Honda has always been a company famous for building real-world giant slayers. Their range of Honda Civics and Integras, and later, the S2000 roadsters have always been motorsports favorites, at both the amateur/grassroots level and at the top-echelons of professional, factory-backed competitions worldwide.
Their B-Series engines (the infamous B16 and B18) are tuner-friendly and were one of the first engines that could easily achieve the efficiency of 100 HP per liter and beyond, something their rivals from Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan had much difficulty in achieving.
But times have changed. The world (supposedly) needs more environment-friendly vehicles that consume far less resources to build and to run. What’s a company like Honda to do then?
Honda’s proposition: CR-Z
The CR-Z is significantly heavier than its spiritual ancestor, the CR-X, (thanks mostly to Honda’s seventh-generation IMA hybrid system, increased chassis rigidity for added safety and loads of safety equipment), utilizes Macpherson-strut suspension at the front end over the more performance-oriented double-wishbone suspension, is packed with safety features and electronic aids and all, that, to the hardcore enthusiast, seemingly adulterates the driving experience.
But thankfully, the CR-Z delivers a really cracking driving experience.
While I drove the older, pre-facelift but Mugen-equipped CR-Z, the new CR-Z for 2013 boasts of a more powerful 130-HP engine (up eight ponies) and a more powerful 144 volt lithium-ion battery along with more torque, now at 190 Newton-meters for the six-speed manual, and a slightly lower 172 Nm for the CVT. There’s also a Sport+ button, which pretty much acts like a modern Formula One car’s KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) that gives addition torque for improved acceleration for up to five seconds, as long as the CR-Z is traveling above 30 kilometers per hour and the battery capacity is at 50 percent or more.
Honda’s manual transmissions have always been the best and the CR-Z’s six-speed self-shifter is sniper-rifle precise, a real joy to row through and feel the snickety-snick of the gears. Clutch action is light but snappy; it doesn’t feel as quick-witted as Toyota’s 86 or Subaru’s BR-Z but still encourages quick work. And you will really need to row through the gears to make the most out of the 1.50-liter, 16-valve SOHC i-vtec designated as LEA-engine code. The 42.5-pound weight of the electric motor is a small penalty as the torque low-down helps.
But like any Honda, power builds up very linearly, helping control, feel and feedback, just like a sports car, handy when driving hard on the track or a twisting mountain road. Despite all the high-tech toys, the CR-Z refuses to add fat, still a lightweight at 1,207- to 1,242-kilogram curb weight depending on the options.
Inside, you get treated to a very supportive and comfortable bucket-like seats. Seating position is excellent even for very long drives. But the A-pillars, steeply raked, can be a blind spot in intersection crossings especially if you like seating low and as far back as possible. The handsome three-spoke steering wheel itself fit for a true exotic sports car, adjusts for both reach and rake, and houses controls for the cruise control and audio system as well as the Sport+ button on the newer, 2013 facelift model.
ECON Meter system
There’s a three-mode/three-button ECON Meter Driving System located on the lefthand side of the dashboard, beside the steering wheel, which alters driving feel: ECON tries to utilize as much electric power as possible, slows down reaction time for the drive-by-wire throttle system and encourages you to upshift early (The instrument meter stays green if you’re in “in the eco zone” and turns blue or red when you’re out of it or when in Sport or Sport+ mode) if you’ve got the manual, or does so itself when equipped with the CVT. Normal driving is like that of a normal car, and sport quickens throttle response, gives more boost from the electrical motor to aid in acceleration while the Sport+ button on the steering wheel allows even more power for five seconds.
All in all, the cabin feels very driver-centric as all the major controls wrap around the driver’s line of sight, or at least tries to, to keep the driver focused on the road. But it’s not a hardcore, track-junkie, weekend-only special. The big, wide and tall doors facilitate ease of entry and exit; when seated, you got enough leg and knee room without feeling your crown jewels pinched tight. The +2 rear seats however are practically useless. But drop the rear seats down and it can practically go flat on the floor, increasing your cargo capacity to a whooping 708 liters, impressive for a small car such as the CR-Z. To put that in perspective, it can carry three large boxes with ease, with a space for a small duffel bag in the area directly behind the closing lid of the hatchback to boot. Visibility in and out is excellent aside from the A-pillars, and the rear hatchback area provides good ambient lighting to brighten up the cabin.
Loaded with features
As expected of any modern car, the CR-Z is loaded with safety features: six airbags up front with curtain bags that span the length of the cabin, ABS-EBD brakes with Brake Assist and Stability/Traction control as standard. There’s also a lot of small details such as the drilled aluminum pedals and aluminum shiftknob for the 6-speed manual, the slots on the front seats which technically mean you can sling in a couple of four-point clubman harnesses for some track time/amateur racing activities, and the LED daytime running lamps which give a touch of class and sophistication for this modern-day lightweight warrior.
On the winding roads of northern Luzon, from Tuguegarao to Bangui, Laoag and Vigan, the CR-Z was extremely fun. The modest power means you have to work it hard, but it is a willing partner. High speeds don’t faze the CR-Z; running at 160 kph at short bursts to overtake convoys of trucks and buses is a walk in the park and the brakes didn’t fade at all on the sweeping downhill canyon runs. The lack of high-octane fuel meant the CR-Z was down on power, but it coped nonetheless.
Later, when I drove the CR-Z in Manila with Petron’s finest, the CR-Z felt noticeably much stronger, more responsive and more willing to attack every single corner, squeeze through every opening and, thanks to its small size, easy to park in the tightest of slots. The light clutch is light, yet the feelsome steering brakes it very easy to use everyday. And the brakes, which are firm and positive, are about the only thing that’s welcomely firm. I had the Mugen suspension in my test unit which should be made standard: It is indeed firm but damping is well-suited for the car and gives better high-speed stability yet compliant enough to handle our pothole-ridden roads.
Regarding the only questions left unanswered, which are its price and tuneability, which will ensure its place among the Honda greats. On the price side, the basic CR-Z is priced at just over P1.4 million which makes it only about P200,000 more than a top model Honda Civic. Go crazy with the options and you’re knocking at over P2 million with the Mugen equipment (bodykit, suspension, wheels etc.). But the basic 6-speed is all you really need. The other issue is its aftermarket-friendliness. Thankfully, Mugen also offer a supercharger kit, as well as tuning houses HKS, GReddy and Top Secret offer their own turbo/supercharger kits, along with a myriad of other bolt-on performance parts to bring the CR-Z’s power to over 200 HP. With these aftermarket goodies, it will help cement the CR-Z’s desirability in the long run. Now that is absolutely exciting!