September 5, 2010

Scott Wasser: New Honda CR-Z a challenge to define, appreciate

After a few days driving a 2011 Honda CR-Z, I'm still trying to figure out what it is, so I call on my old buddies Merriam and Webster..

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Honda calls the 2011 CR-Z’s distinctive styling a “one-motion wedge.” Despite its uniqueness, it evokes memories of the original Insight hybrid and the sporty CRX coupes of the mid-1980s to 1990s. Its cockpit, however, looks more like a command console from Star Trek.

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The new Honda CR-Z's obstructed sightlines make city driving less enjoyable despite the car's agility and maneuverability.

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Additional Photos Below

Honda calls this two-seater coupe a hybrid, but it doesn't feel like any I've ever driven, so I look up hybrid in the dictionary. At first, that isn't much help either.

The first definition mentions species and race; the second, cultures and traditions.

Looking further, Definition 3 is in two parts. One defines hybrid as "... a vehicle that has two different types of components performing essentially the same function."

That clearly describes most of the hybrid vehicles I've tested, but the other part of Definition 3 seems to do a better job of defining the CR-Z. It reads, "Something heterogeneous in origin or composition."

Not being the brightest guy in the world, I also have to look up "heterogeneous." I learn it means "consisting of dissimilar or diverse ingredients or constituents."

Bingo!

The CR-Z is sporty yet economical. It is utilitarian, but not versatile. It is both fun to drive and annoying to operate. Its instrument panel looks really cool but is somewhat frustrating.

How "dissimilar or diverse" can you get?

I had no idea what to expect from the CR-Z when it first arrived for testing. A week later I was only slightly more enlightened. I'm still not sure if it's an economy car, a sports coupe, or none of the above.

What I'm certain of is that it is based on the same platform as Honda's current-generation Insight hybrid and the conventionally powered Fit. Its drivetrain is similar to the Insight's, but the CR-Z has a more powerful engine and electric motor, offers a six-speed manual transmission, and is equipped with a "Three-mode Drive System."

The latter features push-button-selected Sport, Normal and Econ modes that noticeably affect the CR-Z's performance. Choosing Sport mode in the test car, for example, stiffens the steering and makes the throttle more responsive. That mode also extends shift points in CR-Zs equipped with continuously variable automatic transmissions.

My test car's six-speed manual gearbox was terrific. Its shift linkage is of sports-car caliber, with a short throw and precise engagement. Clutch pedal effort is light, yet feel is excellent. And engagement is as smooth and progressive as any clutch I've tested.

Despite that, I stalled the CR-Z once and stumbled away from traffic lights a couple of other times. That's because the CR-Z has what Honda calls "automatic idle stop," which during normal operating conditions shuts down its gasoline engine when the car comes to a complete stop.

This fuel-saving feature is similar to those found on competitors' hybrids, but unlike those vehicles the CR-Z cannot move on electric power alone. So its gasoline engine needs to kick in -- which it does automatically -- to pull away from a traffic light or stop sign. I think my stalls and stumbles may have happened because I let the clutch out a little too quickly for the engine to respond.

Even when it accelerated smoothly, there was often a little shudder whenever the gasoline engine restarted.

That might not be a bad tradeoff for a car that can get from zero to 60 mph in just 8.3 seconds and still travel 31 city or 37 highway miles on a gallon of fuel. The CVT-equipped CR-Z's EPA mileage rating is even higher: 35 city/39 highway.

I didn't particularly enjoy driving the CR-Z on the highway or in the city, despite its agility, maneuverability and generally quiet and comfortable ride.

The problem in town is that the driver's sightlines are obstructed by puny, triangular rear-quarter windows and a split rear window design that bisects the rearview mirror with a thick, opaque bar.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Cargo space is less roomy than the Honda CR-Z's thick rear quarters and hatchback design suggest, but it has a couple of useful cubbies behind the front seats.

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The instrument panel features bright lighting accents and a large, 3D-looking digital speedometer.

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