I’ve always loved the idea of a weekend sports car. Something you take out early on Sunday morning, drop the top, wind your way up Laurel Canyon and then hit Mulholland Drive at reckless speeds and hope that you don’t get zapped with a radar followed by blue lights.
Years ago, I had just such a car. My bright red 1974 Porsche 914, with 911 rims shod in high performance Pirellis, could handle the job and more. With the Targa top off, it was a little slice of sunshine heaven. Alas, my little Porsche was challenged for space. There was no room behind the seats, no cup holders, no insulation and the glove box was good for, uh, gloves.
The mid-engine design meant I had front and rear trunk space, like the current Boxster. The rear trunk was just large enough for the Targa roof. The front trunk carried the car cover and a gym bag. This wasn’t the car for a run to Costco.
Two-seat sports cars always pose a dilemma for car shoppers. Anything from a Mazda MX-5 Miata to a Porsche Cayman to a Ferrari F458 have the same trade-offs. You can fit two people, but there isn’t much room for anything other than a couple overnight bags and small leather goods from Louis Vuitton. The fun quotient for these cars is through the roof as much as practicality flies out the window. They are personal expressions of the driver and the mechanical vibrations create pure driving ecstasy.
It’s easier to justify one of these indulgences if you have a mulit-car household or if you’re lucky enough to have a garage full of cars so you can choose a different one each day of the week.
The 2011 Honda CR-Z is such a car, except with a hybrid twist replacing some vibrations with electromagnetic torque and fuel-sipping rather than gas guzzling. It’s also in a class by itself because it’s the only fixed-top two-seater under $30,000 on the US market. Only the Mazda MX-5 Miata comes close in both seat count and price.
Honda says the CR-Z is a spiritual successor to the much-loved Civic Coupe/CR-X (Coupe 1983 – 1987, CR-X 1988 -1991). The CR-X was a fun, tossable 2-seat Civic while the CR-Z springs from the uninspired Insight Hybrid/Prius facsimile introduced last year.
Both cars are fuel economy champions; however, a 1991 CR-X HF (high fuel economy) with a 5-speed manual transmission was EPA rated at 40/47, 43 mpg combined while the 2011 CR-Z with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) is rated at 35/39, 37 mpg combined. My tester showed 28.7 mpg after a bunch of test drives.
Twenty model years and seven hundred pounds separate the two cars. Sure the CR-X was a tin-covered roller skate without niceties like power windows, air conditioning, sound proofing or safety enhancements; but you’d kind of expect better from Honda, particularly in hybrid form in 2011.
The ECO ASSIST technology employed in both the CR-Z and Insight uses Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system which mounts an electric motor between the 1.5 liter inline 4 cylinder engine and front-drive transmission. It acts as a starter motor, engine balancer and traction motor. The IMA system can run the car on electric-only power at low speeds for short distances; but it’s quite different from the buzzing sound of a Prius gliding to a stop.
It drives differently too. You don’t feel the obvious start/stop shivers of the gasoline engine in Prius. Instead, the CR-Z’s power flows seamlessly and you don’t notice the electric assist.
Honda’s engineers equipped the CR-Z with three choices driving modes: Econ, Normal and Sport. They should be named: Dead, Boring and Fun.
Silicone and software can work wonders in modern cars and the CR-Z is a prime example. Push the Econ button, and all the driving algorithms are dialed down to dull. From the drive-by-wire throttle to the electric power steering to the CVT. Press the gas pedal depresses me. If you are behind a CR-Z in Econ mode, you will want to either kill yourself or the driver.
Sport is the only mode in which the CR-Z feels like anything resembling a sports car. Lulled by Econ, I snapped to attention as soon as I pressed the magic button. The car suddenly became responsive to my right foot and the steering sharpened (although the bar for improvement here was pretty low). The CVT’s rubber bands tightened and even the brakes felt more aggressive. Motor Trend reports a 0-60 time of a leisurely 8.3 seconds. It’s better than a basic appliance, and it’s moderately entertaining; but this is no sports car.
However, this diminutive Honda has real design flair. The CR-Z is the most passionate design in Honda’s terminally-dull product line. With love it or hate it looks, staring at my Premium Diamond White tester in the glaring desert sun, I really loved it.
The EX-Nav top model has a very long list of standard equipment, including six airbags, Vehicle Stability Assist, active head restraints, automatic HID headlights, automatic climate control, tilt-telescope steering column, Bluetooth, a 360 watt premium sound system, steering wheel controls, a USB audio interface and Honda’s excellent Satellite-Linked touch-screen navigation.
Some things were still missing like a digital compass, heated seats, automatic dimming day/night rear and side view mirrors, keyless entry/ignition and the all-important center armrest. No leather seats. No sunroof. Satellite radio is a dealer-installed accessory.
While the CR-Z is space-challenged, it’s by no means the worst in the two-seat coupe category. There is generous space behind the front seats and you can cram some groceries and a flat boogie board into the boot. The passenger zone avoids claustrophobic problems and the seats have just enough room for a six-foot man, but not much more. I’ve always had problems with Honda’s seats – the shallow cushions aren’t long enough for good thigh support and I’d like more adjustment options.
The most nagging problem I found was rear visibility. The spit hatchback, a design nod to the CR-X, both delights from the designer and confounds the driver as it horizontally slices the rear view. To compound things, the rear hatch is merely a glass extension of the roof, so rear visibility is extremely limited. Drivers will need to muster extra vigilance to compensate for the side and rear blind spots.
At $23,210 a fully-loaded CR-Z is a pretty good bargain. If you can justify a two-seat coupe as your primary driver, then the CR-Z should be on your shopping list. If you need to carry more than one passenger or vertical cargo, and want a hybrid, you’re be better off with an Insight or Prius.
However, for the same money, I’d rather be driving a True Red, rear drive, convertible Mazda Miata, on Mulholland Drive, avoiding the Black and White.