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Published on Wednesday 19 June 2013 08:53
Ten Second Review
Honda's CR-Z is a rare choice in the affordable sports coupe sector but a very pleasurable one. You don't expect hybrid power in this class of car. You don't expect leather trim and a panoramic glass roof either for just over £20,000 in a model of this kind. Both are part and parcel of the top GT model we tried.
Hybrid cars are very commendable and all that but many of the examples of the breed we've seen so far have been about as much fun as a stubbed toe, causing keen drivers to fear for the very future of the motorcar. Do environmentally-friendly vehicles really have to forgo any semblance of excitement? Honda says no and back in 2010, proved the point with its little CR-Z coupe, a hybrid, it claimed, that people without hemp sandals and a lentil-based diet would actually want to drive.
Well it certainly was fun - and different. But two years into the CR-Z production cycle, this little car had become a rather forgotten part of Honda's model line-up. Hence the need for the revised version we're looking at here, launched in the Autumn of 2012 with a smarter look and extra power, both for the 1.5-litre petrol engine and the clever electric motor that aids it. The addition of a neat boosting 'Plus Sport' button made the extra go more accessible too.
If you're a Honda fan. it should all be enough to bring back pleasant memories of the company's sparky CRX coupe of the Eighties, a design perfect for its era, just as this car is today. Indeed, this CR-Z echoes more than just that model's looks, with fun as high a priority as frugality, saving the future of enthusiast motoring at the same time as saving the planet. If you think that sounds ambitious, we'd agree: let's check it out in top GT form.
Since we've already seen electrically-powered and diesel-engined sportscars, the concept of a hybrid sportster shouldn't be too shocking, but somehow it still is. In the CR-Z's case, that might have something to do with its creation from the platform of one of the least sporty cars Honda has ever made, the family-orientated five-door MK2 hybrid Insight. It's not a promising start and was a formula not helped in the original version of this car by a decided modest 122PS power output, 14PS from the electric motor and the remainder provided by a 1.5-litre VTEC petrol engine borrowed from a humble Jazz supermini. Hence the changes made to this revised model, with small but significant tweaks to both engine and electric motor pushing the collective output to a far more acceptable 137PS, good enough in this GT variant if you're quick with the beautifully sweet-shifting manual gearbox to reduce the 0-62mph time from 9.7s to 9.5s and offer a maximum speed of 124mph.
To help the driver make the best use of this sporty performance, Honda has introduced a Plus Sport (S+) boost system. If the battery is more than 50 per cent charged, the driver can activate this system using the S+ button on the steering wheel. When the accelerator is pressed, the electric boost begins, delivering increased acceleration for up to ten seconds. A flashing gauge on the dashboard indicates when the system is active. S+ can be used in either of the 3-Mode Drive system's trio of modes - ECON, Normal or Sport.
Design and Build
There's a smarter look to this facelifted CR-Z with a smarter front bumper, a revised grille, more striking alloy wheels and, at the back, a different aerodynamic diffuser design. The essentials though, remain as before, so the underpinnings are based on the chassis and drivetrain of the current generation Honda Insight hybrid but with a series of significant changes designed to make it feel a long way removed from that straight-laced family car. It's shorter and lighter but with a wider track and a wheelbase that positions the wheels right out at the corners of the car for extra poise and balance. The suspension features aluminium components and damper settings aimed at achieving a firm ride that doesn't become harsh over the bumps. Honda was intent on making this hybrid handle well.
The low, road-hugging looks of the CR-Z don't lead you to expect a voluminous cabin but the car should be roomy enough for two. It's being touted as a '2+2' but as usual when that old chestnut is wheeled out by a manufacturer, the rear seats aren't much use to full-grown adults. They work better with their backs folded down to increase the 225 litre boot to 410 litres.
The CR-Z sits you low down like a good coupe should and presents you with an array of instruments that could have been lifted out of a spaceship as imagined on a 1980s Sci-Fi show. Chunky controls are mounted within easy reach and displays with bold white fonts shine out from glossy black backgrounds. There's a tactile Honda steering wheel and deeply sculpted door linings incorporating chrome pulls and storage bins.
Market and Model
Expect to be paying around £23,000 for this CR-Z GT, a couple of thousand more than the entry-level Sport variant. Without realistic sporty hybrid competition, Honda feel confident that this car will be in a class of its own, but potential buyers who aren't just considering it as a hybrid will also have their eye on other frugally-minded yet sporty cars. If you're shopping near the bottom end of the CR-Z range, rivals might include MINI's Coupe Cooper SD or a Hyundai Veloster. If you're looking at a top CR-Z like the one we tried, your interest might be swayed by a diesel Peugeot RCZ roadster or Volkswagen Scirocco TDI sports coupe. And of course, there are any number of diesel hot hatches in the same kind of price bracket.
Whichever CR-Z you choose, you should find it to be decently equipped. In line with the high-tech feel of the car, even the basic model gets features like heated mirrors, daytime running lights, climate control, Honda's Vehicle Stability Assist technology and six airbags. At the very top of the range, the GT adds 17-inch alloys, a hands free telephone kit, a panoramic glass roof, xenon headlights, heated seats and full leather trim.
Cost of Ownership
Enthusiastic drivers may find it hard to believe that there's almost as much satisfaction to be had in eco-friendly driving as there is at full chat, but that's precisely Honda's thinking with this car. If the traffic flow won't let you switch to 'Sport', then simply flip back to 'Economy' or 'Normal' and grow your plants. I'd better explain. Keep the instrument glow to green rather than blue by feathering the throttle, watching the econometer on the dash and obeying the gearshift light and you're rewarded with the appearance of 'leaves' in a section of the instrument pack. These eventually grow into a flower if you continue to drive frugally, watching the gauge that tells you how much the system is charging the battery or taking from it.
Get all this right and there's the potential in this CR-Z GT to achieve up to 54.3mpg on the combined cycle, with emissions of CO2 measured at 122g/km, slightly worse than the entry-level Sport version thanks to this variant's larger 17-inch alloy wheels. Before you point out that you can get better from a sporty diesel rival, remember that diesel engines run on pricier fuel and open up a whole further can of worms with their high emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. In any case, Honda reckons that the CR-Z will be cheaper and easier to maintain than a diesel over its lifespan and backs this up with a warranty that covers three years or 90,000 miles, with ten years' anti-corrosion guarantee and an eight year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. On top of that, company car tax bills are low and it's free to drive into London's Congestion Charge zone. Insurance on the 1-50 groupings scale is group 17.
It's hard not to like this CR-Z. Even if you leave aside the hybrid benefits, it's a clever choice - and a decent driver's tool too. There are of course still many more dynamic and powerful sportscars and hot hatches in this market segment. And naturally, there are more efficient hybrids. Having said all that, there's nothing else that enables you to bring the two extremes together with such a guilt-free glow.
We'd be tempted to go for this top GT model, even though the larger 17-inch wheels do make their mark on performance and running costs. It looks and feels special. And isn't that a big part of what owning a car like this is all about?