First Look: Honda’s CR-Z Hybrid Is a Blast to Drive. No Really

Product: CR-Z Hybrid

Manufacturer: Honda

Wired Rating: 0

Hybrids are many things. Efficient, yes. Practical? Sure. Attractive? Hmm, well, maybe. Sporty? You’re kidding, right? No one in their right mind would call hybrids sporty.

Until now.

Honda delivers much-needed excitement to eco-friendly driving with the CR-Z, an attractive, affordable hybrid that’s a genuine hoot to drive. It isn’t, contrary to the buzz, the second coming of the venerable CRX and you aren’t going to see it tearing up any tracks, but the CR-Z is, dare we say it, sporty.

The thing is, the CR-Z doesn’t feel like a hybrid. There’s no lag when the 10-kilowatt electric motor hands off to the 1.5-liter engine. The responsive antilock brakes lack the mushiness found in other hybrids, and the continuously variable transmission is smooth.

There’s a paddle-shifting slushbox available if you want to row through the gears, but the six-speed manual — a first in a hybrid — is the way to go. It’s much more fun. Trust us on this.

CR-Z Hybrid

We spent several hours exploring some of our favorite back roads north of San Francisco, and the CR-Z showed its athletic side with nimble handling and reasonably brisk acceleration. The chassis is tight, the suspension is firm and there’s a hint of understeer. The car feels a bit heavy — the six-speed model weighs 2,630 pounds — but most of the bulk is down low, and the CR-Z is fairly easy to toss around.

You’ve got a choice of three driving modes to suit your style. Sport — where we spent most of our time — gooses the output of the electric motor, optimizes throttle response and gives the electric power-steering a tighter feel. Econ shifts the equation toward maximum fuel efficiency. Normal splits the difference.

The gasoline engine does most of the work regardless of the mode. The small (5.7 ampere-hour) nickel–metal hydride battery and 10-kilowatt electric motor are there to boost acceleration and ease the load on the engine when cruising. The gas-electric combo gives you 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque.

CR-Z Hybrid

Set the car in normal mode and it’ll get 35 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway (37 combined) with the automatic tranny. Chose the six-speed and you’ll see 31 city, 37 highway, 34 combined. Yeah, you might expect a hybrid to do better, but the CR-Z skews ever so slightly toward performance end of the spectrum over efficiency. Still, Honda says it’s among the top-five fuel misers in America (based on combined fuel economy figures of 2010 models).

Around town, the CR-Z trudged through an afternoon commute without complaint. The cabin is relatively spacious and nicely appointed. Our car had the optional seven-speaker, 360-watt audio system and the optional navi (with 6.5-inch screen). Both were easy to use and performed reasonably well.

The seats are supportive, and there’s plenty of leg and headroom for all but the tallest people. You’ve got up to 25.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the seats, and a huge hatchback makes it easy to use it all.

When Honda unveiled the production version of the CR-Z at the Detroit auto show earlier this year, it all but called it CRX 2.0. It has toned down the comparisons, but the Z bears a strong resemblance to the X. It’s wide and low, and at 160.5 inches long and 54.9 inches tall about the size of the Honda Fit. Honda claims it’s more aerodynamic than the Toyota Prius.

CR-Z Hybrid

The car is not without its flaws. The instrument cluster, though comprehensive and easy to read, is laughably futuristic. “Aluminum-style” interior trim always looks cheap. The shifter feels limp — a mortal sin in a car with sporting pretensions. And the rear quarter windows are useless, with blindspots about the size of an SUV.

But those are minor quibbles in a car that’ll run less than $20,000 or so when it goes on sale Aug. 24. Choose all the options that came with our test model, and Honda says you’ll pay less than $24,000. (Honda hasn’t finalized pricing.)

As nice as the CR-Z is, those who truly enjoy driving will want a bit more power and handling prowess. Honda has “nothing official” to say about whether we’ll see a sportier Si version, but the tuner crowd already is developing parts. If the CR-Z isn’t the second coming of the CRX, it might soon be.

Until then, Honda has done something remarkable. It’s made an affordable hybrid that’s actually fun to drive, even sporty.

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