2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

This is the long-awaited Honda CR-Z, a car Honda claims is the reincarnation of its legendary CRX hatchback. It's a 122-hp hybrid two-door that ambles to 60 mph about as quickly as a Toyota Prius. Say what?

Full Disclosure: Honda flew a host of journalists to San Francisco and put them up in a nice hotel on the Embarcadero — the same hotel used for one of the 2011 Ford Fiesta launches — for the launch of the 2011 CR-Z. Because I lived in the area at the time, I simply drove downtown. I also took a Honda-sponsored tour of the California Academy of Sciences, a really cool place that has a blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. If this review is biased, it's only because I find whale bones impossibly cool.

No matter how you slice it, the Honda CR-Z is an interesting car. Five months ago, when the CR-Z debuted at the Detroit auto show, it was met by a wave of public indifference. "Fat," said the pundits. (A curb weight of just over 2800 pounds, which seems impressive until you consider the car's 95.8-inch wheelbase and 55-inch height.) "Slow," they said. (122 hp at 6000 rpm.) "Small and silly," they said. (Two seats, 25.1 cubic feet of storage with the rear partition folded.)

2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

Also, fuel economy — 31/37 mpg with the standard six-speed manual, or 35/39 with the optional CVT — wasn't impressive.

Us, we were just confused. Hell, I own a CRX — an '88 Si, one of two that have passed through my driveway — and after spending a half-hour walking around the CR-Z on the show stand, poring over the numbers, and trying to make sense of my disappointment, I left puzzled. I published the following fifteen minutes later:

How did this happen? A million questions pop into my mind: If mileage, not marketing, is the goal, then why doesn't the CR-Z have a tiny, high-revving gasoline engine - or, better yet, Honda's excellent diesel four - under its hood? Is a power-to-weight ratio of almost twenty-three pounds per horsepower supposed to be fun, or merely fun by comparison? (I suppose that anything is entertaining next to a Toyota Prius, but "better than blah" doesn't make for much of an ad line.) Isn't a fun, carefully engineered, minimalist approach to the hybrid problem exactly what everyone expects from Honda? And in what world does a two-seat, 2800-pound fuel-economy special — remember, the base Civic weighs 2630 pounds, has a back seat and a large trunk, and offers 34 mpg — fulfill that expectation?

Other relevant facts: The 1984-1987 CRX weighed just over 1800 pounds. The second-generation car, produced from 1988 to 1991, hovered around 2000 pounds. A host of different models — including the gas-sipping CRX HF, which offered over 50 mpg by period EPA standards — were offered through the years, and all of them were quick, nimble, and fun to drive. They made sense.

What, pray tell, is this?

2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

And Now For Something Completely Different

If you've been paying attention, the details are hard to miss: The front-wheel-drive CR-Z uses a mildly modified version of the hybrid drivetrain found in Honda's five-door Insight, a machine that boasts all the motive excitement of a piece of toast on a skateboard. It also uses a modified version of that car's platform, albeit with weight-saving aluminum control arms, more rigid front-hub bearings, lighter wheels, a wider rear axle beam, and a 30% more powerful motor for the electric power steering system.

The Big H claims that the CR-Z is the first "truly sporty" hybrid. During the launch, John Mendel, the company's executive vice president, claimed that the car was "as much about the driving experience as our commitment to fuel economy."

You know what? He's right. Kind of.

2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

The CR-Z's engine is the same 1.5-liter i-VTEC SOHC four found in the Fit; it makes 128 lb-ft of torque when bolted to a manual transmission (123 lb-ft with the CVT), and it does so between 1000 and 1500 rpm. Some 58 lb-ft of that comes from the hybrid system's electric motor, but from behind the wheel, you'd think you were in a traditional gasoline-powered car. The engine responds to your right foot like a Fit with a heavy, inertia-preserving flywheel, but it also doesn't mind being revved and — wait for it — doesn't feel like a hybrid.

What does that mean? Simple: This is easily the most transparent hybrid produced to date. There's no acceleration surge under heavy load, no dead drone from the engine bay, no soul-sapping bleh when you stab the right pedal. Ignore the hybrid system's configuration buttons (Eco, Normal, Sport; they alter throttle response and the electric motor's assist level) on the dash, and the car reminds you of a sleepy, sedated Fit.

Predictably, there's a catch: The CR-Z is not a fast car; it is not even a quick car. Acceleration estimates weren't available at the time of this writing, but Road & Track tested a Japanese-spec model, a car nearly identical to the American one, and hit 60 mph from rest in 10.5 seconds. The CR-Z feels faster than this, but not by much.

2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

Handling is about as you'd expect. Mild understeer gives way to moderate understeer when pushed; turn stability control off and lift in the middle of a corner, and the car gradually oversteers. (That's the clinical answer. The hyperbolic answer is that the CR-Z cranks into corners like a CRX — a notoriously manic handler — that grew up, got a little lazy, and ate too much tempura.) In other words, it's no Civic Si, but it's still moderately entertaining. Part of this is undoubtedly due to soft springing and damping — the CR-Z rides like a cloud-filled couch over even the crappiest of pavement.

2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

Random facts that popped up in my notes but aren't relevant to the above information: Hill assist is standard on manual-transmission cars. When the car goes on sale in August, there will be three models (CR-Z, CR-Z EX, and CR-Z EX Navigation), five exterior colors, and one interior color (silver). Seventeen-inch wheels will be optional. Honda brought a first-generation CRX Si to the CR-Z launch and let journalists drive it, but if I started comparing the two cars, you would probably get depressed.

Pricing has not yet been announced, but Honda claims to be aiming for a range that "starts under $20,000 and goes up to just under $24,000."

2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

Any Step Is Better Than None

Where does that leave us? Let's close things out with a quote from the CR-Z's chief engineer:

"We wanted a car that would excite people, a car that only Honda could create." —Norio Tomobe, Large Project Leader, Honda CR-Z

Hm. I know you did, Norio, and I firmly believe that, given what you had to work with, you did your best. Is this the most entertaining hybrid car money can buy? Yes. Is it what I want and, frankly, what the market needs? Not quite.

Make no mistake: The CR-Z is not a bad car. But there's something missing here — it lacks a certain Honda joy, the kind of less-is-more, sharp-engineering vibrance that you find in everything from a Civic CVCC

2011 Honda CR-Z: First DriveS

to a stripped Fit or S2000. I understand that the car was designed with two seemingly incompatible purposes in mind, and I know that, at least in this case, weight and performance are largely tied to price. People who don't need a back seat or a lot of luggage space, people who want decent fuel economy and modern-car convenience, they will buy this. They will likely not care that the CR-Z isn't the fun, inspiring, fuel-friendly car that the CRX was. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't.

The takeaway? The car you see here is a decent, though not remarkable, answer to the Where's the fun in green? question. It does what it was designed to do, and we should probably take solace in that. The CR-Z may not be exactly what the enthusiast wants, but at the very least, it's a step in the right direction.

Photo Credits: Sam Smith/Jalopnik