Introduced in late 2010, Honda's CR-Z hybrid bore more than a passing resemblance to one of the company's most beloved models: the CRX. This was no coincidence. The pint-sized, Civic-derived CRX hatchback was a favourite with tuners and enthusiasts, and many lament its passing in the early 1990s.
But the CR-Z was a different animal. Although clearly a gas-sipper and aimed at drivers who value fuel economy over just about everything else, it was also aimed at both enthusiasts and tree-huggers. According to Honda, drivers aged 35 or younger and sports car buffs were the primary target, with hybrid customers coming second.
Power was supplied by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder gas engine supplemented by Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) electric motor to produce 122 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. The IMA unit was, and is, used elsewhere in Honda's lineup, including the Insight Hybrid, and the internal combustion engine was similar to that found in the Fit subcompact. Together, they worked seamlessly and gave the CR-Z lively, but not exceptional, performance. Torque was a little hard to find at low rpms, and if you really wanted to get the CR-Z moving, you had to give it some welly.
This gas engine also featured Honda's i-VTEC variable valve technology; shutting down one valve per cylinder during low rpms. Along with an air conditioning reduction feature and the electric motor, this helped the CR-Z achieve its low fuel economy – and emission – levels.
Transmission choices were either a CVT automatic, or six-speed manual. The manual was the first one of its kind to be fitted to a hybrid vehicle, and it featured a hill-start assist feature. Besides being $800 cheaper than its automatic stablemate, the manual gearbox version delivered 6.5 litres/100 km in town, and a thrifty 5.3 on the highway.
Like most Honda hybrid models, you could choose from three different driving modes: Sport, Normal or Economy. The performance difference between Economy and Sport modes was dramatic. Still, the CR-Z was one of the least-thrifty compact hybrids on the market, behind the Prius, Insight, and Ford Fusion for combined fuel economy.
Standard equipment included a climate control system, hands-free Bluetooth capability, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, and 360-watt stereo system. Although there might be room for an illicit passenger or two in the back, this was officially a two-seater, just like the CRX.
One safety recall to report from Transport Canada and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and it's a beauty. Under heavy load – winter driving with all the accessories on, for example – the Engine Control Unit (ECU) in manual transmission models can act up and cause the electric motor to "rotate" the internal combustion engine in the opposite direction. This, in turn, could cause "the vehicle to move in the reverse direction of that expected." Honda dealers will install new software to prevent this.
Nine customer complaints are registered with NHTSA. They include alleged brake failure resulting in a rear-ender, problems with the rear hatchback not functioning in extremely cold weather, inadequate headlights, and unusual "clunking" and "sputtering" noises, followed by an engine stall.
Aside from minor issues with squeaks and rattles, it's all sweetness and light at Consumer Reports. The CR-Z gets top marks in virtually every single category, garnering a "much better than average" new-car prediction. Says C.R.: "We expect reliability of new models will be 57-per-cent above average." Some comments from owners: "I'm just finishing a three-year lease and I've averaged 43 mph [6.6 litres/100 km] in Economy mode," "I could write a book about how much I enjoy the driving experience" and "road noise could be better."
J.D. Power gives the CR-Z a "better than most" grade for predicted reliability, overall quality and overall performance and design, noting that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives it the highest-possible "Good" ratings in all of its crash tests.
From a base price of about $23,500 in 2011, the CR-Z has held steady. Manual transmission versions are going from the mid to high teens, while the autobox model is about $1,000 more.
2011 Honda CR-Z
Original base price: $23,490; Black Book: $18,850-$19,775; Red Book: $14,975
Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder with 10-kilowatt DC electric motor
Horsepower/Torque: 122 hp/128 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual and CVT automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 6.5 city/5.3 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, Mini Cooper, Toyota Scion IQ, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2