Close, but no cigar: Honda CR-Z

New cars Honda Reviews

I really wanted to like the CR-Z, Honda's new hybrid 2+2 coupé.

A car billed as a modern-day successor to the CR-X is always going to stir my imagination. But with the Type R badge currently unemployed in the UK, the CR-Z is the only way to enjoy a hot Honda. Priced from £17,360, the CR-Z emits 117g/km of CO2 and attracts zero road tax. Honda also claims that the car is capable of combined 56.5mpg. So, a sporty coupé that's cheap to run and doesn't kill polar bears. Job done - have we found a contender for PetrolBlog Car of the Year 2011?

There are certainly reasons to be cheerful about the CR-Z. The styling divides opinion, but for me the looks present a modern interpretation of the CR-X without appearing retro. Indeed, to my eyes, the CR-Z makes the Scirocco look a little bland. The optional White Pearl paint job on my test car certainly draws attention, so this is not a car for shrinking violets. Having said that, with the exception of Milano Red, the CR-Z is actually a little anonymous in other colour schemes. But in general, apart from a few clumsy angles, the CR-Z's styling is a welcome addition to UK roads.

Honda CR-Z interior

Things continue to impress once inside. You lower yourself into the CR-Z in true sports car style and position yourself within gloriously comfortable wraparound seats. Indeed, the driving position is pure sports car and the overall feeling is one of glorious snugness - the kind you get with a low-slung two-seater. This is felt no more so than at night where it is best to slide the roof cover shut and revel in the veritable feast for the eyes that is the CR-Z dashboard.

The light show is best described as being reminiscent of a trendy cocktail bar in the centre of town and is dominated by a huge, glowing rev counter and digital speedo. Honda has done with the CR-Z what so many car manufacturers fail to appreciate these days - the sense of anticipation before setting off for a journey. From the feel of the ignition key, to the feel of the door handle, right through to the actual event of sliding into the car and turning the key. OK, so the Honda has a starter button, but that's not the point. Getting into the CR-Z and initiating the launch procedure is pure theatre and Honda should be applauded.

It reminds me of my old VX220 which demanded limbs of spaghetti and the flexibility of a limbo dancer to get in to, but once settled and behind the wheel, you felt special. A turn of the key would initiate the Stack dials and a series of mechanical noises before a quick switch of the starter button fired the engine into life.

Honda CR-Z dashboard tacho

But here's where the CR-Z fails slightly. The engine starts using the IMA batteries and as a result, produces a noise that's only slightly more alluring than a milk float. After the fireworks that surround the launch procedure, the starter button provides about as much excitement as a catherine wheel in a bucket of sand. But unlike the majority of cars, the CR-Z gives you a choice of driving modes - Sport, Normal or Econ. In short, they do exactly what they say on the button.

In Sport mode, the CR-Z is set-up for spirited driving through sharpened steering and a livelier go-faster pedal. It is altogether quite convincing too. Nicely weighted steering, a great driving position and a musical, if slightly artificial, exhaust note helps to liven up a bit of B-road frivolity. In case you don't notice, the tacho glows bright red to let you know you're in Sport mode. Neat.

In Econ mode, the CR-Z has a completely different set of party tricks and as you'd expect, they're all painted bright green. To start, the Econ button ensures the engine management and climate control settings are set-up for fuel efficiency. In truth, switching from Sport to Econ mode is rather like someone tying a lead weight to Usain Bolt's running shoes and then asking him to run 100 metres. In a river of treacle. The transformation is huge. The throttle becomes heavy and steering gets lighter and it all becomes rather unpleasant.

But then when you're saving money and rescuing the planet from armageddon, having fun isn't top of your agenda. In fairness, playing with the array of displays associated with the car's Eco Assist System becomes a joy in itself. There are gauges that measure your braking and acceleration technique and help you achieve maximum efficiency. The tacho will change to blue when you're verging on becoming inefficient and subsequently change to red when you're about to be plain naughty. The gear change indicators seem a little overcautious for my liking.

From a standing start, the computer will ensure you're into sixth by the time you've reached 42 mph. It is rather laborious, especially when seeing glaciers overtake you as you get there. Oh and one final thing - the CR-Z allows you to grow trees on the dashboard. The better you drive, the more trees you grow. Get a little heavy with the gas pedal and the trees will disappear faster than a cutting saw through a rainforest. It is all rather fun and helps to liven up a normally dull cross-city commuter run. It also does a jolly good job of helping you to improving your own driving efficiency - nice one Honda.

This final driving mode is Normal, which sits somewhere in the middle of the Sport and Econ mode. Why would you ever need to use this? It has about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Today I'm not interested in saving money, saving the planet or having fun. No, I'd much rather pop down to Marks & Spencer for some beige slacks.

Honda CR-Z rear

But all things considered, the CR-Z is good to look at, has a funky interior, is good to drive and has enough toys to make Inspector Gadget feel inadequate. Time to head down to your local Honda dealer armed with a deposit?

Er, not exactly. The thing is, I can't really recommend a Honda CR-Z. Not yet anyway.

To start with, calling the CR-Z a 2+2 would be laughable were it not for the fact that it isn't funny. If the +2 in your life happens to be a couple of dwarf monkeys or stubble quails, then you'll be fine, but if you have children or more than one friend, then forget it. There is quite literally no room in the back. With the front seats pushed back to the max, you can barely fit a sheet of A4 paper into the gap between the front and back seat.

I managed to prize a Recaro Young Sport child seat into the passenger side rear seat, but it was only really practical with the front seat in the forward most position. There is also next to no rear headroom in the back, unless you're happy to be transported around with your head at a 90º angle. I could go on, but in my opinion, Honda would have been better off making the CR-Z a two-seater and positioning it as a fun-sized S2000 replacement. It would be more authentic as a result.

Then there's the economy problem. Honda claims that the CR-Z is capable of 56.5 mpg on a combined cycle. I'm not convinced. During my test I saw figures in the low to mid 40s, even when growing trees. Admittedly, much of the week involved city driving, but considering the car's size and the fact that it is essentially a two-seater, this isn't really good enough. Not bad for a petrol-engined car but on the basis that many people will buy the CR-Z on the basis of frugality, it isn't great.

Finally, there's the drive. It is fun and involving, but it never feels exhilarating. The modest 122bhp, (14 of which is derived from the electric motor), just isn't enough to get the pulse racing. It all feels overly assisted and not as pure as other drivers' cars. I think back to my old Ford Puma as a benchmark coupé. Well over a decade separates the two cars, but I'd rather have a Puma. At least the little Ford doesn't write you a school report after each journey to tell you how many trees you destroyed during your dawn raid.

Honda CR-Z front

Don't get me wrong, the Honda CR-Z is an excellent little car, especially the top spec GT model (priced at £20,450). The level of standard kit is astonishing: heated leather seats, panoramic glass roof, xenon lights, hands-free phone and USB port for iPhone / MP3 player. It is genuinely great value and as a commuting tool or second car, it works very well indeed. It gives me hope that we will one day see a hybrid that is as fun to drive as a petrol-fed equivalent and that's great. But for me, the CR-Z is a little like a concept car that has been released too early. A glimpse into the future perhaps and if so, the future's very bright indeed.

In the meantime, I'll wait for the 200 bhp Turbo edition...