It has been about 14 years since Toyota unleashed the Prius on the world. From the motorsports crowd it garnered a nod for innovation but also instilled a little fear since hybrid cars seemed to foreshadow the eventual doom of car racing as we know it. I am sure many were imagining a world where little electric cars whirred by so quietly the crowds could drown out the sound with their own collective breathing. Perhaps that future may still await us, but there is another chapter to be told that will be belted out in the raucous breath of fossil fuels and I think the opening line is the humble little CR-Z
It really is the first affordable sport hybrid. When I first saw it at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Porsche was releasing the 918 which is a super hybrid that only costs $845,000. That is expensive even by super car standards. These aren’t the first two sports hybrids. Over the last couple years and in various racing series, a few hybrid race cars have been fielded, including the Kinetic Energy Regeneration System (KERS) employed in Formula 1. Like the hybrid technology found in regular road going cars, the KERS system is charged by capturing some of the energy that would be lost during braking. This hybrid technology adds a little spice into F1 since the driver now has a "turbo" button that he could press to give him 80 extra horses for up to 6 seconds per lap. Of course the system adds weight, it's tricky to tune without throwing off the brake balance, and there have been reliability issues. Now that F1 is in the second season of implementation after taking one season off in 2010, many of the teams have worked out the bugs and it will become more refined as time goes on. What I find most fascinating about the CR-Z is that Honda was able to bottle what is essentially the same technology, and sell it for less than $20,000 USD.
I am not saying this car is a monster on the street; far from it. The little 1.5L engine puts out a whooping 112hp with 107lbs of torque with a manual tranny; one more of each over the CVT. However, this is combined with an integrated electric motor that kicks in when you are accelerating to give you an additional 14 horses and 58 lbs of torque at 1000-1500 rpms. Which means the little bugger is quite peppy!
This car really is the grandson of the CRX; it’s a two seater economy car that is really only a sports car in that it’s light enough to seem fast with that tiny engine, and has the stance and look of a sporty car. What is really nice is how the whole drive train is packaged. The batteries aren't huge since they aren't intended to power the car on their own, so they don’t add to much weight. The electric motor is about the size of a pizza and is sandwiched between the engine and trans. When the car knows you are accelerating, the electric motor kicks in to help the engine like a mini supercharger. Honda has dubbed their hybrid system the Integrated Motor Assist (IMS) and was already employed in the Insight. The most amazing part of the car is it offers us a glimpse of the future. Take a moment and imagine this technology scaled up into a true track thrasher. A Civic SI with 200hp from a 2.0L engine coupled with the IMS that improves gas mileage, and gives the car significant torque off the line. Or instead, what if this was implemented into the anticipated Toyobaru where 250+ hp wouldn't be overly ambitious for a RWD car as it might be for the FWD Civic. That car would be a real monster.
Well, enough of this envisioning what this car promises for the future; what is the car like? I will keep is pretty short, since I have spent enough time talking about how this car is the pivot point for a new chapter in motorsports.
On The Street
I like. It makes a nifty commuter, and if I was looking to buy another daily driver, it would be in the top 5 cars I would consider because it is pretty fun to drive. It gets pretty good gas mileage; 35 city, 39 highway. The six speed manual tranny is smooth and easy to use, though the gears are pretty tightly packed. The seats are comfortable and I really liked how the dash was laid out. My only critique of the interior is that the air conditioning knob was exactly where I expected the volume for the stereo to be. Every time I tried to change the volume, I adjusted the air conditioning fan speed. As you would expect, everything was plastic, but seemed solidly built.
It has all the standard features you would expect in a car built for the MP3 generation. A small cubby hole in the center console has a USB cable to plug in a thumb drive loaded with music. There is also an auxiliary input jack on the face of the stereo. In the standard model there is a 160 watt stereo, which can be upgraded to 360 watts in the EX car.
Taking a queue from some fancier cars, the CR-Z has three driving modes; Sport, Normal, and Econ. In sport mode the throttle response is sharpened, the steering is tightened up, and the electric motor is used more aggressively. Even in this mode with the manual transmission, if you come to a stop and you are in neutral, the engine will turn off until you up it into gear. Then the electric motor kicks the engine back on.
When in Econ mode, and driving the manual, the car will reduce the use of accessories and use the electric motor to maximize efficiency. However, with the CVT tranny, the car will shift sooner to keep the rpms low and therefore the gas consumption low as well. You will get better fuel economy with the CVT than you would in the manual but I think the manual would be more fun to drive. So if you are just driving to work, then you run in Econ mode. You decide you want to race a Civic off the line at a light, then hit the Sport button; which you can do on the fly.
Many complain about the visibility, and it has two main blind spots. Looking out the back of the car, the hatch frame blocks much of the view and the c-pillars are so wide that there is a bit of a blind spot in the rear quarters. Yeah, those are annoying, but I think you would get used to it. For me, there is one major drawback and really makes me hesitate to buy one; the safety rating for this car is only 3 stars for front and side impact. Yeah, in rollovers it is rated at 5 stars, but considering that if I did buy this car it would primarily be a commuter car and perhaps secondly an autoX'er. I am more worried about hitting other idiots on the road or them hitting me than I am about rolling over. So I would feel a bit better if Honda put 50-100 pounds of steel in the car to reinforce the body and perhaps bump its safety rating to 4 or 5.
For the Track
This car would be slotted into the "fun but not terribly fast" category; even with 122 combined horses of the combustion and electric motor working in unison. Sure the car is peppy, but it goes from 0-60 at the same pace as my girlfriend's Fit. Even it if isn't really faster than a Fit, the suspension and chassis are MUCH MUCH better. The CR-Z 5" shorter, 2" wider and has a lot better road feel especially with the bucket seats that come standard. Its track credibility is enhanced by the 4 wheel disc brakes, but I almost wonder if they are necessary. With a 58.8 to 41.2 weight distribution, I don't know how much stopping the rear wheels will be doing when the car leans forward under hard braking.
Overall I would be happy to own the car, but given the abundance of large trucks on the American roads, I would be a little worried about getting tagged by some wayward driver. It would probably be a fun autoX'er and it gets good gas mileage but I would doubt that it would make a fun track car for the intermediate or experienced driver. However, I do like that it gives us a preview of what affordable sporty hybrids will look like in the near future.
Hp: 122hp combined
Weight Disp: 58.8/41.2Weight (lbs, MT/CVT): 2637/2690
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