Honda CRZ is wired for fun

If Honda still made the Prelude, its one-time staple performance coupe, it would probably cost $55,000-plus in 2011 money. When you figure that by conventional wisdom, adding hybrid power to something also adds to its sticker, rather than reducing it, the $44,900 asking price for the CR-Z looks decent.

You see the CR-Z is effectively what the Prelude was a prelude to. It's a 1.5-litre sports coupe that uses Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) electric hybrid system to give it some extra urge. Honda calls it a two plus two, but between friends it's really no more than a two plus laptop bag and dog, which was no more than the Prelude offered in the old days anyway.

The conventional oily bit of the CR-Z's power train is a version of Honda's trusty Jazz engine, which employs the latest rendering of the company's now nearly 30 years old V-Tec variable valve timing system to boost performance in the upper rev-range.

All told, the CR-Z can make use of up to 84kW from its petrol unit and another 10kW from the light, compact electric motor, which also adds 145Nm to top up the Jazz block's already useful 78.4Nm. With differing peaks for the electric and petrol power units' maximae, the top combined outputs at any one time are 91kW and 167Nm (manual) and 174Nm (automatic) respectively.

The best part of this is that the IMA's torque contribution occurs effectively from the moment it starts to turn, imbuing the wee 1.5-litre conventional motor with uncommonly lusty urge from implausibly low revolutions.

Thus the CR-Z feels much bigger than it is, with off the mark urgency and mid-range urge that belie its size totally. In fact, this is not exactly how the car's mid-80s predecessor, the original CR-X used to feel. This is because you don't need frantic engine revs to enjoy yourself. You can dial them in if you wish and the car will indeed deliver crisp performance when you do, but the IMA powertrain's flexibility means that it doesn't NEED to be driven hard all the time.

You can change the powertrain's character to suit, by prodding one of three buttons. There's Sport, Normal and Eco, and the nice thing is even if you forget to move out of the Eco mode, the car still gets a hurry on.

It feels so much more grown up, and while I thought that judging by the car's firm ride quality and tyre roar that it would skip around a bit on road imperfections (which is, of course, likely anywhere you drive in New Zealand) the CR-Z was a surprisingly well-mannered wee beastie, even when pressing-on a bit.

The CR-Z's Jazz-related lightweight engine and IMA unit and under the front seats fuel tank position conspire with an under the rear floor NiMH battery to provide a delightfully well- balanced weight distribution, which is made even better by the fact that the heaviest bits of the car are near the centre of the plot. Thus everything literally revolves around the driver, which means the car's seat-of-the pants heft is perfect for backroad driving. The steering is electric, but Honda's been working with such systems since the 90s and has given the CR- Z one of the most communicative set-ups of this type that I've had in a front-drive car, and while its resistance and weighting alters with the drive mode you select, it's always satisfying in the way it responds and a delight for a sporting driver. Ride quality is a little firm on some surfaces though never harsh.

Driving normally you achieve 5L/100km or therebouts with the CR-Z, which is nice and green in anyone's language. In terms of emissions that's about 115g/km CO2, which may not be quite as green as some hybrids are, but hang-it-all, they don't deliver anywhere near the fun on hand with the Honda.It's better to forget the electromechanical details of what is happening under the bonnet when you're driving. The V-Tec system lets the car breathe effectively but economically at low revs through half of its four valves per cylinder, and only chimes in with all four valves when it needs to, or when you push the Normal and Sport buttons and exercise the engine in the higher revolution bands, whereupon it demonstrates impressive snap and crackle, ideal for that favourite backroad.

The wee CR-Z has "street-cred by stealth". I was driving in California last month, and was followed by a white CR-Z right into a parking lay-by. The owner was keen to see the new 991 Porsche I was driving and pulled alongside, only then did I realise that with the deep trapezoid centre grille and running-light accented headlights, what I thought had been a near $300,000 Audi R8 turned out to be a white Honda CR-Z. Such mistaken identity is priceless, especially when what you're driving is actually affordable.

From most other angles, the CR-Z is inextricably linked to the pretty and wedgy CR-X design, only more so. The slick, chiselled profile is however unmistakably from the current decade, without the cluttered detailing and naff graphics of the 80s and 90s. However, the thick C-pillars present quite a blind spot when you need to ease into traffic, either from the side of the road or from a motorway on-ramp.

I have driven so-called performance hybrids before, but none delivers the fun factor quite as well as this wee Honda, which as a bonus can offer fuel economy that will drop jaws over dinner, even in the company of pious Prius owners.



Drivetrain: Transverse FWD 1.5-litre 16 valve V-tec four with IMA, with six-step CVT or six-speed automatic.

Performance: Max combined 91kW at 6000rpm and 167-174Nm at 1000-1500rpm, max 200kmh, 0-100kmh 9 secs, 4.9-5.0L/100km, 115g/km CO2.

Chassis: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear suspension. Electric power steering. 16X6J alloy wheels, space-saver spare.

Safety: Front vented rear solid disc brakes, front, side and curtain airbags, VSA Stability Control, ABS, EBA and EBD, collision compatibility, 5-star safety rating.

Dimensions: L 4080mm, W 1740mm, H 1395mm, W/base 2435mm, Weight 1155-1190kg, Fuel 40L.

Price: CR-Z from $44,900. Honda also offers SR, Sport and Mugen trimmed models.

Hot: Flexible powertrain; whacky faux-R8 styling; nimble chassis; big car feel; price.

Not: No pure electric mode or plug-in facility; could handle lots more power and torque.

Verdict: If you've grown up but still hanker for a modern Integra or Prelude, this is your baby!

- © Fairfax NZ News