I am a bit of a petrol head and for a while have been after a car that is more than just about getting from A to B. I've decided to post a review of my latest purchase.
I am fortunate enough not to require the use of a car for commuting to work and so I was free to choose something that was more fun than functional. Being a fan of technology, I was drawn to the Honda CR-Z, mainly due to the engineering features that appeals to my inner-geek.
All comparisons made here are compared to my previous car which was a Ford Fiesta, so whilst not like-for-like it's still useful, particularly for anyone wanting to move onto something less practical and a bit more "sporty".
The CR-Z is a hybrid, but not in the traditional sense. Most hybrids (such as the Prius) use an electric motor at low speeds and then switch to combustion engine at higher speeds. This has advantages for frugal fuel economy around town and low-speed urban areas because the engine is being used as little as possible. However, on high speed runs (such as the motorway) the electric motor is sitting there unused and the engine is now running more inefficiently than a non-hybrid engine as it is carrying all the extra weight of the batteries used to power the electric motor.
Where the CR-Z differs is how it uses the electric motor. Here, it is attached directly to the drive shaft of the engine and serves to assist the petrol engine with acceleration, thus saving fuel. The electric motor can assist at any time, at varying speeds.
I find myself more aware of this assistance on the motorway during overtaking scenarios, the electric motor kicks in when pressing the throttle pedal, providing a useful acceleration burst without the need for the engine to consume more fuel.
Where the integrated motor really shines is in the stop-start mechanism. The electric motor turns the engine over when first gear is engaged and the engine fires back into life instantly, it is more seamless and quieter than a regular starter motor.
Charging occurs during de-acceleration, the motor then becomes an alternator and re-charges the battery. I have found it recharges surprisingly quickly, and on steep hills the breaking effect is very noticeable. The battery used is a large nickel metal hydride unit stored under the boot. Being mounted in the back, it helps with the weight distribution of the car, offsetting the heavy engine at the front, providing balanced handling. More on that next...
Handling & Performance
Because the car is quite low and more stiffly sprung there is very little body roll and you feel able to attack corners quicker than you normally would. The flip-side of this is the ride can be bouncy over bumps and along short, undulating sections of road.
One aspect that effects the perception of handling is the changing of driving modes by selecting one of three buttons on the right-hand side of the steering wheel. There is sport, normal and economy.
Sport mode gives the most responsive throttle pedal and adds resistance to the power-assisted steering. If driving in another mode for quite some time and then switching to sport, it makes the car feel faster (even though it isn't) simply because it responds when you do, becoming a natural extension of your limbs. Switching modes can make your brain work hard to recalibrate how your foot works. When starting in sport mode at a set of traffic lights, there is a tendency to over-rev the engine and squeal away.
The added resistance in the wheel offers some reassurance when turning in fast corners but you lose some precise feel of what the road is doing to the tyres underneath.
Normal mode adds a bit of resistance to the throttle pedal but softens the steering, it's much quicker to turn (super light at low speeds and parking which is really nice).
Economy mode effectively turns the throttle pedal into a sponge. This is deliberate to encourage you to tip-toe along to save fuel. This works well on the motorway if you enjoy going at a leisurely pace. Again, tricks are played on your mind at junctions, roundabouts and lights. You don't have the confidence to get away quick enough and so you switch back to normal mode. Starting in economy mode can lead to stalls because you don't press the pedal down enough to get going (unlike sport mode).
Use of the cruise control system, with a very generous amount of space to rest your left leg (and some on the right) provides a nicely relaxed way to cruise along the motorway. So overall, the car is good at feeling sporty but also being more casual when needed.
This car is not powerful (the insurance price reflects this) but it has useful enough pull low-down to make it feel like a diesel (thanks to the torque of the electric motor). Where it lacks is at the top-end of the rev range, which is unusual for a Honda VTEC engine as that is a trademark characteristic much enjoyed in other vehicles. It sounds like it has more performance that it actually produces, there is an exhaust note with some gusto in the tune.
This is where the CR-Z really sets itself apart from the rest. It is best summed up as striking and futuristic. The only colours that do the strong lines and unique bodywork shapes justice are white and silver. Any darker and they loose the effect. Every angle provides a unique pose and always encourages a glance back when leaving after parking.
Below are some daytime shots:
I'll update this post later with some night time shots, that is when it looks best, with the LED daytime-running lights and HID xenon beams. My car also has the optional glow pack fitted which provides blue ambient lighting in the door wells, glowing CR-Z logo in the sills and glowing front speaker rings.
Another strong aspect of this car is the interior. It is simply a wonderful place to be in. The seats are low but comfortable and support your legs well. They could do with a bit more side support for keeping your body fully intact when turning sharply.
The dashboard is very distracting (almost dangerously so), there is a ton of information at your fingertips, all logically placed and easy to identify. The glow around the tachometer and digital speed read out is a really nice touch.
Whilst laid out and big enough to use, some of the buttons and switches are a bit inconsistent with feel and operation. The drive mode buttons have a black shine, if slightly cheep plastic feel, where as some like the vehicle stability control button are matt grey and require a long press to operate.
The GT spec gives you leather seats, automatic lights and wipers as well as a powerful enough sound system with subwoofer and USB input (this recognises a plain USB stick or popular green fruit products).
Other goodies include a hands-free bluetooth system which takes some getting used to with the voice recognition commands although the polite sounding lady (let's call her Felicity) does well to recognise my voice with the loud road noise at speed.
I'm pretty sure that if people really care enough about economy they'll buy a diesel car. But to me, diesels sound rubbish and do not work well in urban use. The hybrid option provides a good compromise of performance and speed. At the moment I'm averaging 46 MPG but on a leisurely drive through the Cotswolds a while ago it peaked at just over 51 MPG.
The biggest benefit the economy brings is the lower CO2 rating which places this car in the £30 a year tax bracket, bargain!
I don't have children, a dog or a fetish for flat-pack furniture and so practicality is not too important to me. Having said that, if you can live with just carrying a single passenger, it is practical enough. I managed to fit my road bike in the boot after folding the rear seats (let's call them a collapsable boot partition - a more fitting title) with the front seat pushed forward a bit.
It isn't a massive car on the outside and is easy enough to manoeuvre into a variety of parking spaces. The thick pillars behind the main windows do obscure the view when reversing or looking to overtake but the wing mirrors are larger to compensate for this. The parking sensors are a bit pessimistic and could do with being louder.
The wing mirrors can fold at the touch of a button but should be automatic in a car with automatic lights and wipers. I keep forgetting to press the button to fold them out when driving off.
The front bumpers need parking sensors as well, it's quite long and low, you have no idea where it ends and if the dynamic pack is fitted (providing a front splitter), it can easily scrape against pavements when parking head first on a street.
There is a red button to start the engine but you have to turn the key in the ignition. It would be nicer to have a proximity sensor fob to remove the need to have a key in the ignition.
When you refuel, the A trip counter (there are two, A and B) automatically resets. I like this as I always reset it by hand between fuel stops.
It's a bit gimmicky but the start up sequence on the dash is fun to watch (the tachometer needle does a full sweep).
The boot cover can cover the entire boot or become a small partition near the boot catch. This is handy for keeping small items of luggage from rolling around.
This car has a presence, that can't really be put into words. I'm not sure many people get this car and I can see why. It's neither an all out performance coupe nor a super economical alternative-fuelled car. But it is something different and unique. You can't say that about many cars in this price range.
It's clear from being in the car that Honda wants you to feel that this is a drivers car, and it is that. You go from A to B and remember everything in-between. You want to go from A and don't care where B is sometimes.
It wins because it is enjoyable, and it doesn't have to be quick to be doing that. Maybe it's the dash feeding all the information about what's making it tick, maybe its the look you give back every time you leave. Whatever the reason, it keeps the smile on the face and makes driving fun. Despite the negative points listed in this review, the CR-Z is a car greater than the sum of it's parts.