Thursday, December 19, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Honda CR-Z

As I have oft-stated, I am not a fan of hybrids. I always feel like they are too compromised, especially when it comes to performance and driving dynamics. Considering that many gasoline powered cars have reached a point where they are able to achieve extremely good fuel economy, some which rival the economy of the hybrids, the loss of performance that comes with the hybrid simply does not seem justified. However, as a fan of alternative fuel vehicles, I was intrigued when a few years back, Honda introduced a concept 2-door hybrid in a tiny package. The CR-Z, which carried a silhouette reminiscent of the sporty and hilariously fun CRX of the late 80s and early 90s, had the potential to deliver on its promise of making a hybrid that was fun to drive, easy on the wallet, and practical too. The specs were far from encouraging, however, with the combined output noticeably anemic in comparison to other sporty subcompacts in the segment, most notably the funky looking Veloster, but the bantam weight 2-seater had a lot going for it in the way of instantly available torque from its electric motor. Would the CR-Z be the one to change my long-standing critical stance on hybrids?


In a word, no. To elaborate, not even close.

The CR-Z borrows much from Honda's recent Insight hybrid, including much of the aerodynamic sculpting of its overall shape. On the Insight, it looks unobtrusive, giving the standard profile of a high-mpg cruiser in the vein of the Prius, but on the CR-Z, with its tiny wheelbase, the resulting massive front overhang and chopped off tail sometimes feels a touch clownish. It sort of resembles one of those cartoon caricature cars where the shrunken wheelbase is mixed with exaggerated proportions to create a funny looking image. The only problem is that here, it is not a cartoon, but a real metal and plastic creation. The overall length feels markedly larger than a CRX, mostly due to the preposterously long snout. While the prominent grille and pulled back headlights are intended to give the front fascia an aggressive look, the whole thing ends up looking a touch silly.

Pop open the longish door and climb into the surprisingly spacious front seat, which is set pretty low to the ground in order to offer optimal headroom in what is an otherwise very small car. There is no back seat (in the US anyway, though it is available overseas) so instead you end up with a glorified parcel shelf that folds down to expand the tiny cargo area into something a little more usable. The materials feel spartan in this base trim car and the overall feel screams "economy!" at the top of its lungs. Of course, given the rather trim price-tag, the finishes are to be expected, although everything is well assembled and expertly put together. This particular car had clearly been sitting around for a while and had a battery that was largely depleted because when I slotted in the key and turned the car on, the dash started flashing on and off and going completely crazy, strobing enough to send one into epileptic seizures. I finally turned over the gasoline engine, which cured the seizure-inducing strobe pattern, but this sort of behavior hardly seems appropriate in a car at any price.

Firing up the puny sounding 1.5L engine, the car sputtered to life, an audible whine emanating from the rear as the electrical system primed itself. This particular test car was equipped with the CVT, a form of transmission that I have long since accepted for its fuel economy benefits in spite of my personal distaste for the power delivery characteristics. Tapping the green "ECON" button to the left of steering wheel, I eased the car out onto the street and attempted to accelerate gently up to a reasonable cruising speed. After what seemed like many eons, I finally reached a safe and steady 35 mph. After about three blocks of this nonsense, I tapped the "SPORT" button and left it alone. Knowing full well that this would have an impact on the fuel economy, I simply did not care. In economy mode, the car is simply too slow for its own good and even in sport mode, it is more than a bit on the slow side. While I certainly was not expecting a speed demon, especially given the CVT, I traveled constantly in fear that I was going to get rear-ended because this tiny car was too slow to get out of its own way. To make matters worse, the tiny engine sputtering to life sent a shudder through the cabin every time and was about as unrefined as you could possibly get.

Luckily, there was at least one silver lining to this rather dark cloud, the handling. The miniature wheelbase and sharp, if a touch light, steering offered crisp turn-in that transitioned to manageable understeer if trying to deliver what little power the drive train could muster. It was easy to be able toss the car around since it weighs just a hair over 2,700 lbs. The go-kart handling was certainly entertaining, but was not without its penalties. In order to offer the sharp handling, the ride was often brittle, and the car had a tendency to protest rather loudly over moderately sized bumps. It managed smaller stuff reasonably well, but larger obstacles would rattle its suspension.

As much as I want to like the idea of the CR-Z, the execution simply falls way short of the ideal. For an inexpensive car, it certainly attempts to achieve a lot - fuel economy, driving dynamics, comfort, and practicality. Unfortunately, it pretty much falls short in all of these areas and does none of them particularly well. The EPA rated fuel economy of 35mpg city and 39 mpg highway are not markedly better than many small subcompact and even compact cars on the market today. And in order to get that fuel economy, you have to sacrifice a rear seating area, cargo space, and all semblance of style and performance to achieve it. That said, if you are willing to make all of those sacrifices and still feel like the CR-Z makes sense for your lifestyle, then I would recommend at least stepping up to the EX trim that offers a few more amenities and a touchscreen navigation system.

Now, the CR-Z has been around for a little while and Honda has recently introduced an all new hybrid system in the Honda Accord Hybrid. All indications point to that system being a tremendous improvement over the earlier IMA technology that Honda uses in the CR-Z. Hopefully, if Honda decides to pursue a second generation of the CR-Z, they will be able to take advantage of this new hybrid drive train, in conjunction with making some marked improvements to the interior materials, to transform the CR-Z into the car that it deserves to be.