Review: 2011 Honda CR-Z Take Two

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

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

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

More by Michael Karesh

Join the conversation
2 of 131 comments
  • Dynasty Dynasty on Jan 28, 2011

    Uh.. I test drove one of these the other night. Two of them actually, one with the auto and the other with the six speed. Saying I was disappointing is an understatement. This car does absolutely nothing well. It is not well priced, it is not quick, not particularly fun to drive, no cargo space or room for more than one passenger, and not that great of fuel mileage. And to boot, the seat became uncomfortable after about twenty minutes of driving. And why a six speed? I felt like I had to shift every five seconds. And I really don't like having to shift from first into second gear after about 1 second. This car sucks big donkey you know whats. And it is really not that even attractive of a car. Honda missed the mark by a long shot with this one. I think Honda and Toyota need to study the demise of GM, otherwise they are going to end up repeating it. Edit: I just read through some more of these comments and I'm shaking my head in disbelief. Someone said, "I can put it in sport mode and have a fun quick car.. or econ and have a boring economical car..." Or something pretty close to that effect. In Sport mode, the car is still a dog. To offer some perspective here, I have a ten year old toyota corolla w/ an auto transmission. My ten year old corolla gets 36 mpg on the freeway at 75 mph. It's considerably quicker than the CR-Z, can fit more than two people, and its paid for. But I will 110% admit, it is a boring boring albeit reliable car and that dash doesn't light up like an 80s arcade game. If someone is reading this and they are thinking of getting this car, do yourself a favor and find a used 90s Honda that has less than 150K miles on it. You will pay a fraction of what this car costs, and have A LOT more fun. And if you are still concerned with mileage, the thousands upon thousands of dollars you save will buy a lot of gasoline for many years. Honda used to be such a cool car company. I've owned two in the past. And they are not even on the radar for a replacement. Actually, they haven't been for a long while. Yeah, Honda is falling in the same footsteps of GM.

  • Cheule Cheule on Feb 14, 2012

    While this car review isn't specifically untruthful, it is also clearly biased against the car from the get-go. In the first paragraph Michael admits his prejudice against the car prior to driving it. Every comment about the car further elaborates on that bias. As an actual owner of a 2012 CR-Z EX CVT, you might accuse me of the opposite. But I did want to point out that some things in the article just don't make sense to me. It's true that you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you make an efficient hybrid car you're likely to see lackluster acceleration, but you should see better than average gas mileage. Michael points out that the car seems underpowered, then also cites that he only got 28mpg. I'm left wondering what was going on with his car, or maybe perhaps, his driving habits. I get 47mpg on my hour long commute from LA to Oxnard CA. I can only assume that his hatred for the Insight (which did drive like a dog) made him punish the CR-Z :)

  • Tassos When these were new cars, i tassos, could barely afford to “settle” for a tin can death trap 1991 civic dx. I could’ve done better for myself, but chose not to. Just like now - I could be enjoying my sunset years but i prefer to bully contributors on a free site i CHOOSE to visit.
  • Bd2 There's Telluride news you could be posting.
  • Tassos I listen to Andrew Tate podcasts. Also, the voices in my head provide plenty of entertainment. Biden dollars
  • Zerofoo “Can the sedan be saved?” Sure - just lift it a bit, add a mild all wheel drive system, and make the trunk a lift back. I don’t know a single middle-aged woman who doesn’t drive a CUV. Precisely none of them want to go back to a sedan. The sedan may not be die completely, but sedans will not replace CUV/SUVs any time in the foreseeable future.
  • Jeff Stevie Ray Vaughn Flood Down In Texas and almost any song from him.