Driving through a bend delicately balanced on the keening knife edge of tire adhesion is always a neat thing to do, whether in the latest Porsche Turbo S or something like Honda’s new “sport hybrid” CR-Z.
The only real differences are the vastly faster cornering speeds and g-force generated by Porsche’s prodigious grip, and their very intimate correlation with the pucker factor you experience and the consequences you hope you don’t.
Obviously the CR-Z, even with its little electric motor whirring away helpfully, can’t come close to matching the Porsche’s acceleration, or its comparatively tiny discs the massive stopping force of the German car’s brakes. Or the sheer thrill of driving something as truly potent.
But it turned out the CR-Z, which I had the unique opportunity to drive back-to-back with the Porsche on a track recently, has a nice enough balance of (adequate) power and (capable) handling to validate its “sporty” claim.
What I found most interesting was seeing it as a harbinger of the direction mainstream, lower order “sporty” cars – the kind most of us can afford – seem to be evolving in as more car makers explore adding a jolt of voltage to keep the performance spark bright as fossil fuels fade from the scene.
The trend to using hybrid and pure electric power systems to improve performance has already begun, of course. The recent Honda Accord hybrid, Lexus GS450h and BMW X6 hybrid and the Tesla sports car come to mind. And the pace seems to be amping up with high-end makes – Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche – revealing electrification projects in the past year. But Mitsubishi, Subaru and Mazda, among others, have also revealed they’re accelerating down this road.
The CR-Z isn’t Honda’s first save-the-planet two-seater sold here. That honour goes to the CR-X of the early 1980s, fondly remembered as a little pocket road rocket, but originally pitched as an econo-car. It was followed by the less fondly recalled early-1990s Del Sol.
Honda’s third two-seater was the Insight hybrid of 2000, the first modern hybrid sold in North America, which introduced the integrated motor assist system employed by the CR-Z, which tests the consumer waters in another hybrid niche.
Honda describes the $23,490 CR-Z as a driver-focused vehicle offering efficient and fun performance. If you include looking cool in the “driver-focused” element, then the CR-Z has half the equation handily covered with its stand-out-in-any-crowd exterior styling.
And the other half with an interior a cut above most others in the mid-$20,000 price range with its nifty bright-blue three-D instruments and pod-like protrusions from each side that put commonly used controls close to the driver’s hands. A two-tone colour treatment and nickel-like trim are also nice touches.
The only thing that might warrant serious criticism is the fact there are only two seats, which while emphasizing its sporty personality, limit its practicality, although you can cram a fair whack of stuff (711 litres) in the back.
Equipment includes automatic climate control, power mirrors, locks, etc., tilt/telescope wheel, audio system with all the appropriate places to plug things in and steering wheel controls, Bluetooth connectivity, stability control and a hill holder feature with the manual gearbox.
The 122 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque generated by its 1.5-litre, rev-y, gasoline-fuelled four-cylinder in combination with the Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system obviously isn’t a lot, but it only has 1,205 kg to propel. The manual gearbox version still takes a rather drawn-out 9.8 seconds to get to 100 km/h though, so don’t sit next to somebody at the light revving your engine.
Once under way, it feels lively enough if “Sport” is selected from the three-mode drive system, which kicks in the electric boost earlier and quickens up the electric steering. Normal and econo would seem redundant as fuel economy is pretty phenomenal in Sport and the other two settings dull down the driving experience.
Suspension is econo-car-conventional with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam axle under the back, with under-achieving 195/55R16 tires that deliver better mileage than stick and steering sharpness. Braking is fair, but a few laps on the track are all you can ask of them before they get a bit hot and bothered.
In reality, the CR-Z offers more a pretence of “performance” than the real thing, which might make it a precursor of the “sporty” cars we’ll be driving in the future.
2011 Honda CR-Z
Type: Hybrid sports coupe
Base Price: $23,490; as tested, $24,885
Engine: 1.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 122 hp/128 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.5 city/5.3 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Nothing directly, but small and fun? Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Kia Rio5, Toyota Yaris 3-door, Honda Fit Sport
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