Auto Corner: Easy and Fun Being Green: A Honda CR-Z Review

19 June 2011   John Dickerson
Honda CR-Z sportster proves 40 mpg can be exhilarating.

crzexteriorSome said it couldn’t be done. A sports car, good for 40 mpg, that only costs $20,000. But Honda has done it, with its genre-smashing CR-Z.

The two-seater CR-Z offers the fun and sporting dynamics you’d expect in a sports car of this price. It also offers hybrid technology and gas mileage you’d expect from a much slower car.

With the CR-Z, Honda has not just built a car outside the box. They’ve destroyed the box. The world’s only other sport-hybrids cost three times the price of a loaded CR-Z.

Performance buffs should know that, as the $19,000 base price suggests, this is not an autocross or track ready racer. But, compared to a Prius, this little car feels and drives as sporty as it looks.

Honda’s target customer is the person who enjoys driving, but doesn’t enjoy terrible gas mileage. Anyone in this category, (which includes your humble auto critic), will be impressed with the spry handling of the CR-Z.

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Every CR-Z comes standard with three pre-programmed driving modes – the sort of thing you expect to see in a Jaguar or Mercedes. Just left of the steering wheel, near the power mirror buttons, live three mode badges: Sport, Normal and Econ.

Select your driving mode from these options, and the CR-Z calibrates itself to improve your performance or your fuel economy. Choose sport, and the ring of light silhouetting the speedometer turns bright red. In normal and econ modes, the same ring will glow a pleasant green, so long as you’re achieving ideal gas mileage. Push the CR-Z too hard (when not in Sport mode), and the green light turns icy blue, letting you know your heavy-footed shenanigans will cost you at the pump.

With the CR-Z in Econ mode, and driving in a manner that kept the car happy (and green lighted), I earned about 40 miles per gallon in combined city and highway commuting.

At the same time, the CR-Z is a fun car to throw into turns and zip around town. Those hungry for all out performance should consider a Mustang or Camaro. But, as gas prices escalate toward $4 a gallon, you have to ask yourself: Do you want to average 15 miles for every $4 gallon – or 36 miles for every gallon (my average when driving normally)? At $4/gallon, a 36-mile commute will cost you $2,400/year for gas in a Dodge Challenger coupe. The same commute would cost $960 in the zippy CR-Z.

My favorite feature on the CR-Z is its transmission -- the first manual transmission ever in a hybrid -- and a six-speed no less. I was delighted at how well this gearbox works. Once again, Honda has exceeded my expectations.

Honda also surprised me with the CR-Z’s brakes. Hybrids use generators to convert braking energy into electricity, thus recharging the batteries. On most hybrids, your foot can feel these generators kick in. Not so on the CR-Z.

The CR-Z has no direct competitor. The closest is Volkswagen’s diesel Golf TDI. Interestingly, the CR-Z’s 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds is exactly the same as that of the spunky VW diesel. The two vehicles share nearly identical gas mileage, too, though with the VW you’re paying more per gallon, since it uses diesel.

As an auto critic, I’ve driven the spectrum of sports cars. I can say that when it comes to daily commuting, I’d rather have a fun little gas sipper that’s quick around the turns – than a gas guzzler that I never get to open up on civilian roads.

In other words, I’d rather be paying the maintenance and fuel costs on a CR-Z than on a traditional sports car. The $20,000 sticker price ain’t bad either.