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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Honda CR-Z

Conceived as a sports coupe that's also fuel-efficient, the Honda CR-Z is a three-door hatchback subcompact two-seat car--unique in its sector. It's also a hybrid-electric vehicle, using Honda's well-established Integrated Motor Assist mild-hybrid system--also found on the Insight five-door hatchback whose underpinnings the CR-Z shares.

From a design perspective, the CR-Z evokes the design heritage of Honda's famed CRX coupe of the Eighties and Nineties. But sales have hardly been stellar, and the CR-Z turns out to face a kind of existential crisis: It's neither the most efficient two-seat car nor the sportiest. In working to balance between those two qualities, Honda may have built a car that's not top of the class for either.

The Honda CR-Z was introduced as a totally new model for 2011, and for 2013, Honda gave it a mild freshening with a new grille and bumper, revised front styling, an air inlet molding, and daytime LED running lights in the headlamps.

Verdicts on the CR-Z's lines vary a lot; some feel the little hatchback looks great, while others see it as nothing more than a squashed two-door Insight, with a tall hoodline and incoherent interior themes. Anyone who's been in a recent Civic or Insight will recognize the two-level instrument panel, but its colors and shapes are edgier than those of the Insight, and your choice of performance mode--and your driving style--will cause the gauge cluster to change color, from green (most efficient) through blue to red (highest output, lowest gas mileage).

The CR-Z's 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is mated to Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system, giving a combined peak output 122 horsepower. As in the Insight and the Civic Hybrid, the IMA hardware is technically a mild-hybrid system, since it can't more the vehicle from a stoplight on electric power alone. It does permit electric-only cruising for very short distances with the gasoline engine off, but only under an extremely narrow set of running conditions.

Several new Honda hybrids in recent years use Honda's mild-hybrid IMA system, and the CR-Z is a low-volume member of the group. Added to a 1.3- or 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the IMA hybrid uses a small electric motor to restart the engine after stops and to contribute additional torque under heavy load. That allows a smaller engine than would otherwise be needed to be used. But like the other such cars, the CR-Z can't run solely on electricity, as do full hybrids. Honda has said its future small hybrids will add that capability, but for now, the CR-Z (and the Insight as well) lack all-electric running.

The most important updates for the 2013 CR-Z are in the engine and hybrid system; the engine is retuned to boost its output to 119 horsepower, and the electric motor is enlarged from 10 kilowatts (15 hp) to 15 kW (22 hp). A new, smaller lithium-ion battery pack similar to the one used in the 2012 Honda Civic replaces the previous CR-Z' nickel-metal-hydride pack, cutting both its size and weight. There's also a new "boost" button that allows the driver to call on the electric motor for extra torque, assuming the battery is more than 50 percent charged.

Unusually for hybrids, CR-Z buyers can choose between a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) or a rare six-speed manual gearbox. The latter feels much more sporty, and occasionally gives the electric power boost from the mild hybrid system the feel of a turbocharger kicking in. There's a fuel-economy penalty to be paid for picking the manual, though--the CVT produces higher gas mileage, at the expense of driver involvement. Sadly, the CR-Z lacks the handling prowess that its sporty lines hint at, with the feeling of a higher center of mass than you'd expect for a small coupe, producing body roll and a lack of eagerness.

Honda offers three driving modes--Sport, Normal, and Economy--to let drivers chose to optimize fuel efficiency or maximize performance. The software in each recalibrates the engine and transmission mapping and adjusts the stiffness and speed of the power steering and throttle response. The CR-Z's character changes for the better in Sport mode, feeling more nimble and responsive behind the wheel.

Like most small two-seaters, the packaging of the CR-z is tight. Its two seats are roomy and supportive, though the driving position is a bit low--and at least two of our drivers ended up with signficant back-aches no matter how they adjusted the angles. Where a back seat might sit, there is a pair of storage wells. Total cargo space is a decent 25 cubic feet, but the load deck is high, so the cargo area just isn't very tall--which keeps it from being truly useful.

Standard features in the CR-X have included automatic climate control, keyless entry, power accessories, and a six-speaker sound system with USB connectivity. But Bluetooth connectivity is reserved for the EX models. Otherwise a 360-watt premium sound system, bundled with a navigation system, is also on offer.

Direct competitors to the Honda CR-Z are few and far between. The minicar segment includes the Mini Cooper Coupe, a new two-seat variant of the better-known Mini hatchback; the Fiat 500 Abarth and 500T turbocharged "hot hatch" models;and the Hyundai Veloster. There's also the Volvo C30, the Swedish make's sole remaining compact after it canceled its S40 sedan and V50 wagon, but the stylish three-door hatchback starts above $26,000 with delivery and easily migrates into the low $30,000 range with options--putting it in a different category.

In the end, the problem with the CR-Z is that it's neither a great sports car nor a high-mileage champ. Its small size and limited interior space—and compromised performance credentials—would suggest much higher EPA ratings than it actually receives. The 2012 model lands at 35 mpg city, 39 highway with the CVT or just 31 mpg city, 37 mpg highway with the manual. That's not tha much better than the 28 mpg city, 40 mpg highway numbers delivered by the (non-hybrid) Hyundai Veloster.

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