I’ve always loved what the CR-X stood for: a nimble economy car that’s all smiles when squealing the tires at the speed limit. So when I first drove the hybrid CR-Z from 2011, it felt like a betrayal of its predecessor; a close cousin of the gutless Honda Insight, it neither offered the sprightly dynamics nor the understated style of its classic ancestor.
But although Honda couldn’t fix all of the CR-Z’s shortfalls with a mid-cycle refresh, it’s surprisingly improved behind the wheel.
Yes, the front is still one giant overhang and the side looks like a crudely cut cheese wedge. But sit inside and the red-tinged black fabric seats are a step up from the pallid grey ones in the 2012 model, which resembled a dentist’s chair. And while not having the impudent spunk of a Veloster Turbo, the 130-hp engine actually gained some pep in the mid-range, making it enjoyable to row through the six-speed manual’s gears. For the price range it’s still one of the better transmissions around, with a light yet grabby clutch (shift throws could be shorter and firmer, however).
New for the refreshed hatch is the Plus Sport button on the steering wheel, which I eagerly punched expecting a surge of overboost. But instead of pinning me to the seatback, it seemingly just made the throttle more jumpy for a couple seconds. Ditto for Sport mode, which gave the gas pedal hair-trigger sensitivity that made it nearly impossible to drive smoothly. And since Eco mode put a wet blanket over the power delivery, I was content to leave it in the normal mode.
Granted the original CR-X never was about power, but agility in the corners. The CR-Z does feel adept as a terrier-sized canyon carver, even if hard bumps upset the rear. It’s crisper and lighter on its feet than the Honda Fit, albeit without the utility of rear seats or a usable trunk space.
Hence it’s a tough sell to say whether the drawbacks to practicality are worth it, even with the appreciable improvements. And that’s a shame: whether it’s the Ferrari’s LaFerrari, McLaren’s P1 or Nissan’s next-generation GT-R, automakers have steadily shifted towards sports-car hybrids, and Honda’s CR-Z was ahead of the curve. But like GM’s ill-fated electric EV1, it comes down to execution rather than the big idea, and Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) lacks the results that’d make it scream cutting edge. Its slightly improved EPA rating of 31 city / 38 highway mpg doesn’t distinguish itself from more conventional, direct-injected engines like with the Mazda3, which gets 29/41 with the six-speed manual (the CR-Z’s CVT fares better with 36/39). And since it’s a mild hybrid that never runs solely on the electric motor, you never get the high-tech sensation that it’s something more than a regular fossil-fuel-burning car without gaping at the IMA interface.
Still, at the end of the day it’s a fun car to toss around, and the starting price of $19,975 keeps it well within reach of the masses. One refresh later, maybe Honda didn’t stray that far from the CR-X after all.