Honda CR-Z Driven

I spotted the Honda CR-Z Hybrid out of the corner of my eye one day on the road it reminded me of something.  I was taken back to my days as a car designer at Mercedes in Japan when we had a Honda Insight on the premises to test drive.  It was 2000 and hybrid technology was is its infancy.  There was no boot, I assume the battery pack and motor were back there instead because when you pulled aggressively round Yokohama’s corners the tail of the fish design inspired two-seater would take the driver for a ride!  Trip down memory lane over I promptly contacted Honda PR to see if I could test the looker…after all with the new 4 year free service and road side assistance pack now available until September on the CR-Z it merited a spin, or two.

First Impression

Having driven exclusively electric cars for our Driven articles it was nice and energetic to get inside a car with a, or part of a, combustion engine.  It is perfectly fitting that a company such as Honda would design and build the world’s first sports hybrid…fun sporty driving is in their DNA.  So my first impression upon receiving and parking the press CR-Z was “WOW, this looks like fun, great cockpit feel, and ooh…its low, and technical…Honda!”.

There is also another thing that perhaps people are not too aware of, Honda has a unique corporate culture that translates and permeates to all levels.  You have to be quirky to work at Honda, and you have to be an open person; I know, I worked there!  What does this mean to their cars?  Well, unlike other car companies engineering and design at Honda respect each other instead of irritate each other.  Engineering R&D happens mostly in their Tochige centre whilst design mostly happens in Wako, as well as satellite studios around the world.  When a project is planned and approved the two arms work together and it is this symbiotic relationship that was immediately evident to me in the CR-Z.

For example, these days it is very difficult to get the raking bonnet the CR-Z needed to respectably call itself a sports car and optimize its aerodynamic drag while adhering to strict safety regulations.  It is clear that Honda’s engineers strived to lower the engine’s hard points and designers used all the visual tricks available to create a fresh a crisp sporty feel in a very small package, designed engineering.

Exterior Design

This is a ‘boy’s’ car.  I only use ‘boys’ because one of my jobs as I drive around is to observe the reaction of people on the street, it gives me a quite accurate feel of who would own the car I am testing.  In this case, it was young men (not surprising as it’s a compact sports car) or as they used to say back in the day ‘boys’. 

Why do I say back in the day, well because the design has the feel of sports cars from the 80’s mixed in with fresh and smart design twists such as the large grille that visually wants to engulf the tarmac and sits unusually low into the bumper area.  Or the sinuous crease that emanates from the large LED clad headlights and runs up to the windscreen then turns back on itself into a kind of swoosh.  You could chose the glossy black A-pillars that create a wrap-around glasshouse effect as the most clever touch of design but my favourite detail is the way the vehicle tapers into its fish-tail rear view lightened by triangular tail-lights and rear window.  I thought I would get tired of the sporty look, being a girl and all, but I didn’t.

A little design history will tell you that the CR-Z harks back to the CR-X designed in 1984 and the original Honda Insight, as mentioned above.  While the new Insight is a Toyota Prius market chaser the original Insight design was very much like today’s production CR-Z.  The low sporty bonnet, 3 doors hatchback package, and the ubiquitous fish design.  Koi, carp fish in Japanese, are very important in Japanese culture, signifying love and friendship, but also have a very sleek build; it is a natural influencer in Japanese design as seen in our recent design review of SIM-Drive’s SIM-LEI.  The original Insight had no space in the rear, no air-con, and limited performance, but today the CR-Z is the first to combine a 1.5-litre i-VTEC with IMA (Internal Motor Assist) for a truly sporty ride with combined CO2 emission rating of 117g/km.  Add to that a 5 star Euro NCAP rating and a premium packed interior and you can see yourself starting to write a cheque!

Interior Design

What hits you the most when you open the door to the CR-Z is the size of the doors themselves and the number of buttons on the dashboard.  Then you slide into the low driver’s seat, get adjusted and go on a steep learning curve of all that is technologically packed into the CR-V.  I won’t go into all of it, you can always explore Honda’s excellent website for details (geek friendly!); suffice it to say that the CR-Z is like a boy-scout, ready for all that the urban jungle can throw at it.

Aesthetically all the buttons can be overwhelming.  There probably was no need for the extra air vent on the passenger’s side as it seems to be jammed into a corner and the driver’s one to the right also feels uncomfortable.  The cockpit design is very well done though with a kind of gaming console feel to the controls on wings on wither side of the steering wheel; appealing to the likely consumer.  When you turn on the car you are suddenly sucked into a world of lights and technical data that again is concentrated on a central circular odometer flanked on the left with electric feed information and on the right with combustion feed information. 

Then there seems to be a few MINI moments happening in the door panels with an allusion to an ellipse and then the metallic round door handle.  Another detail that does not lie within the speedy design language of the dashboard is the round and simple design of the gearshift, perhaps another nod to MINI.  The rest is designed with fast driving in mind with comfortable semi-bucket seats and sporty steering wheel trimmed with mesh and blue lightning stitching.  The layout is 2+2 but you are better off folding the seats down and using the really practical space in the back for luggage to get out of town on a romantic weekend; this is not a car for kids, although they would love to play with a toy version! 

Drive Experience

Sport, Normal, and ECON drive are the three driving modes available on the CR-Z to experiment with.  Sport Mode gives more electric motor assist to the driver and transmits a crisp feel to the driver, classic Honda.  Normal Mode is the most flexible for the driver who wants to be eco-conscious but not bored driving in the city.  ECON Mode is the ultimate setting to gain the most Eco-rewards; yes you get rewards for eco driving.  It limits acceleration, prioritizes fuel economy, and monitors and controls the climate control system.  The difference in driving feel could not have been more different from one setting to the next to the point that I had a few Jekyll-and-Hyde moments going from ECON to Sport, with glowing green lights turning into aggressive red ones that I compromised on soothing blue Normal; the perfect balance between fun and freedom. 

My Sports trim CR-Z had all the bells and whistles including parking sensors, cruise control, subwoofers (really good sound!), a USB port, and privacy glass.  Visibility is clear despite the tapered rear design and access easy thanks to the large doors.  The quality is unquestionable for a car in this price range, nothing seemed short-changed or missing, you definitely get all your money’s worth.  

Last Word

Designers design cars for people to use, they consider people’s traits, habits, life-styles then design for them or try to change or introduce new concepts.  The sports car is one of the original, if not the quintessential, car concepts of all time…engine + fours wheels + go fast!   Re-inventing and re-designing that icon in our time with our criteria and issues is a challenge.   Is there even a place for gas-guzzling sports cars in this day and age?  Is it progress to perpetuate them?  I think that as long as there are drivers there will always be the thrill of the chase, and thus the attraction of the sport car.  If you are concerned about the future of your planet but want that thrill for a gobsmackingly low price from a company that cares then buy the Honda CR-Z, you’re worth it and the planet is too.

Quick Facts

Price (OTR): S - £16,999
Sport - £17,999
GT - £19,999

Top speed: 124mph

0-62mph: 9.9 seconds (8.3 seconds was clocked by a car journalist!)

Combined mpg: 56.5mpg

CO2: 117g/km

Engine type: 1.5-litre petrol-electric IMA (hybrid)

Power: Engine: 114PS @ 6,100rpm

Motor: 14PS @ 1,500rpm

Total peak: 124PS @ 6,100rpm

Torque: Engine: 145Nm @ 4,800rpm

Motor: 78.4Nm @ 1,000rpm

Total peak: 174Nm @ 1,500rpm

Grades: S, Sport, GT and GT with Navi


4 years free servicing and road side assitance available until end of September 2011.