Hybrids. Love them or hate them, one irrefutable fact remains, they’re here to stay so you’d better get used to them. It seems just about every carmaker has a hybrid in its stable to complement its existing line-up of fossil-fuel burning vehicles. Thankfully carmakers eventually caught on that hybrids don’t have to look like microwave ovens on wheels. Just look back at the first-generation Honda Insight and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You can see it briefly in the movie ‘Day After Tomorrow’ and it looks unlike anything else on the road.
But as everyone knows, the general public abhors dramatic change when it comes to cars. Look at what happened to the Porsche 911 (996) when designers opted to use headlights that weren’t round. Or when Ford launched the ‘new’ bubble-butt TX3 back in the mid 90s. Disaster. Speaking of which, Honda used to have a car that went head-to-head with the TX3; it was called the CR-X. A street-legal road-racer with a V-Tec engine to die for, the CRX died a natural death by the late 90s and no successor was named until a decade later at the 2009 Tokyo Motorshow.
When Honda unveiled the CR-Z at the Tokyo Motorshow that year it was instantly crowned the long-awaited successor to the CRX. The similarities were too stark to think otherwise; a two-door hot-hatch with a distinctly sporty external look unlike anything else in the Honda stable at the time – with a hybrid powertrain.
At the time, the announcement of its powertrain was met with trepidation. Racer-boys across the globe moaned loudly. But this was a pivotal moment in motoring history, the day hybrids became cool. Nevertheless Honda had a lot of convincing to do. The CR-Z had the requisite fearsome external look that is the cornerstone of any hot-hatch design, but did it have the teeth to match? I would have to wait two years to find out. Thankfully, what was launched as a concept at the 2009 show seems to have made it into production with very little changes.
Unlike previous drives in Japan, this time the drive would take place on public roads rather than a closed circuit. We’d also be the first to review the CR-Z with CVT gearbox. Of the hundreds or so CR-Zs that arrived in Malaysia (sold out in three days!) all were fitted with 6-speed manual transmissions. Yet the CR-Z CVT seems to be even sportier than its manual tranny sibling.
While it has the exact same interior and exterior design as its manual brethren, the CR-Z CVT also comes with rather tasty paddle-shifters located behind the steering wheel. Because, by nature of its design, a CVT has no real cogs to swap between, paddling through the pseudo-ratios is totally instantaneous.
There are three driving modes to choose from: Normal, Economy and Sport. While the default mode is Normal, drivers can opt for the Econ mode should they find themselves in heavy traffic or out on the open highway during a long-distance drive. For their efforts, frugal drivers will be rewarded with a ‘digital tree’ that grows bigger the more efficiently the car is driven. Achieving a ‘full’ tree is not easy, but I reckon owners will try very hard to do so, it’s quite addictive.
The CR-Z is powered by a 1.5-litre engine mated to an IMA or Integrated Motor Assist electric motor. Combined, the units produce a healthy 122bhp and an even healthier 174Nm of torque. To help with fuel efficiency, engineers made the whole car pretty light; it tips the scales at 1160kgs. That’s just slightly heavier than a Saga FL.
But is all that enough to make the CR-Z the spiritual successor to the CR-X? The moment the CR-Z starts feeling pedestrian, all the driver has to do is raise his right middle-finger (not what you’re thinking) and hit the ‘Sports’ button that’s strategically located to the right of the instrument cluster. The resulting effect is quite inspiring. The powertrain suddenly feels livelier, the steering gets a bit more weighted and even the instrument cluster takes on a shade of red (it’s blue or green in ‘sedate’ mode). It’s as though the CR-Z suddenly received a hit of nitrous.
Part of the drive to Utsunomiya was a hill-climb to a scenic area and this is where most of the media discovered a new found respect for the CR-Z; the way this car darted around those curves would have made any CR-X owner proud. Surefooted and planted, perhaps let down only by the LRR tyres screaming blue-murder, this car behaves unlike any hybrid I had ever taken on.
As to whether engineers were able to inject some element of fun into this socially-responsible car, the answer is a resounding yes. The CR-Z may not have been the hot-hatch that everyone expected from Honda, but to those who bemoaned the fact that it was a hybrid, they need only drive this car once. I suspect many look at hybrids in a whole new light after doing so; I have.
Engine In-line 4cyl, 16v, iVTEC + IMA, SOHC, 1497cc
Transmission CVT w/Paddles, 3- drive modes
Power 122bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 174Nm @ 1000-1500rpm
Available 1st half of 2012
Rating 4 ½ stars
+ Value for money, frugal and super fun
- Bit of a bumpy ride, rear headroom