It doesn’t happen too often, but every now and then I’ll have a chance encounter with a car that I’d completely forgotten about. That encounter will usually have one of two outcomes: either a long, overly dramatic exhale and a some loud statement to the person (likely imaginary) next to me about how happy I am I hardly ever see those hunks of shit around, or a realization that the car in question is actually really cool, a realization so distracting I’ll often fall into an open manhole. Just a few days ago I experienced the latter outcome, all thanks to a Honda CR-Z.
Honda CR-Zs are an uncommon sight because, let’s be honest, the CR-Z, unlike its other CR plus hyphen brothers, X and V, was not really a success. I think that’s largely because, conceptually, the CR-Z was a strange little beast: one of the first true hybrid two-seat sports cars, coming out in an era when hybrid almost exclusively meant “Toyota Prius” in most people’s minds, along with a slew of associations that had nothing to do with anything that could be considered “sporty.”
Also—and I think this is a very important point to be made when considering the CR-Z in hindsight—it was a hybrid car that could be had with a six-speed manual, the only hybrid car you’re likely to find with a transmission like that.
Really, the only hybrid that comes close is the first-gen Honda Insight which had a five-speed manual, and that car can be, along with the original Honda CRX, be thought of as one of the CR-Z’s direct ancestors.
Looking at the CR-Z with eyes that haven’t seen one in years is a pretty pleasing experience, especially for this brain that hasn’t thought about them in years.
The design of the CR-Z—clearly a modernized take on the old CRX kicky little hatchback design—I think holds up remarkably well today. The proportions are interesting, and not really what we’re used to seeing in most current auto design. The CR-Z is a little more dramatic, almost cartoonish, with its low nose and high, Kamm-tail-like butt.
It has a mildly derpy but pleasingly happy-looking face, eager and chipper, with a hint of unhinged wildness. Like the old CRX, it has an almost horizontal rear window supplemented with a more vertical lower rear secondary window.
Overhangs are minimal, and the whole thing looks like something you’d see in the background of some anime your friend’s kid knows something about.
It’s a little hatchback, with all that inherent practicality and usability, though for some reason the American-market ones eliminated the small back seats that other markets had and replaced them with a strange dual-storage bin thing that sort of resembles twin in-car toilets.
Really, that’s probably fine, since it’s likely better thought of as a two-seater with decent luggage room.
The biggest issues with the CR-Z, I suppose, are the unpleasant realities of its specs: It wasn’t really fast or powerful enough to be a real sportscar, and it wasn’t really efficient enough to be a really effective fuel-sipping hybrid.
Not that its numbers were, in context, all that bad, but they just weren’t great. The 1.5-liter four made 112 horsepower, and the electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the gearbox (I’m just going to consider the manual one here, because what sort of savage would want the CVT?) only added 14 HP more, but a 2103 update brought the total output up to 130 HP and 140 foot-pounds of torque.
Now, 130 HP isn’t really anything to sing about for a car built in the 2010s, but there was one little extra sporty perk the car gained after its 2013 power-bump: the S+ button.
If you were going over 18 MPH and had at least 30 percent battery juice remaining, you could push that little S+ button on the steering wheel and it’d be like picking up a mushroom in Mario Kart: You’d get a five-second boost of extra acceleration.
I’m not sure how long the system needed to “recharge” or whatever the hell it was doing, but I really like the idea of the S+ button, because it’s just kind of fun, period. Sure, the car only had adequate performance most of the time, but having a button to kick it up a little bit makes the whole experience much more exciting, and gives the more tepid performance a strange justification, since it enhances the contrast of the extra oomph of the S+ burst.
It’s not entirely rational, I realize, but since when have we ever wanted rationality from our cars?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that I once suggested that the 2015 facelift made the car look a bit like Birdo, one of the bosses from Super Mario Bros 2. In fact, I made up a quote from a fictional Honda designer about this:
“The new drooping snout, confused eyes, and gaping, possibly egg-ejecting mouth-hole/cloaca are all design elements inspired by the great creature, Birdo,” says Honda Hybrid Division Chief Stylist Nobu Notaktualman.
“We felt saavy sporty-hybrid consumers wanted to be reminded of the pink, gender-fluid thing that sort of looked like a Q*Bert fucked a parrot,” Notaktualman continued, taking a long swig out of a bottle of Woolite.
I think I was just excited to find a reason to mention a cloaca in a story. It’s also not clear how I would have known he was drinking Woolite from a phone conversation.
CR-Zs haven’t been built since 2016, and I think enough time has passed for them to become something people looking for a fun, relatively efficient (they got around 31 MPG city and 39 MPG highway with the manual) and novel little car to consider.
Plus, a manual hybrid! That seems even more weird now than it did back in 2011, and may even be reason enough to consider one of these largely ignored little kooks.