Once upon a time I wanted a Pontiac Fiero. Then the original Honda CRX awakened me to the joys of driving a small car sideways. It was what the Fiero, similarly pitched as an economical commuter, should have been. In comparison, even the second-generation CRX seemed too large, too refined, and disappointingly dull. Fast forward a quarter century, and the Honda Insight is perhaps the most disappointing car I’ve driven in recent years. So when Honda announced that it would base a new two-seater on the Insight, and call it the CR-Z, I fearfully predicted that it would look like the CRX, but drive like the Insight. And?
The original CRX was not an attractive car. The second-generation was prettier, if blander, and the CR-Z clearly owes most to it. The new car suffers from a surprising amount of front overhang, but otherwise there’s so much style, most notably the curvaceous rear quarters, that few will guess its close relationship with the plain, malproportioned Insight. Interesting details abound—check out the tail lights. Clean styling? Forget it—that’s so 1990.
Inside the story is much the same, with plasti-chrome door pulls, shiny silver cloth upholstery, piano black control pods, and a glowing light show dead ahead. Materials and design are both much better than in the Insight, if no threat to the Germans. This being a “sport hybrid,” there’s a large centrally-located tach—something you won’t find in any Toyota hybrid—flanked by an arsenal of visual driving aids.
As should be clear by now, Honda no longer places function ahead of form. The instruments will overwhelm and/or distract some people. The nav and audio controls on the center stack are beyond reach. Yes, there are redundant audio controls on the steering wheel, but in a well-designed cockpit these would truly be redundant. The control pods do locate large HVAC, mirror, and driving mode buttons close at hand. A large km/h-mph button as well—do some people use it often?
You sit low in the well-bolstered front seat. As in the Insight, the headrest juts too far forward, though in this case I found the seat almost bearable. The relatively upright windshield of the original CRX didn’t even survive the 1988 redesign. Too bad, as a steeply raked windshield distances man from machine. Thanks to the CR-Z’s chest-high tail and ultra-thick rear pillars, some panel vans have better rearward visibility—consult your rabbi for the appropriate prayer before lane changes.
The rudimentary back seat offered overseas was nixed for the U.S. market. Considering the poor excuses for back seats offered in some cars, it must be beyond awful. In its place we get a pair of deep storage wells that can be covered by a folding partition. Cargo volume isn’t generous, maxing out at 25 cubes, but since you can’t see out the back regardless you might as well pack to the ceiling.
The original CRX was forgiven many sins because it was so fun to drive. The faults noted thus far would similarly be forgiven if the new CR-Z were half as fun. Well, long story short, there’s little fun to be had here unless you’re mesmerized by the light show. In “sport mode” the electric motor readily delivers 58 pound-feet of low-end punch. But the 122-horsepower 1.5-liter gasoline engine, bereft of any V-TEC magic, is no joy to rev. The 6,500 rpm redline might be low by Honda standards, but there’s little point in venturing even that high. The shifter feels long of throw and clunky compared to Honda’s best. The best that can be said of the brakes is that they feel almost conventional.
The steering’s notable heft was probably intended to make the CR-Z feel sporty, but instead makes it feel heavy. A 2,654-pound curb weight (EX manual with nav) is fairly low by current standards—the Fit weighs nearly as much—and is admirable for a hybrid. But the CR-Z feels like it tips the scales north of 3,000. Despite quick steering, agility isn’t part of the mix.
On the other hand, aside from the minor pitching unavoidable with a 95.9-inch wheelbase, the CR-Z also rides like a heavier car. Compared to the Insight, it feels smoother, more composed, and less tinny. It doesn’t feel like an assemblage of shortcuts.
Honda might have learned from its Accord Hybrid experience that people expect hybrids to deliver stellar fuel economy. Any performance benefits are secondary. Well, they didn’t learn. The 31 city, 37 highway EPA estimates (with the six-speed manual; 35/39 with the CVT) would be exemplary for a non-hybrid, but are well below those for the similarly powerful Prius. The much heavier and similarly quick Ford Fusion Hybrid sedan nearly matches the CR-Z on the highway and beats it by a wide margin in the city. In my moderately aggressive test drive, which was about 2/3 suburban and 1/3 highway, I observed 28.3 miles-per-gallon. My Mazda Protege5, which weighs a little more, does about the same when driven similarly. With a (much missed) sixth gear the Mazda would probably also match the CR-Z in relaxed driving on the highway.
When a car doesn’t much especially well, it had better be attractively priced. With a base price of $19,950 and as-tested (EX with nav) price of $23,310, the CR-Z is the least expensive hybrid in the U.S. You’ll spend about the same amount for a Honda Civic EX.
The Honda CR-Z doesn’t drive like the Insight, so this part of my prediction proved off-base. But it also drives nothing like the CRX. The hybrid powertrain hurts more than it helps, dulling the driving experience without substantially boosting fuel economy. The lack of a rear seat and abysmal rearward visibility will further harm the car’s prospects. Ultimately, the CR-Z’s best hope is the amount of style it offers for a fairly low price. Dull powertrain, heavy handling, disappointing fuel economy, high style, low price—this does describe one mid-80s two-seater, just not the CRX. How much does Motors Liquidation want for “Fiero?”
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data