Fire it up
The CR-Z fires up with the same effortless and nearly instantaneous action of every IMA-equipped engine that has preceded it. The 13hp motor/flywheel ensures that. Once underway, the IMA flymotor also smooths the low rpm power pulses of the SOHC 1.5 liter 4-cylinder (L15) to the point that the effect is that of a very fluid, almost effortless power delivery. At small to medium throttle openings (in "Sport Mode"), the CR-Z does a good job of mimicking the feel of a more powerful vehicle. It's up to the driver to reveal the truth.
Sound of Sport
Since the CR-Z aims to be a sporty hybrid, Honda's engineers spent a lot of time massaging the exhaust note of the L15. It really is a remarkable sonic transformation from the Fit 1.5L upon which it is based. It vaguely resembles the song of an 8th generation Civic Si, at least below the Si's 6000+rpm thrill zone. It's a nice and energetic sound, with bassy undertones that add to the sporty and fun experience. I found this to be interesting, because from a visual standpoint the exhaust system is clearly downplayed. There is a small unassuming exhaust tip with a downward bend and it's all mostly hidden behind the CR-Z's bumper. The only gripe I have to make about the engine note is that the long-stroke L15 generates a mild high-rpm (5000+) buzz that will make you want to minimize your time in that rev range. It's not a huge issue, as with the short 6MT gearing and relatively low 6300rpm redline, you probably won't spend too much time in that range anyhow. On top of that, the nature of the motor is such that there really isn't a huge payoff to fully revving out the CR-Z as it tapers pretty quickly above 5500 rpms or thereabouts.
What's your mode?
Honda has made a big deal about the three driving modes that are offered in the CR-Z. As an unabashed driving enthusiast who was new to the CR-Z, I will come right out and say that my least favorite mode was the "Econ" mode. Quite frankly, in this mode the car just feels lazy and disinterested. The "Normal" mode was better, and for most people it would probably be just fine for everyday driving. The problem for the first two modes is that the Sport mode just takes the fun factor to another level, and instantly transforms the CR-Z into the car that I was hoping it would be. The differences that the driver can sense are basically all down to the throttle mapping, electric power steering system assist levels, and IMA assist strategy. For what it's worth, Honda says the CR-Z's EPA fuel efficiency numbers are based upon the "Normal" mode (which is the default when you start the car). Presumably you will see slightly better fuel efficiency in "Econ" mode, and slightly worse numbers in "Sport" mode. For reasons enumerated above, we spent the majority of our day whipping the car in "Sport" mode, and through a variety of roads that included some city streets, twisty two-lanes, and high-speed freeways, the trip computer reported an average of just under 30mpg. Considering our average throttle angle for that day, that's actually a pretty respectable figure.
Numb and Number
Regardless of which mode you select, unfortunately steering feel is not really in the cards with the CR-Z, but you do get two levels of assist. The "Econ" and "Normal" modes share the same overboosted level of assist, while dialing up the "Sport" mode returns a heavier weight to the wheel. Steering weight is not an acceptable substitute for actual steering feel, but in this case it is at least a step in the right direction. The CR-Z may lack the feedback that many will associate with a proper "driver's car", but in its defense, it tracks faithfully and traces the lines scribed by the pilot with a high level of precision.
While switching from "Normal" to "Sport" makes the steering go from "meh" to "adequate", the throttle response in "Sport" is what really energizes the drive. In the "Normal" mode, the CR-Z's throttle response could be described as aloof, while in "Econ" mode one of the adjectives that comes to mind is contemptuous. Thankfully, the "Sport" mode puts the CR-Z in exactly the right zone for enthusiasts. Nobody will ever accuse the CR-Z of being overpowered, and perhaps only a few may accuse it of being adequately powered, but at least in the Sport mode the engine responds enthusiastically to the whims of your right foot. Paired with the well-matched gear ratios of the 6-speed manual transmission, accelerating the CR-Z in "Sport" mode is never a chore. The CR-Z CVT could be another story. I only had the chance to drive the CVT version for a few miles during our preview drive, but during that short drive, I noticed that enthusiastic driving in the CVT version puts the engine in a sort of unpleasant drone-y zone. I quickly switched the transmission to the stepped 7-speed quasi-SMG mode and found it to be far more satisfying to drive in this fashion. Odds are (as I found in testing the Insight last year) it's very likely slower in this mode, but it just feels quicker and more "right" to let the engine run through the rev range naturally. It's too bad there isn't a special simulated 7-speed automatic mode with the CVT model as I think this would be a good "middle ground" between the pure CVT and the stepped 7-speed manual mode.
Rigid Chassis, Soft Legs
Honda's engineers worked really hard to stiffen up the CR-Z's chassis, and over the beat-up Marin county roads that we traversed, I was easily able to sense the payoff to their efforts. The CR-Z's body structure generated a sense of immense rigidity, leaving the suspension to smooth out the road's many imperfections. Generally, this is pretty good, but it seems that ride compliance edged out pure sporting pursuits when it came to the development of the CR-Z's suspension. Steady-state grip is good, in fact it's VERY good considering the fact that the CR-Z is shod with modest 195/55R16 low rolling resistance all-season radials, and the CR-Z doggedly obeys the driver's inputs, but the soft suspension calibration generates excessive body and passenger movement activity during spirited spells of driving. The CR-Z is capable of carving corners with serious levels of velocity, but to me it felt like it was swimming through some of the more challenging turns. My preference leans towards a more composed form, but the truth is that the CR-Z is probably pretty close to being right for the majority of people who will actually purchase it. The aftermarket is there for myself and the remaining folks. On the plus side, the suspension tuning possibly lends itself well towards creating the illusion of speed; while serving as the passenger during our media drive, there were times where I was certain we were careening through the back roads at a suicidal 80+mph, but the actual speed was more like 60mph.
On the "track"
Our day of driving included a brief autocross session with the CR-Z. Here we could safely probe the true limits of the chassis and feel the nature of the CR-Z's chassis tuning. On the street I found the CR-Z to exhibit mild understeer for the most part, easily balanced with throttle inputs. On the autocross course, I found a bit more understeer than I anticipated, and the car felt heavier and more ponderous than I thought it would as well. On the plus side, it rotated very willingly in response to lifting the throttle, but the problem is that it felt like there wasn't a lot of middle ground - I was essentially working with either of the two extremes. I'm guessing that this is most likely due to the more ride-oriented suspension tuning of the CR-Z. Also a bit of an issue on the autocross was wheelspin in the tighter turns. Looking at the specifications, this may come as a bit of a surprise, but the CR-Z exhibited quite a bit of body lean through the autocross which meant that the inside drivewheel was frequently unloaded.
Ergonomically, I found the CR-Z to meet my expectations as a Honda owner and enthusiast. The seats were very comfortable and supportive, the steering wheel was positioned well and offered a range of adjustment that should suit the majority of drivers, and all of the primary and secondary controls were easy to locate and operate. The 6-speed manual transmission felt precise and natural, with a satisfyingly short throw. From a feel perspective it was rather light on effort and feedback - I would prefer a little bit more positive feedback, but overall I would rate the shifter as quite good. For now we'll say it rates an 8 out of 10. The clutch takeup was just right, and the brakes felt really good. This last part shouldn't be overlooked as the brakes on most hybrid vehicles feel like they're lagging the state of the art by around two decades. Honestly, once I dialed in the "Sport" mode on the CR-Z, I absolutely forgot I was driving a hybrid vehicle.
Don't Look Back
Visibility in the CR-Z is generally quite good, with the exception of the view out the rear. I've noticed in many recent Hondas and Acuras (Accord CrossTour, Insight, Acura ZDX, Acura TL, Acura TSX) that rear visibility has fallen well below some other priorities. Beyond styling and aero pursuits, I'm not completely sure what those priorities might be, but I've definitely noticed that rear visibility has fallen off the map. As in the ZDX, Insight, and the Accord CrossTour, the CR-Z has a split window rear hatch design. It's certainly better than having just the (heavily sloped) hatch window, but at the end of the day it's still like looking at the world through the wrong end of a cone.
The CR-Z is basically a reconfigured version of an existing model, but amazingly it's the first of its kind. It's the first hybrid you'll drive that will make you forget it's a hybrid. You will drive it and (in "Sport" mode) have a great time driving it. You won't sense that it's regenerating energy when you tap the brakes, and (in "Sport" mode), it will respond eagerly to throttle inputs. You will look for serpentine roads, and you will downshift for corners just to hear the engine. In all likelihood, you won't feel the urge to draft behind 18-wheelers and you'll forget about the battery state. It may have a body shape that was sculpted in a wind tunnel, but your eye will still be drawn to its athletic design. It's basically the first of its breed - the truly sporty hybrid. At its price point (starting at $19,200, topping out at $23,210 fully loaded with NAVI and CVT), it is certainly one of a kind.