Review: 2016 Honda CR-Z

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The Honda CR-Z is certainly – if nothing else – a car of wanton potential.

When it first got launched in 2010 it seemed to offer something that the world hadn’t seen before – a dual personality, sporty hybrid vehicle in a modern interpretation of the original CR-X body. Finally a hybrid that enthusiasts can get excited over? Sign us up please!

Except the execution was never really quite there; the hybrid drive train felt limp-wristed, it didn’t quite have the handling prowess it should have, and crucially it lacked rear seats in North America which eliminated a lot of would-be buyers.

OK so for 2016 the CR-Z hasn’t changed much other than the front and rear bumpers, but it does have thicker anti-roll bars, a larger electric motor (15kW instead of the old 10), and a higher voltage lithium-ion battery pack compared to the unit in the original. Rear seat situation (or lack thereof) remains unchanged however .

So how is the car?

THE GOOD

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Larger 17″ wheels are an improvement (visually anyway) over previous 16″ offerings. Ride not seemingly affected.

You would expect low profile tires and the shortened wheelbase of the Insight to ride with the aplomb of passing gas during a candlelight vigil, but it actually rides remarkably well. The chassis does feel firm, but it rounds off all but the most severe of potholes and strikes up a nice balance for a sporty yet commuting oriented car.

The interior is quite nicely laid out; there is a certain coolness to having most of the switch gear book-ending the steering wheel and having the speedo projected onto the gauge cluster gives it a neat effect. Driving mode buttons are easy to access and well positioned. The steering wheel is quite nice, although I found the two levels of buttons on the lower section to be slightly cluttered. The alloy pedals are a nice touch but a nook near the tunnel wall would intermittently catch my foot when I tried to hit the gas.

F1 inspired front lip

F1 inspired front lip

Although the refresh hasn’t really benefited the rear of the car, the front of the vehicle has been gifted with some added aggression, and a vague reminder that Honda has/had some sort of motorsport credentials. The wheels are slightly less frumpy than before, but seem a bit too try-hard. Overall, I love how the car pays hommage to the original CR-X while taking it into a modern direction (but that was true when the car was launched in 2010).

Liftbacks offer not just space but ease of loading cargo in.

Liftbacks offer not just space but ease of loading cargo in.

The liftback design offers more space and ease of use that would put many trunks to shame, and the seats are comfortable (although they could do with some more thigh support). You would expect a car with C-pillars the size of stadium trusses to give you bad visibility, but really its quite good in this car. That being said, the back up camera is necessary.

But perhaps the biggest positive of this car is the shifter. Its changes are short, crisp, and direct, and I revelled every opportunity to use it. The gear knob is a lovely thing, and lifts it up noticeably beyond its Fit gearbox underpinnings. Opt for the CVT and not only are you getting shortchanged on the already lacking torque (you lose 13 lb-ft), but you are performing the car-equivalent of castrating Ron Jeremy. DON’T DO IT.

Wonderful shifter and electronic parking brake.

Wonderful shifter and electronic parking brake.

Hmm…that’s it? And what about the driving dynamics?

THE BAD

Ironic that Honda’s second (debatably) sportiest car on offer right now well…. isn’t that sporty. There are three driving modes:

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Three buttons toggle excitement level in this car between bored, indifferent, and annoyed. Nice layout though.

  • Econ: dials back throttle response, lightens up the steering, and flips you a leaf on the dash to show your contributions to the environment. The engine is more keen to auto shut off in this mode as well. While I’m sure this is the most economical mode, I never had the patience to leave the car long enough in it to find out. Prods of the throttle resulted in a waiting game longer than most line ups at Walmart on Black Friday.
  • Normal: Well…this is normal. I guess what you would call a “medium” in terms of throttle response between the turtle-like Econ and the sport described below. I used this mode most of the time. It was FINE.
  • Sport: This is the mode that I had the most expectations from, and was the most disappointed by. Yes, the dash turns red, the steering gets heavier, there is more motor assistance for the engine, and the throttle sharpens. But this mode also opens up a valve in the exhaust that completely drowns your brain in the sort of drone that you would expect from a Fast & Furious fart-can (especially in the 4-6000 rpm range). The acceleration of the car transforms into what I would consider “just acceptable” for a car with the word “sport” in its description.
  • Sport+: This is a button that lies on the steering wheel rather than on the side where the other drive modes are. If the battery is charged beyond 50%, you can press this button to give you 5s of maximum F1-KERS-like boost….apparently. In the many situations I tried this (no, part, and full throttle), it really seemed to make no difference whatsoever. OK moving on.
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Sport mode in red (above), with normal in greenish/blue (below).

 

The powerplant under the hood is related to the 1.5L motor found in the existing Honda Fit (both are L-series engines) except it utilizes a single over head cam instead of the dual found in the Fit. The engine produces 130hp @ 6000 rpm and 140lb-ft of torque @ 1000-2000rpm (127 with the CVT).

Look, I don’t want to sound like one of those guys who babbles on about cars feeling underpowered and nothing short of 1000hp will do, but this engine really does feels quite sluggish. I was hoping that the motor assistance would make this car feel like a environmentally friendly supercharged Fit engine, but it just doesn’t have any urgency. There is a big gap between the motor’s assistance point and when the i-VTEC kicks in so in the middle rev ranges you are just left waiting. One thing the motor assist DOES do is it reduces the need to downshift; in situations where you would expect the torque-free engine to bog, the motor assistance kicks in and bails the engine out.

The car has an auto start/stop feature but in Econ mode the engine would shut off very easily, meaning that in stop/go traffic, the engine would cycle in and out very often. I kind of wonder what this does for longevity. Perhaps if the car was capable of running in electric mode only, this would save the engine a fair bit of stress but I don’t think Honda’s IMA hybrid system is easily adaptable to do this.

the 1.5L Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system in all its glory. Needs a lot more assist.

the 1.5L Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system in all its glory. Needs a lot more assist.

Well perhaps the driving dynamics help make up for the engine then?

The new larger sway bars do a good job minimizing lean in the corners, but ultimately this compact car feels very nose heavy despite the respectable 59/41% front:rear weight distribution. The car doesn’t turn in super sharply (OK since this isn’t a full on sports car), but throttle lifts and trail braking also don’t help to trim the line. The stock Michelin Pilot Sport 3s do have a decent amount of grip.

The steering is certainly not helping the cause, feeling overly light most of the time and heavier but without any amplified feedback in Sport. As a result, you end up working yourself up to the grip limits, but go no further than 8/10ths in the car. The suspension, while very comfortable most of the time, jumps in higher speed compressions mid-corner.

Steering is accurate but lacks any steering feel to give you the confidence to push the car.

Steering is accurate but lacks any steering feel to give you the confidence to push the car.

That being said, the brakes are pretty progressive given its regenerative capabilities, although not as linear as a conventional system.

Outside of the driving dynamics, the are a few other things that grind my gears.

The seats don’t fold back into the original position once lifted to access the back, and the Hondalink system on this 2016 vehicle is still utilizing the much maligned system we saw in the 2015 Honda Fit. In other words, the SatNav system is unusable, and I still don’t see the point of the side view camera which is particularly distracting at night. Where is the Apple CarPlay found on the new Civic?

Comfy seats lack thigh support and don't return into their original position when lifted.

Comfy seats lack thigh support and don’t return into their original position when lifted.

But you see where this is going right? An engine that doesn’t push you to rev it, and a chassis that doesn’t encourage you to toss it into corners. The joie de vivre is not here, which is something I felt was very crucial to the very best sport compacts from Honda.

Maybe the fuel consumption is good then? With the usual mix of city and highway driving that I did in this CR-Z, I managed to get 6L/100kms (measured from the amount of fuel used compared to kilometers covered). While this isn’t terrible, I was expecting more from a hybrid.

THE UGLY (CONCLUSION)

I wanted so desparately to like the CR-Z; to show that Hybrids can be fun, and to give me some hope for the future of green cars, but in the end I just felt frustrated by how much of a missed opportunity this was. That isn’t to say that the CR-Z is a bad car, it’s not. But it should have and could have been so much better.

At a macro level, this car encompasses how Honda seems to have forgotten what made them so successful in the first place: Cars that were not only reliable and cheap to run, but also were rewarding to the driver. There has to be a spark that ignites your passion for driving, and at their best Honda made sport compacts that accomplished this like no other.

But the more I drove the CR-Z, the more I felt indifferent about the car, and that is truly a shame for something with a Honda badge on it.

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