Following many years of speculation and anticipation for a CRX replacement, tomorrow (August 24th, 2010) officially marks the day that the CR-Z goes on sale in the USA. It's not a direct descendant of the CRX, but it's the closest we may ever come to it. This past June, I had the good fortune to sample a U.S. version of the 2011 Honda CR-Z in and around San Francisco. There was a pretty good sized group of media assembled - 31 other attendees in fact - but that's not really anything out of the ordinary. What was notable about this press event was that there were no real surprises in store, at least none to be found within the press kit. Anybody with an internet connection has had access to the specifications for a half year already. This means we have had lots of time, perhaps too much time, to form opinions about the CR-Z before ever even driving one.
By and large, the initial response to the CR-Z has been somewhat tepid, at least when counting long time Honda and CRX enthusiasts. Really, what's there to get excited about? After all, it's a hybrid 2-seater that weighs around 2700 lbs and only packs 1.5 liters of heat; even with the aid of the electric motor, the sum total is only 122hp. Did somebody say "sports car"? On top of that, if you opt for the CVT (ugh), your best hope is to see 35 mpg city/39 mpg highway. Put a proper 6-speed manual transmission in it, and those figures drop to 31 mpg city/37 mpg highway. Considering the fact that the CR-Z was built to prove that hybrid sports cars made sense, these figures don't really do a lot to support the case. A scan of the chassis specs does little to assuage the general concern as it quickly becomes apparent that this stylish little coupe has a fairly pedestrian pedigree.
The Good News
The good news is that the preceding paragraphs are pretty much the end of the bad news. That is to say that after driving the CR-Z, I realized that most of the bad news existed in our collective expectations. The CR-Z indeed delivers a sporty driving feel with a reasonable level of efficiency. Just don't expect extreme levels of either and everything will be fine.
The CR-Z's strongest points are probably its exterior and interior styling. The CR-Z borrows its general configuration from the CRX, but from a detail standpoint there is very little that bridges the two models across the two decade gap that separates them. Instead, the CR-Z tries to establish its own identity with a huge grill that looks ready to slurp asphalt, a tall hoodline, character lines that project a sharply forward-leaning stance, a thick C-pillar and a rather considerable degree of tumblehome finishing the rear. Overall, the CR-Z offers a great palette of colors, but my favorite exterior color is black, only because the black-tinted glass on the lower half of the rear hatch perfectly matches the paint finish.
Inside the car, the equipment levels are impressive, with standard features such as power windows and locks, automatic climate control system (which even chills the glovebox, if you want), and an impressive 160-watt 6-speaker audio system with USB iPod integration and analog 1/8" input jack. Apart from the equipment levels, the CR-Z cockpit has a near-premium feel and the colors, shapes and textures all work very well together. One standout feature in particular was the metal trim adorning the center stack and the door pulls. The material used has an almost mercurial appearance, but it's actually an evaporated film of tin set over a composite substrate. The effect successfully conveys an air of quality and the trim pieces are very nicely executed overall. The only item that looked a little bit out of place in the interior was the strange mesh fabric on the door panels. The biggest concern with this material is longevity - it just looks like it may attract dirt and wear at a high rate.
If you opt for the EX trim level, you get an additional 200-watts of juice (along with a subwoofer) for the stereo system, HID headlights, Bluetooth HandsFreeLink connectivity, a full set of aluminum alloy pedals, and (as they say in the biz), "more". A navigation system is optional on EX models and includes a 6.5" touchscreen LCD interface with a motorized flipdown function to reveal the CD and PCMCIA card slots. To CR-V, Civic, Fit, and Insight Navi owners it will look and feel very familiar. I didn't give the upgraded stereo a serious workout, but what I heard on it sounded pretty good, with a few songs generating some pretty serious "thump" through the hatch-mounted subwoofer.
Ergonomics are generally excellent, with all the primary controls set neatly within very close reach of the steering wheel. The climate control system is quite simple in operation, requiring barely a glance off the road to operate its functions. It features a large rotary knob for temperature control, and if you keep the system set in "Auto", that is really all you need to worry about for most of the time. The gauge cluster is similarly straightforward, featuring a large circular analog tachometer as the centerpiece. A digital speedometer is inset in the center of the tach, while battery state, fuel level, charge/assist, and fuel economy gauges flank either side of the tach. The Eco Assist guidance system (first seen on the 2009 Insight) is also a part of the gauge cluster. Between the glowing "mood ring " system and the multi-information display (MID), you have enough information available to hypermile with the best of them. Paging through all these screens can be onerous at times, but the key information you need RIGHT NOW is always visible on the tach and speedometer.
Hands on the Wheel!
Whether you get the base or EX model, the CR-Z's steering wheel feels good underhand. Of course, the leather trim on the EX model feels best, but either way you get a sporty, small diameter wheel. This is coupled to a rack with electric assist that varies according to which mode you've selected: Sport, Normal (default), or Econ. Coincidentally, these are listed in order of driving desirability, but more on that later. The steering wheel is a vitally important piece of the driver interface, but the seat is equally important. In this regard the CR-Z also succeeds, offering a nice balance of support, adjustability, and comfort. It is actually a pretty basic unit, with moderate bolstering, but for the intended purpose, it just does the job very well.
In most of the world, the CR-Z is sold as a 4-seater. In North America, the CR-Z is only offered as a 2-seater. Replacing the tiny 2nd row of seats in the USA is a folding divider and two storage holes where you would normally find the seat cushion. Nobody at Honda has really provided a real reason WHY we don't get those other two seats here in the USA, but the fact is that we don't. The two storage holes look like they'd be handy to store items like laptop bags and whatnot, but my camera/laptop backpack vectored out of its seat hole berth as soon as we hit our first set of real corners.
For driving impressions, continue to the next page.