Pulling out of Formula 1. Canceling its NSX supercar project and iconic S2000. Focusing on making good, clean family transport like the Fit, Civic and CR-V. These have all gnawed away at Honda's once-proud sporting image. But now an unlikely hybrid sports coupe with – unusually – a 6-speed manual gearbox is set to inject some passion back into that tarnished racy heritage. And it's called the CR-Z.
Coming face to face with the road-going production version at our exclusive drive in central Japan, we were pleasantly surprised by just how good the car looks in the metal. Which, by the way, was a relief after several pundits, impressed by the CR-Z concept's raunchy exterior at the 2007 Tokyo motor show, queried the toning down of the final showroom version's front end treatment at the Detroit show this January.
Anyone who remembers the wedge-shaped CR-X of the early 1980s will see some resemblances. But as project leader Norio Tomobe pointed out at our drive session, “We were not aiming for a modern-day CR-X. We wanted to create a totally new type of hybrid sports coupe that would take us into a more discerning and environmentally conscious 21st century. The fact that's it's a hybrid just adds another intriguing dimension to the sporty mix. If it reminds you of the CR-X, then that's purely coincidental.” Whatever the reasoning, the CR-Z's exterior lines get the pulse going like no Honda since perhaps the last Civic Type R.
It looks like nothing else on the road, and that's appealing. Its large, imposing grille and upward-slanting headlights start a stylish design motif that artfully finishes with a bold swish for a C-pillar and a cleverly sculptured rear deck.
Sitting on a slightly shorter but wider Insight platform, the CR-Z employs a wheelbase that's shrunk by 4.5in. It has also lost an inch in height and is 97lbs lighter than the Insight. Slipping into the driver's seat, that four and a half inches seems undervalued because you sit so much lower in the CR-Z. There's plenty of headroom for drivers up to 6'4” – but forget the rear seats, which would struggle to accommodate a 12-year-old.
Interior trim and quality are one and a half levels above the Insight's and the instrumentation boasts more design flair than the Insight's dashboard. It's also well set out, superbly illuminated and intuitive. Flatten the rear seats and you create 7ft of luggage space, enough for a couple of suitcases or two golf bags.
As we spoke to Tomobe, it soon became obvious just what an inspired piece of technology this coupe is. The CR-Z doesn't just employ a revised version of the Insight's platform, its Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system and a modified Insight rear suspension setup. This coupe is a masterful collaboration of the very best and most cost-effective hardware Honda currently offers.
To lift the car's thrill factor, engineers replaced the Insight's 1.3-liter engine with a 1.5-liter i-VTEC engine from the Fit, and then mated that with a revised 6-speed manual gearbox from the European-spec 1.8-liter Civic. In contrast to the engine's 112hp at 6000rpm and 107lb-ft of torque at 4800rpm, the electric motor generates 14hp at 1500rpm and 58lb-ft at 1000rpm. Through a complex calculation, which we won't go into here, the combined power output of the CR-Z's hybrid system is 122hp at 6000rpm and combined torque is 128lb-ft at 1500rpm. Combined economy is 56.5mpg, too. Oh, and the CR-Z still employs nickel metal hydride batteries.
“Given the 1.5-liter's greater torque, we had to redesign the IMA system and gearbox to cope with it,” explains Tomobe.
To experience the full force of this bottom-end shove, Tomobe suggests we set the new dash-mounted, three-mode drive system switches to Sport, “which regulates throttle response and employs the electric motor as a kind of mild supercharger to ‘assist the engine' when accelerating.” The other modes, Normal and Econ, retard throttle response to reduce fuel consumption and emissions.
As we lift the perfectly weighted clutch and engage first gear, the CR-Z's beefy bottom-end torque becomes apparent. With maximum torque at just 1500rpm, the coupe jumps from rest and reaches 62mph in 10.1sec, as we clear the 6300rpm red line in second. That is noticeably faster than the Insight. Keep the engine spinning between 4000rpm and 6000rpm and the CR-Z delivers rewarding responses, while the throatier tuning of the exhaust adds to this all-new sporty hybrid experience. But the CR-Z will also accelerate strongly uphill from as low as 2000rpm thanks to the motor's “assistance.”
Compared with Econ mode, which enables the car to achieve its 56.5mpg, Sports mode is a keeper. After trying all three settings, we found ourselves leaving it in Sports mode because its quicker response at low and high speeds suits the characteristics of this car down to a T.
With world-class manual gearboxes such as those in the S2000, NSX and Civic Type R, the CR-Z's has a lot to live up to. And thanks to some inspired revisions to the European Civic's gearbox, the CR-Z's 6-speeder delivers deliciously short throws and a firm, precise linkage action.
Honda has paid special attention to the steering, too. The coupe's revised, electrically assisted steering is superbly weighted, offers excellent feel and turns in crisply. When you learn that Tomobe had a secret benchmark – the steering on his own BMW 325i M Sport Coupe – it soon becomes clear why the CR-Z's steering is so delightful.
Throw in enhanced rigidity throughout the chassis and body shell, plus a significant revision to the torsion bar setup on the rear suspension, and it's easy to see why the car handles and rides as well as it does. Whereas the Insight is just harsh, the CR-Z is stiff but compliant – a big difference.
There were no half measures with this coupe. Honda engineers even required special tires, co-developed with both Bridgestone and Yokohama.
Tomobe tells us that his handling evaluation team had Keiichi “Drift King” Tsuchiya do some back-to-back laps using three sets of tires: eco tires, high-performance rubber and special CR-Z-dedicated tires. Tsuchiya concluded that the custom CR-Z tires offered the best combination of grip, economy and low noise levels.
Although many parts on the CR-Z have been carried over from the Insight, there are also some strategic differences, such as the brakes. Whereas the Insight employs a system that switches between hydraulic and regenerative braking, the CR-Z's main braking system is hydraulic. Tomobe says: “We use a full hydraulic brake system that employs the regenerative braking only as an assist mechanism.”
And the result is refreshing, to say the least. Unlike the current crop of hybrids, which deliver a somewhat synthetic feel, the CR-Z offers sure-footed stopping power every time.
Tomobe acknowledges that the CR-Z is a bold step into an uncertain market. But he is convinced that Honda has launched this coupe at the right time. With its high quality, those low-slung, sporty looks, good performance and fuel economy, great gearbox and low price (expected to be in the $25,000 range when it goes on sale in the U.S. later this year), the CR-Z will, we think, generate a new interest in hybrids among a wider cross-section of the motoring public. This, after all, is a hybrid coupe that's as sporty as it is unique. Oh, and watch out for the high-performance Mugen version next year… Peter Lyon/Autocar