Monday, August 16, 2010

Honda's 2011 CR-Z Hybrid Shines In Its Drivability

By Ted Laturnus

EDMONTON—Manufacturers don’t normally include track time when they introduce a new hybrid model to the media. Hybrid cars are, after all, primarily concerned with fuel economy, not tearing around a racecourse and seeing how fast you can get from a standing start to freeway speed.

Yet that’s exactly what Honda did when it introduced the 2011 CR-Z hybrid earlier this month in Edmonton. In fact, besides offering assembled journos ample seat time at the Stratotech racetrack facility—located just outside Fort Saskatchewan—the launch coincided with the Edmonton Indy, which is cosponsored by Honda. That should tell you something about the character and intent of this particular hybrid car.

The fact that it also bears a passing resemblance to one of Honda’s most beloved models, the CRX, is no coincidence. This pintsize, Civic-derived hatchback was and still is a favourite with tuners and enthusiasts, and many lament its passing in the early 1990s. Although clearly a gas-sipper and aimed at drivers who value fuel economy over just about everything else, the CR-Z should also appeal to those who enjoy driving. “We expect the enthusiasts to be all over this,” Honda Canada’s production planner, Peter Gagyor, said at the Edmonton launch. Either way, the big market for the CR-Z, as Honda sees it, is drivers aged 35 and under, with sports car buffs being the primary target and hybrid buyers the secondary one.

Power is supplied by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder gas engine supplemented by Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist electric motor to produce a total of 122 horsepower and 128 foot-pounds of torque. The IMA unit has been used elsewhere in Honda’s lineup, including the Insight hybrid, and the internal combustion engine is similar to that found in the Fit subcompact. Together, they work seamlessly and give the CR-Z lively but not noteworthy performance. Torque is a little hard to find at low rpms, and if you really want to get the CR-Z moving, you have to wring its neck. But that’s to be expected—it’s a hybrid, after all. Transmission choices are a CVT automatic or a six-speed manual. This latter gearbox is the first of its kind to be fitted to a hybrid vehicle, and it has a hill-start-assist feature that prevents it from rolling backward when stopped on a hill. Curiously, it delivers slightly inferior fuel economy compared to the CVT automatic.

Behind the wheel, you can choose from three different driving modes: Sport, Normal, and Economy. If you really want to squeeze every drop of mileage from the CR-Z, you’ll opt for the Economy mode: the performance difference between it and the Sport setting is dramatic. Just hit one of the dash-mounted buttons to the left of the steering wheel, and you’ll feel the difference instantly. Honda predicts that most buyers will choose the manual transmission model; besides being $800 cheaper than its automatic stablemate, it delivers 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres in town and a thrifty 5.3 on the highway. These are among the best numbers in the industry, though not quite as low as those of the Honda Insight or Toyota Prius, for example. Among other things, the gas engine in the CR-Z has Honda’s i-VTEC variable valve technology, which shuts down one valve per cylinder during low rpms. This, along with an air-conditioning reduction feature and the electric motor, helps the CR-Z achieve its impressive fuel economy—and emission—levels. Still, it’s one of the least thrifty compact hybrids on the market, behind the Prius, the Insight, and the Ford Fusion when it comes to combined fuel economy.

But where the CR-Z really shines is in its drivability. It’s an enjoyable vehicle to spend time in, and what it may lack in performance punch, it more than makes up for in road-holding ability and handling. During our time at Stratotech, we had a chance to run the CR-Z as hard as we could around a track that’s normally home to high-performance motorcycles, and the CR-Z impressed everyone with its ability to go where it’s pointed and keep its composure during the tightest high-speed turns. That isn’t to say this is a pavement-searing hot rod by any stretch of the imagination, but in terms of holding its own through corners, it goes above and beyond the call for hybrids. You can thank a low centre of gravity and a comparatively wide road stance for this.

There will be but one model of CR-Z available when the car hits show rooms—right about now, incidentally. Standard equipment includes things like a climate-control system, hands-free Bluetooth capability, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, and a 360-watt stereo system. Three colour choices will be offered initially—blue, white, or silver—and although there might be room for an illicit passenger or two in the back, there’s officially only seating for two, just like the CRX.

The Lowdown
Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder with 10-kilowatt DC electric motor
Transmission: Six-speed manual or CVT automatic
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 122 horsepower at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 128 foot-pounds at 1,000 to 1,750 rpm
Base Price: $23,490 or $24,290
Fuel Economy:6.5 litres per 100 kilometres city, 5.3 litres per 100 kilometres highway (six-speed manual)
Recommended Fuel: Regular
Alternatives: Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, Mini Cooper, Toyota Scion IQ, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2
Positives: Outstanding fuel economy, high drivability, reasonable price tag
Negatives: Only seats two, could use more power



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