Hybrid CR-Z Impresses
I was still working for Toyota when the first hybrid made it's rounds, I remember the training videos, explaining the concept as we should translate it to our prospective buyers and then I remembered the limited availability of the vehicle and the hefty price tag. We where trained in how the drive trains functioned, how the instrumentation screamed GREEN and how much power of the hybrid was coming from the battery and how much from the engine. How driving very slow speeds used battery power and when the engine would charge the battery and at what speeds this would happen, even how extra power could be gained when at certain speeds, both would be engaged.
But there was one drawback; they did not look very stylish or sexy, they did not scream 21st century, becoming the butt of comedian jokes the world around.
That is all about to change with the new Honda CR-Z, coined as the first second-generation hybrid, with it's 10kW electric motor between engine and transmission, delivering an extra 74Nm when required powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery neatly hidden under the floor of the boot.
Now you might ask yourself, "Why make such a fuss? It is only another hybrid in a long line of hybrids." and I'll respond, "Cause it doesn't look like or drives like a hybrid!"
The CR-Z is a sports coupé with a six-speed manual gearbox, a first for a hybrid according to Honda, excellent road-holding and handling and a classy, distinctly upmarket interior. It doesn't look like or drive like a hybrid.
The petrol engine is a 1497cc SOHC four with variable valve timing and drive-by-wire throttle for which Honda quotes 84kW at 6100rpm and 145Nm at 4800rpm. Electric motors produce maximum torque at very low revs, in this case 74Nm at 1000rpm, just where this car needs it most.
The CR-Z uses both petrol and electric power all the time to complement each other. Honda calls the system Integrated Motor Assist(IMA); it uses the engine's management system to decide when to use the electric motor as a power boost and when to use it as a generator, charging the battery on the overrun and under braking.
However, it also has its green side. On the extreme right of the instrument cluster are three square buttons marked Econ, Normal and Sport, each of which selects the appropriate engine mapping. You can swop from one mode to another at will, at the press of a button.
In Sport mode the backlighting of the big central rev counter is red, in Normal and Econ modes it's Honda's signature crystal blue, fading to green if you concentrate on smooth driving at small throttle openings.
Driven like that, Honda claims fuel consumption of five litres/100km and the computer will even calculate your "eco-score" at the end of each journey and compare it to your previous best effort.
Economy mode softens the throttle response and uses the electric motor only at very low revs when the petrol engine most needs help. Normal mode has the same soft throttle response but allows the IMA system to weigh in throughout the rev range.
Sport mode gives you everything they've both got, all the time, noticeably firms up the electric power steering and sharpens throttle response to the point where the car becomes difficult to drive in traffic.
But the CR-Z really comes alive in Sport mode on a favourite stretch of twisty tarmac as the torquey electric motor pulls you through each corner and the high-revving petrol engine catapults you towards the next one.
Honda SA chose the mountain passes and sweeping bends of the Mpumalanga escarpment - beloved of motorcyclists - for the South African launch of the CR-Z.
The CR-Z's stop-start system, is the least complex one you'll use to date. Bring the car to a halt in neutral with your foot on the brake and the engine dies; stomp on the clutch and put the car in gear - any gear - and the engine will be up and running before you can let the clutch out.
The typically Japanese clutch is light and remote; you can't easily feel when it begins to take up and you just have to learn where the take-up point is. The six-speed gearshift is very, very slick but the gates are very narrow and it's easy to wrong-slot, selecting sixth from fifth instead of fourth or second from third instead of fourth, which isn't funny.
The CR-Z rewards being driven with a modicum of finesse, delivering sparkling performance with cut-glass precision.
The car's chassis is well up to the job, too. The electric power steering is go-kart quick at 2.48 turns lock-to-lock, precise and beautifully weighted, especially in Sport mode, you'll feel lik you are in control of a car rather than the other way round.
The suspension - Macpherson struts at front and a torsion beam at rear - is firm and sporty, becoming a little harsh on poor surfaces; the car is low and suspension travel is, of necessity, limited.
When pushed really hard on fast, bumpy corners the ride becomes choppy and the car begins to lose its composure, partly due to its wheelbase of only 2.425m - but that same diminutive length gives it the agility to slice through the tight stuff like a sports bike.
But the drive train has a weakness: battery life. Several times, charging up one or other of Mpumalanga's finest uphill sections, Dave Abrahams ran the battery flat. When that happens the IMA shuts down and what you've got is a conventional 81kW, 1.5-litre car that needs a lot of revs to go anywhere in a hurry.
Half an hour of more gentle driving soon had the battery back up to strength.
Wherever you go the CR-Z will attract a lot of attention.
The "CR-Z look" begins with a low, wide front treatment, emphasised by narrow, deep-set headlight clusters with LED running lights and strong horizontal design elements. The deeply curved windscreen extends "around the corner" to unusually narrow A pillars set way back.
The profile is dominated by a sweeping roofline that ends in a high, chopped-off tail, with a second line curving up from the top of the front wheel arch to meet the roofline at its rearmost point.
It is this line that gives the car its forward-leaning stance, making it look as if it's breaking the speed limit just standing there.
The rear treatment has two elements: a wide lower section with strong horizontals for a solid stance and a narrow, tucked-in rear glass area that rather reminds me of the Volvo C30.
The CR-Z looks stunning from any angle, especially the rear three-quarter view, usually the weak point of most car designs. It's practical, too, within the constraints of a very small envelope.
The rear hatch extends forward almost to the B pillars and opens high for unimpeded access to a broad, shallow boot that holds a reasonable 196 litres. Reasonable, that is, when you remember that under its floor is the space-saver spare wheel and under that is the battery.
The rear bench seat is really no more than an upholstered parcel shelf but folds flat by unlocking a single catch to extend the boot to a hearty 370 litres - more than enough for a month's shopping for two people - and every corner is easily accessible from the hatch.
From there forward it's all first class with full leather trim, heatable sports seats, alloy gear-shifter and pedals, auto aircon and a beautifully laid-out soft-touch fascia. Plastic trim elements with a super-shiny vacuum-deposited chrome finish add a touch of bling without being garish.
The instrument panel is as futuristic as that of the Civic but less complex, dominated by a big central rev-counter with an LED digital speedometer in its centre boss, raised above the deep-set sweep to give a distinct three-dimensional appearance.
Laid out on either side are LED bar-graphs for fuel gauge and battery charge, instant fuel consumption and current flow. There's also a shift indicator and "green-ness" icon, both of which disappear as soon as you select Sport mode!
Satellite audio controls on the steering wheel are standard issue, as are an MP3 jack, USB port, six speakers and subwoofer, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, an engine stop-start button and self-levelling xenon headlights with washers.
Driver aids include anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-pressure distribution and emergency brake assist, stability control, hill hold and rear parking sensors. And, if that's not enough to keep you out of trouble, there are six crash bags, pre-tensioned seatbelts and active head restraints.
The Honda CR-Z costs R299 900, which includes a three-year or 100 000km warranty and a five-year or 90 000km service plan. Service intervals are 15 000km.