After reading Tal Bronfer’s review of the Euro spec Honda CR-Z, I made arrangements to get a North American model for a week. The car arrived the same day that Michael Karesh’s second review of the CR-Z ran on TTAC. Instead of a third review, Ed and I discussed doing a comparison with an original CRX and seeing what CRX fans think of the CR-Z. Well, it didn’t work out that way ….
There’s no question that Honda evokes the two seat coupe from the late 1980s and early 1990s in the CR-Z. I suppose the nomenclature skipped a letter in the sequence, but then who wants to drive a CRY? The similarities extend beyond some distinctive styling cues. The CRX was a sporty and economical car. The CR-Z is supposed to be sporty and green/fuel efficient. Honda marketing pitches the car as a “sport hybrid“. The CRX helped popularize the import tuning scene and the car is still much beloved amongst Honda performance and tuning enthusiasts. Honda is clearly pitching the CR-Z to the tuning market. Honda gave six of the first CR-Zs in North America to Honda tuning shops to see what they could do with them and to please display them at the upcoming SEMA show once they are properly hopped-up.
I started to search for a clean, not-too-modified CRX, preferably a first generation model. I live in the Detroit area, not exactly a hotbed of the ricer tuner scene. But Detroiters are supposed to be gearheads who can appreciate cool cars and there are car enthusiasts of every stripe around here. Looking on Craigslist, there were a few 2nd gen CRXs for sale but most were kind of tired and would pale next to just about any new car. Some were highly modified with things like JDM drivetrain swaps and body kits. One had some mods but was basically stock in terms of the interior. It looked promising and the listing said it was in Troy, only 20 minutes away. I sent the seller an email suggesting that helping me with the comparison and getting his car on a million hit site like TTAC wouldn’t hurt his chances of selling it. I also figured that as a Honda enthusiast he’d get a kick out of a fairly early look at the new CR-Z. I got back an email saying that the car was in Florida, ready to ship for free because another buyer backed out… in other words, a scam.
None of the CRXs on eBaymotors were within a reasonable drive so it was on to Plan B. I went to some Honda fan websites looking for Honda clubs and Honda tuners in the region. Auto Addiction is a speed shop in Rochester Hills that works on all kinds of cars, foreign and domestic. Their business card features a trick Scion xB. In the shop there was a freshly painted yellow AMC Hornet hatchback (w/ a V8) undergoing restoration, along with a rat rod and a chopped Yamaha RD350. Hondas, though, are the true love of shop owners Andy McPherson and Mike Kilgore, and shop personnel own a few CRXs. Andy told me that it was going to be almost impossible to find a CRX in original condition. Their own cars have engine swaps, turbos, roll cages and non-stock interiors.
Andy graciously invited me over to their shop to look at their cars, but I decided that while an actual comparison wasn’t practical I’d still visit them to gauge the reaction to the CR-Z from dedicated Honda fans and tuners, one of the CR-Z’s target markets. When I got to Auto Addictions, Andy and Mike and their employees all circled around the CR-Z like it was a new toy. From the reaction from Honda fans and the general public alike, the styling is an unqualified success.
When I asked the tuners what they thought of the car’s potential, they said that the front end’s geometry, styling and contours were amenable to appearance mods. They suggested blending some of the front end shapes and adding a splitter below. On the inside they liked the seats and how Honda used some parts from their Si models like the steering wheel (which on the CR-Z has blue stitching to match the other blue touches in the interior). They were less impressed with the Tokyo-by-night instrument panel.
As far as the show part of the tuner scene is concerned, Honda seems to have hit the target. The go part is a different story. Though I couldn’t let the Auto Addictions guys drive, it didn’t matter, their opinions about the CR-Z had already been formed.
Andy and Mike know one of the six tuners who received one of those early CR-Zs. There were conditions from Honda. They could not substantially alter the drivetrain, which uses Honda’s 1497cc L15 engine plus an integrated electric motor that provides power and torque assist (and replaces the starter and alternator, allowing for regenerative braking and auto-stop of the ICE). That restriction on drivetrain modifications was probably due to Honda’s knowledge that the first thing that real world tuners would do with the CR-Z would be to drop in a K Series engine from an Accord or Acura. That’s what McPherson and Kilgore said that they’d do. The CR-Z’s drivetrain, with the ICE and electric motor combined, has but 122HP. The least powerful K Series engine has 160HP, and variants go up to 260HP. An additional 40HP, or even better 140HP, would transform the CR-Z from a not so sporty hybrid to a pretty nifty sport coupe. It already has the styling and the handling (albeit with numb steering). I don’t know if a two-seat coupe with legitimate performance creds would outsell the same basic car sold as a sporty car that’s guilt free because it’s a “hybrid”, but I wonder just how many green performance car enthusiasts there are.
The CR-Z has been less than a critical success. Comment threads and fan forums have echoed the critics. The consensus response from the Best & the Brightest to Michael’s and Tal’s reviews has been that the CR-Z is a car with no real purpose. It’s sold as a “sport hybrid” but its performance is neither sporty nor does it get the gas mileage people associate with a hybrid. In terms of both performance and fuel efficiency, the CR-Z’s raisons d’etre, it’s just not superlative. Maybe that’s why they didn’t call it the CR-Why. The CR-Z is fine around town, even fun if you leave it in sport mode which boosts the electric assist and changes the engine mapping, but the first time an owner tries to do a 60-80 acceleration on the freeway they’ll be disappointed. While the IMA allows you to putter around subdivisions in 5th or even 6th gear at ridiculously low RPM, if you want to head out on the highway you’re going to have to downshift to 4th if you want to get the motor running in a hurry. You might move faster than a hypermiler in a Prius, but you’ll be embarrassed by a variety of genuinely sporty small cars.
Honda obviously thinks that the CR-Z has sufficient performance for their target customers, with potential for more. According to McPherson, Honda of America Racing Team has made a couple of show cars that do explore the performance possibilities of the stock CR-Z IMA setup, using the typical route of modified intake and exhaust components on the ICE. It seems, though, that even though there are tuner mods available for the L15 engine, the best bang for the buck will be a K Series swap. Racerboys (and girls) with Fits and Jazzes replace their L15s with K Series engines, and they’ll do the same with the CR-Z. Even Honda knows that tuners and racers will go the engine-swap route. That’s why they told those six tuners to use stock engines.
There’s also buzz from the aftermarket. The folks at Auto Addiction heard that Hasport, a company that specializes in performance brackets and mounts, was working on K Series motor mounts for the CR-Z. I spoke to Brian Gillespie at Hasport and he verified that they were working on mounts to make a K Series CR-Z a bolt up affair, but that the new mounts, originally scheduled for next month, will have to wait until next year. Gillespie said that Hasport has a good working relationship with Honda and that Honda requested that they wait until after this year’s SEMA show for the introduction.
Gillespie said that Hasport’s K Series mounts will be available by early 2011. As far as the stock drivetrain is concerned, he said that he knows of one company that is already working on a supercharger and that the exhaust setup on the stock CR-Z is ideal for mounting a small turbocharger. He predicted that both those forced induction accessories will be available for the CR-Z within a year. The big question is if Honda will make a tunable ECU available that will allow the use of performance parts on the ICE while still keeping the IMA.
When asked if he thought that the CR-Z would sell, Gillespie at first said no, but then reconsidered and said that he’s heard a “fair amount of buzz” about the car. He agreed that the CR-Z is crying for more power. Other than the engine, it’s a nice small sports coupe, which brings to mind Mrs. Lincoln and plays.
When was the last time you heard of a car company discouraging the sales of aftermarket go-fast parts so they wouldn’t make the stock “performance” car look weak? When a key part of your target market says that the first thing they’d do with the car is swap out the drivetrain, you may have missed the mark.
Why didn’t Honda spec the CR-Z with a bigger motor in the first place? I think that in order to keep the CR-Z credible as a hybrid it had to be able to at least get within hailing distance of 40mpg (around the city I was first getting about 29mpg, but after ~800 miles, including about 500 highway miles, the average went up to a bit more than 38). The concept behind the IMA system is to use a smaller ICE, an electric motor and high gearing to get better fuel economy. Going to a bigger ICE with the IMA might yield better mileage than with the ICE alone, but it wouldn’t get close to 40mpg. It would, though, be more fun to drive.
Going with a smaller engine may have been driven by a need for high MPG figures and credibility as a green car. That decision, though, has fatally compromised the car’s credibility as a sporty car. I believe that Honda should have made the CR-Z with a larger displacement combustion engine. With Honda tagging the CR-Z with the label “sport hybrid”, people already understand that the “sport” part comes at some fuel economy cost and they won’t expect the CR-Z to get Prius level gas mileage. They’re willing to pay that cost if there is indeed some sport involved. By moving the needle too far in the green direction, Honda may have shot themselves in the foot. A CR-Z powered by an IMA equipped K engine would still have been a hybrid with some green cred but it would also have had true performance. Few things are worse than unachieved potential. The CR-Z could have been a contender but Honda sold it out to the green mob.