A hybrid sports car need not be a contradiction in terms, says Honda New Zealand
In fact, when it comes to its CR-Z coupe, the company would much rather you think of it as a sporty two-door (well, three with the hatchback) that just happens to be a hybrid, rather than an eco-car that also happens to have enthusiast aspirations. There isn't a hybrid badge on the bootlid, for example.
That's all very well, but the CR-Z does come with its fair share of green baggage. Despite Honda referring to the 1.5-litre petrol-electric Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) powertrain as a system for 'boost', the CR-Z's core technology is exactly the same in concept (if not in detail execution) as any other Honda hybrid.
The CR-Z also comes with outrageous fuel-efficiency claims (5.0 litres per 100km), three driving modes and the ability to coach the driver in eco-technique and grow little tree graphics on the dashboard if you're doing well enough.
In these days of cost-efficiency, few carmakers can afford to create a bespoke sports model at an affordable price. So it won't surprise you to learn that underneath, the CR-Z has been creatively configured from a mixture of Jazz and Insight bits.
Hardly heart-pumping stuff so far. And yet the CR-Z does tick a lot of boxes for the enthusiast of a certain age (my age). For a start, the styling pays homage to the original CR-X of the 198Os - the golden age of Honda coupes - so that gets the car some bonus points straight away. It's front-drive (as most Honda sports models were, save the S2000 and NSX), but it's also very light at 1147kg (around the same as Mazda MX-5).
Most importantly, it's also the first production hybrid to have a proper six-speed manual gearbox. The optional CVT is actually more thrifty (4.7 l/100km), but why would you in a sports car?
Assuming it is a sports car. If your idea of sportiness is speed, you might be disappointed. The IMA powertrain makes just 91kW/167Nm in total and propels the car to 100km/h in 9.7 seconds. So you're not going to drag off many family sedans at the traffic lights.
But you will be having a ball because the CR-Z presses all the right buttons when it comes to engaging the driver. The six-speed manual gearbox (borrowed from the Accord Euro) is a quick-shifting delight, as Honda manual transmissions always are. Select Sport mode and there are discernable changes to the steering, throttle and power delivery - really, this should be the default, leaving Normal and Economy to driver discretion.
The steering is too light but very precise, and while the CR-Z is nothing like as nimble or accomplished as the rear-drive MX-5, there are some aspects to the Honda's handling character that really remind me of the iconic Mazda: there's only just enough grip, and a beautiful balance to the chassis that means you can adjust the cornering line with your right foot. That's definitely sports-car stuff.
Interestingly, the clever way the IMA system is distributed around the car means that the centre of gravity is low - actually 15mm lower than a Civic Type R. Not that you can buy a Civic Type R in New Zealand. You can buy a CR-Z, at prices starting from $44,900.
Inside, the dashboard is hilariously busy - a sign that Honda has a sense of humour after all. Love it. It's tiny of course, and the minuscule rear seats are really only for emergency use. But the driving environment adds to the fun, retro appeal, and you can't help but come away from the CR-Z feeling as good as when you're driving it.
For a company like Honda that's steered too often towards the middle of the road in the last decade, that's really good news.