.9s and on to a top speed of 124mph. The battery pack sits further forward and lower down in the chassis than in the Insight to aid balance and lower the car's centre of gravity.
Uniquely for a hybrid, the engine and motor are coupled to a six-speed gearbox which is every bit as good as you'd expect from Honda and lets you wring the most from that free revving engine.
One man went to mode
While the Insight had a two driving modes, Normal and Economy, the CR-Z adds a third, Sport. In this setting the steering power assistance is reduced, the throttle response sharpened and the Integrated Motor Assist electric motor allowed to draw more power from the battery pack for sudden acceleration.
The idea behind this is simple: it lets you drive around town in Economy with throttle response and ancillary systems like the air conditioning all tuned to minimise power demand then switch into Normal for everyday driving - in this mode, the CR-Z turns in an average of 56.5mpg and emits 117g/Km of CO2 - and then push the Sport button for weekend fun.
The three-mode drive system has one failing: if you forget which mode you are in and move to overtake while in Economy you're left wondering where all the power has gone - with momentarily alarming results. With each mode the colour of the speedometer surround changes but this can be easy to overlook in the heat of the moment.
In and around the CR-Z
Electric only propulsion is possible at steady speeds below 30mph, though getting the drive indicator to show battery power only is more of a game to play with yourself in heavy and slow motorway traffic than a serious way of driving day-to-day. Even when the CR-Z is powered by the battery pack, the engine still turns over so progress doesn't suddenly become eerily quiet.
Excellent road holding - but watch out for potholes
To enhance the CR-Z's sporting credentials, Honda has stiffened the body shell and the suspension, as compared to the Insight. The upside is excellent road holding and a car that will change direction on a dime. The downside is a pretty rotten ride on broken or undulating road surfaces.
An energetic drive up the B6160 between Addingham and Grassington in Yorkshire had me grinning, but is also had me lowering the seat to keep my head from hitting the roof lining when the going got rough.
The CR-Z range starts at £16,999, though the extras-laden and metallic paint-clad car I tested will set you back £22,179. That starting price is only £700 more than the cheapest Insight which makes Honda's target of selling equal numbers of the two models seem reasonable. If I was a betting man I'd say the CR-Z will prover to the stronger seller of the two.
As a package, the CR-Z is more convincing that its five-door Insight sibling. The free revving engine, sporty suspension set up and arresting styling make it a car that needs no hybrid excuse to exist. A car that can play miserly fuel sipper about town and entertaining sports coupé out in the country will appeal to many. ®
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