Honda wants you to believe that the CR-Z is the reincarnation of the legendary CRX. It should have been — and it even looks right — but it's no CRX. How do I know? I own one.
The assembled media at Cobo Hall seem to be moderately impressed with Honda's CR-Z. I can understand this. It's a hybrid, it looks cool, and it's likely to be more entertaining than most green cars. But to my mind, it's a perfect example of product Fail, and on a personal level, it's one of the greatest vehicular disappointments in recent memory.
How can I say this without having driven it? Easy: I can read a press release, and I own a 1988 Honda CRX Si. The Si is a 2000-pound, 100-hp wonder, a manic, front-wheel-drive snotrocket that can crank out 35 mpg and make any winding road its bitch. The CR-Z is a wildly different machine. It weighs 2800 pounds. It's rated for 37 mpg on the highway, which seems impressive until you remember just how tiny it is. And while its 1.5-liter hybrid four can be mated to a six-speed manual, it also makes just 122 hp.
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 and offers 34 mpg — fulfill that expectation?
For most of my life, I was not a Honda fan. I grew up around oddball German and British iron, and by comparison, Hondas were never fast, quirky, or rear-wheel-drivey enough. Like most people, I spent a lot of time believing that the cars from the Big H were little more than bland, if useful, appliances.
Then I went racing. I discovered motorcycles. I hung out with guys who spanked Civic hatchbacks and hoon-happy CRXs around road courses, and I watched friends of friends win SCCA championships with relatively stock S2000s. I bought a 1975 Honda CB400F, a single-overhead-cam, four-cylinder motorcycle that makes less horsepower than my blender but spits out an insane howl at 10,000 rpm and is impossible not to love.
I read a little more about Soichiro Honda's life, learning that he was, as Honda claims, a dreamer, but that he was also a incurable pragmatist. And I saw something.
In a nutshell, Hondas are the Swiss Army knives of the automotive world: They may not be the perfect tool for every job, but they're surprisingly good at everything. We expect them to be reliable, light, smart, fun without being cranky, and designed with real people in mind, and they usually deliver. And most importantly, the killer hits, the wait'll-they-get-a-load-of-this focused efforts, are usually knocked out of the park. They leave the competition gasping and show ordinary people that cars don't have to suck.
The CR-Z? This from the company that gave us the Civic CVCC, the Isle of Man TT wins, the first CB750, the Acura NSX, and the most slideable underpowered car of the last ten years, the S2000 CR? Where's the joy? Where's the fanaticism-for-the-people engineering? Where's the love?
I want more, Honda. I want a light, small, and fun green car that makes a Fit look like the nerdiest thing on the planet. I know you can do it, and this isn't good enough. Get on it.