When Honda UK invited me to a press event for their new CR-Z hybrid vehicle, I didn't know what to expect. As you grow up, you tend to get exposed and influenced by the cars of friends & family. Despite probability claiming the opposite, I never actually knew anybody with a Honda.
Back in 2001, I once considered a Honda Accord Type R to replace my MX-5 but a divorce ruled family life off the agenda for a while so I bought a Mazda RX-7 Twin Turbo instead. When I'd had enough of that, I considered an Integra or Civic Type R to replace it but ended up with a Golf R32 instead as I just didn't like that torque steer feel of a high power front-wheel drive car. The CR-Z would be the first Honda I had driven since that rainy Civic test drive in 2004.
I learned in the press briefing that the CR-Z is a 2+2 sporty hybrid coupe. They didn't make a big deal about the back seats, but did point out that ISOFIX anchors for a child seat are there if required. They didn't oversell the hatchback luggage space, in fact the 401-litres of boot space with the seats folded down even includes some pretty useless looking cubby holes under the boot floor. They didn't even make wild claims about the performance of the car, with a quoted 0-60mph of 9.9secs. To my continued amazement, they didn't even ram it's 117g/km green credentials down my throat.
All of the above have taken a small hit to produce a vehicle that surprised me big time. They could have made it a little quicker, but it wouldn't have qualified for VED band C car tax at £30/yr - many of it's close competitors end up in the considerably more expensive D or E bands. They could have made it more economic, lowering it's tax banding, but that wouldn't have made it as much fun. They could have made the boot or back seat bigger, but it's a nippy, fun little car and I'm glad they stuck to these goals.
The CR-Z, they tell me, is the "21st century rethinking" of the Honda CRX from the 1980s and they do indeed have a lot in common when it comes to exterior styling - but you don't read my site to read copy/pasted chunks from a press release. I'm not a car journalist, I don't do this for a living and I test drive a car like I would be considering a purchase for myself. I could talk about the looks or how it drives, but all these things are very subjective and do you care if I tell you that I could provoke almost no over-steer, even when slamming the throttle shut at speed on a high speed roundabout?
If you're young, free and single, you won't care about any of the compromises of this car. If you are, however, you'll have a number of questions that aren't normally answered by a brochure or a website. Things like:
- What if I have to pick up my child from nursery?
- Will our child seat fit in the back seat?
- Will our full size modern buggy or pram fit in the boot?
- Will I have to fold the seats to get it in? If so, where does the child seat go?
- What does the stereo sound like?
- What is visibility like?
- What brand of tyres are fitted as standard? (OK, you don't care about that, it's just an interest of mine)
- What about the eco-side of things? How is the car made greener?
Well I asked these questions, so you don't have to.
After the briefing, whilst other journalists were rushing to the cars and pulling out of the car park, I returned to my own car to pick up a few things. My wife thought I'd brought her and the baby on a nice weekend away and didn't realise it was all a thinly veiled excuse to put the baby seat and buggy in the car. Like many parents these days, we have a Maxi Cosi baby seat with the ISOFIX base unit. But would it fit? Well, it was quite some effort. First I had to move the passenger seat to the very front of its rails and then pull it forward to get rear seat access - the mechanism didn't seem too easy for this, a lot of 2-door cars have a single mechanism that will both slide and tilt the seat back. I had to mess around with 2-levers to get it in the right position and, even then, the gap wasn't huge. But, as confirmed by the photos, you'll see I got it in.
I didn't have the actual car seat with me, baby was asleep in it, but it would have been a serious squeeze to get the actual seat through the gap between the front seat and the door frame. Had it not fitted, there is always the easier option of mounting the child carrier on the passenger seat using the seat-belt. A door key secured switch allows the front passenger air-bag to be disabled if required for this and offers the increased advantage of being able to fold the rear seats for extra luggage space whilst carrying the child.
If the Honda reps weren't concerned when I appeared with an ISOFIX seat base, they certainly were when I returned with an iCandy Peach Stroller. The Peach chassis has folded measurements of 30 x 60 x 70 cm. The seat unit measures up at 16 x 42 x 89. Would it fit in 225-litres of VDA bootspace without using the 19-litres of it that are below the floor? As any parent will know, there's only one real way to find out and here it is:
add in the seat unit:
So it's not the biggest bot in the world, but you can get plenty of shopping in and, if necessary, pick you child up from nursery in it. So a big practicality tick in the box for a 2nd vehicle.
The old saying "never judge a book by its cover" could not be more true for this car. It's possibly the cheapest, nastiest looking head unit I have ever seen. Every button and switch on the device says cheap, and this is the premium model with the Sat Nav! So, fearing the worst, I connected up my mp3 player. I'm one of these people who cares about audio quality and I ripped my CD collection in a high bitrate because the serious Mark Levinson premium sound system in my Lexus really shows up the differences. I didn't expect it to make any difference whatsoever in the CR-Z - how wrong I was. Kicking in "Meet me Halfway" by the Black Eyed Peas allowed me to hear Fergie's loud vocals without any distortion along with a thumping bass from a sub-woofer than I didn't know Honda had concealed in the rear of the car. Turning the volume up further shows that this is no ordinary sound system and worth every penny.
Some manufacturers may offer premium audio options, like B&O or Bose, but this unbranded Honda set-up sounds every bit as good as any one of them. Major kudos to Honda for fitting this as standard.
Seems to be a common problem in modern cars, with their thick A-pillars to allow for higher crash safety - you can't see out of them. In it's defence, I didn't find the CR-Z forward visibility to be so bad but side and rear view have a lot to be desired. Pulling out of an angled t-junction, like several on our test route, was very difficult as you simply can't see over your shoulder as you emerge. I almost resorted to sticking my head out of the window at one point when merging with a fast road. If the doors were a bit longer, this would have been improved and, with the baby section in mind, have improved access to the rear seats.
Rear vision is infected with that Japanese plague that is the split rear window. You have a small rear window then, just where you want to look, is the opaque boot lip. Below that is another piece of glass which adds more to available light than actual visibility. Of most annoyance to me was the glass used for the lower window, my polarised sun glasses showed up a very distracting pattern in the glass that couldn't be seen with the bare eye.
The standard tyres fitted on the model I drove are 16" Bridgestone 195/55R16. Why should you care? Because you'll likely have to replace them at some point. An on-line quote from a local supplier gives me a replacement cost of £94.92 per tyre, fully fitted.
The Green Bit
You may hear people say that the Honda CR-Z is a hybrid. Some may say it's not a "full hybrid", you may wonder what that means? Let me try and explain in a clear way how the CR-Z may differ from some of these other "full hybrid" vehicles.
The CR-Z is a 2+2 hybrid sports coupe - this makes it pretty unique on the market. It's also the first generally available hybrid with a manual gearbox, most hybrids use automatic CVT based gearboxes. This kind of car would traditionally have been fitted with a 1.8 or 2.0 litre petrol engine. By making the engine a bit smaller, in this case a 1.5, you significantly improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. This ruins all the fun though, as the economic engine is a bit slow, so they add a 2nd motor under the bonnet that is powered by electric from a bank of batteries located under the vehicle. This gives the car a much needed boost, particularly at low revs and make the car a lot more fun to drive with little expense on fuel economy - the batteries are charged using waste energy as you drive along - a bit like a dynamo powering lights on a bike.
In the case of the CR-Z it has a little electric motor that is purely there to supplement the power from the small engine. By contrast, a "full hybrid" has a much larger motor that is capable of moving the car on it's own - without the petrol engine running at all. So cars, like my own Lexus hybrid, are capable of driving a couple of miles down the road without starting the engine at all. Of course, to do this, it needs larger batteries that are heavier and take up more space in the boot.
One big change comes with air conditioning. On a normal car, the A/C compressor is belt driven from the engine. In a "full hybrid" this wouldn't work as quite often the engine isn't running at all. As a result, a full hybrid system usually contains an electric air conditioner that is driven from the batteries. In the case of the CR-Z, not being a full hybrid, the A/C will only work when the engine is running. On a normal day, you'll notice when you stop at the traffic lights that the engine stops, to improve economy, and then the fan stops. It will begin to get warmer in the car, then the green light appears, you put the car in gear, the engine starts and you pull away. The fan then starts back up and all is fine. On hotter days, as this isn't acceptable to passengers, the engine continues to run and power the A/C. The end result is that emissions are higher on these warmer days. Likewise, even on full hybrids, the engine may continue to run to keep you warm on very cold days.
Due to these slight differences, "full hybrids" are generally more efficient than the equivalent basic hybrid model but can be more compromising, usually by having a smaller boot to allow for the bigger batteries. It's fair to say that if it were a "full hybrid" that the CR-Z would be more efficient and may even qualify for a lower VED band due to lower emissions but a "full hybrid" wouldn't suit the manual gearbox without which the car would be all but ruined. Additionally, the required bigger batteries would make the car too heavy and ruin all the fun.
Potential buyers should see the car for what it is, not what it isn't. It's a sporty car that's every bit as fun to drive as my old Toyota Celica but, unlike the Celica, it's still on sale and easily complies with all modern EU emissions legislation. If everybody swapped their old mid-price 2+2 for one of these, they'd have as much fun and contribute towards saving the planet. For me, being green isn't about changing the way you live your life - it's about taking the greenest option that doesn't require compromise. For me, the Honda CR-Z is one of those options.
I took more photos that I didn't include here, feel free to browse my photo album to see them and if you have any questions feel free to post a comment or drop me an email.
Thanks to Steve Kirk at Honda UK for the invitation for an early drive of this great car.