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2011 Honda CRZ - First Drive

Hybrid Performance: The CRZ Takes A Step In The Right Direction.

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When I first found out we would be receiving a '11 Honda CRZ for testing, I was very excited. As a self-proclaimed Honda guy, I've been somewhat let down by the brand's performance offerings as of late. The Hondas that I grew up loving were small and nimble, highly strung 4-cynlinder cars that you can throw around and feel very in touch with. There's a lot to be said for the EG/EK/DC era of Honda, but sadly, those days have come and gone. Over the last decade, Honda has slowly gone bigger, cushier and more complex. Add to that the demise of the S2000 and NSX, and Honda has all but left the brand's performance aspect in the past. Not that I don't understand where Honda is coming from - after all, the majority of people who buy a Honda aren't looking for a performance car. Keeping its reliability as good as ever, maintaining high resale values and earning exemplary safety ratings in all its vehicles, Honda has done a lot of things right in the eyes of the average consumer.

But what about the rest of us - the 1 percenters who want more from their Honda? Thankfully, we haven't been completely forgotten. Honda has made a real effort to rekindle the bond between driver and car with its newest "sports hybrid": the '11 CRZ. Before I get too far along, let me explain something. The term "sports hybrid" is a loose one, at best. The CRZ is not (nor is it designed to be) a replacement for the late S2000 or NSX, and it doesn't perform anywhere near the same as even a Civic Si. It's not a fast car; with a 0-60 time of over 8 seconds, you would have to be delusional to call it so. The CRZ won't tear your eyeballs out on the skidpad or force your forehead into the windshield in a brake test, either. This car does, however, run on both gasoline and electricity, and you can expect a sporty driving experience while still achieving 35+ highway mpg. Or can you?

The idea of driving Honda's newest "finally small again" car was something I had looked forward to for quite some time. As I walked outside to take a look at the CRZ when it first arrived at the office, I was immediately struck by how good looking it is. Having seen photos once or twice, I knew what to expect (more or less), but even so, seeing the car in person really put a smile on my face. It's small, which is good! With a shorter wheelbase, shorter overall length and shorter height than the familiar Honda Fit, the CRZ is only larger than its feisty cousin in one dimension: width. And wider is better, performance-wise. Sporting aggressive angular headlights and a wide-open front grille, the CRZ's front end is definitely a win for Honda. With sculpted body lines leading to the beefy rear end, your eyes are pleased all the way around the car. Ours is a Storm Silver Metallic, a dark bluish silver hue. Although I may be biased, a silver Honda just looks right to me.

Slide into the CRZ's cabin and you find yourself in a clean, modern environment - a far cry from the cheap Honda interiors of the early 2000s. It's nice to see quality returning to reasonably priced cars, everything on the CRZ's interior seems to be well placed and well constructed. You won't find walnut dashboards or massaging seats, but it starts at less than $20K. What the car lacks in luxury, it makes up for in expected Japanese practicality. You'll find comfortable bolstered cloth seats, a nicely designed leather-wrapped steering wheel, a modern and well sorted out SAT-NAV, and Honda's expectably good factory stereo. There isn't a lot of trunk space, but you could probably fit a golf bag in there (maybe even two) if you put on your serious game face. There's no back seat in the CRZ, so don't even think about it as a family car.

By now I've decided the CRZ is good to sit in, and certainly good to look at, but the story changes slightly as I fire it up. The first thing I notice is that the CRZ is quiet. Not a bad thing by any means, but it takes some getting used to. It bugs me how the motor automatically shuts off whenever you're stopped and take the car out of gear. It does start again quickly when the time comes, but this feature annoys me. The idea is to increase fuel economy, and I understand that, but unlike the Prius (which starts and stops nearly seamlessly) you can feel the engine turn on and off in the CRZ, which seems like a problem that could've been dealt with before calling the car finished. As I drive off and enter the busy streets of Los Angeles, the next thing I notice is that the CRZ is very, very slow. I don't want to beat a dead horse here, but it really is difficult to get used to driving a car like this. Even if you're in Sport mode, you have to stand on the accelerator at full bore to get going in traffic. This might be fine if you live in the middle of nowhere, or in a state where people drive like reasonable human beings, but not here.

Once you do manage to get going, the ride is nice and smooth. Honda's 6-speed manual transmission feels amazing, not surprisingly. With crisp and easy shifts, you get the impression that you're driving a sporty kind of car. But it's kind of all in your head. The CRZ reminds me of a roller coaster - you really have to rely on momentum to keep yourself going. I wanted to take the car up to some twisty canyon roads to see what it was like when you get on it a little bit. I'm glad I did, because the canyons are where the CRZ really comes to life. I find myself smiling and even laughing out loud at how the car reminds me of my own EK Civic. Small and nimble lives on in the Honda marque; with a tight, sporty suspension and a quick steering ratio, it's easy to forget that you're driving a 17-second car. The drive is quite fun until you come to a stop sign or a slow-moving landscaping truck - then it's back to square one.

So what if you really don't care about speed at all? Chances are that you wouldn't be reading Modified if this were the case, but let me address this for argument's sake. One would assume that if you don't care about going fast, that you would care pretty seriously about having good fuel economy and a car that's practical overall. A car with two seats and hardly a trunk to speak of is not really that practical, unless you have no friends or belongings. As far as fuel economy goes, over the course of our testing, we didn't get the jaw-dropping results we had hoped for. And to clarify, no, we didn't spend the entire time on canyon roads. In an attempt to gain some real-world information about what kind of numbers a real person can expect from the CRZ, we spent a lot of painstaking time driving in Eco mode in city traffic, as well as several longer freeway trips. Our results were pretty good based on what Honda claims the car to be capable of: after seven days of various types of driving in all driving modes and in various traffic conditions, our average fuel economy was 36.7 mpg. When compared to Honda North America's website claim of 31 city and 37 highway, this is pretty much right on the mark. But is it worth it?

The simple answer, no. Even though the CRZ did get good gas mileage and provide a sporty driving experience at times, the overall feeling is that this car isn't the answer we've all been waiting for. It is, however, a major step in the right direction. Honda Performance Development (HPD) has a race-prepped CRZ that makes more than 220 hp, which they ran in the '10 25 Hours of Thunderhill. This car did quite well, finishing in the top 10, and the best part is that the race car still runs off a system based upon the production CRZ powerplant. So Honda, we know you know how to do it! Hopefully, the production model CRZ will be offered in a Type-R or at least Si trim soon, because it really does need a boost in the performance department. As of right now, the CRZ is a worthy hybrid option, but because of its lacking performance, it really doesn't meet the requirements to be considered the sports hybrid that it claims to be. Back to the drawing board, Honda.

Specs & Details
'11 Honda CRZ
Engine
1.5-liter Inline-4 SOHC hybrid electric/gas
Combined Horsepower 135
Torque 181 ft-lbs
Transmission 6-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with paddle shifters
Price Starting at $19,200

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