Honda CR-Z GT 1.5 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid

Hybrid car terminology can be baffling. Apparently over 60 per cent of consumers in the US think that you have to plug-in a Prius to charge it up - which isn’t really as snigger-worthy as it sounds - given that hybrid cars are part-powered by an electric drivetrain, that would stand to reason, wouldn’t it? But in reality, few hybrid cars on the market today actually come with a plug. They do have a battery on board, but it captures energy that would otherwise be lost under braking.

To confuse matters further, the CR-Z is a totally different animal to the Lexus CT200h we drove recently, despite wearing exactly the same, blue “hybrid” badge. Whereas the Lexus mates a petrol engine, electric battery pack and CVT gearbox with a complex power-split device to allow it to run just on petrol, just on battery or on both, the CR-Z uses a 1.5-litre petrol engine, with “integrated motor assist” or IMA in Honda speak.

This acts as a starter for the engine and “assist” motor to feed in electric power when needed, but it means that unlike the Lexus/Toyota system, the car can’t really run in electric mode alone (although it’ll kill the engine when you’re coasting to a stop). “What?” we hear you crying, “Surely that’s the whole point of a hybrid?”

Well, the flip side of this much simpler system is that, where the Lexus has to use a CVT automatic transmission, which we criticised for its noisiness and kill-joy antics last week, the CR-Z can be fitted with a 6-speed manual gearbox. This means there’s much less “mooing” from the engine if you decide you need to get a move on, and that the CR-Z is much more fun and involving to drive on a twisty road. In fact, it’s the first hybrid car in the world to come with a clutch pedal and gears you can change yourself, creating a unique selling point for the CR-Z - which Honda bill as the world’s first sports-hybrid.

It all adds up to something that’s curiously greater than its on-paper figures, and means the CR-Z’s got real character. Every other hybrid has left us impressed with its technical engineering, but also left us cold. They’re head rather than heart choices - cars that seem to lack soul or personality. Not the CR-Z. It has faults, but it feels human and above all, it’s fun - which makes it very likeable.

So the fact that anyone over 5ft 8 will club their head on the protruding boot locking mechanism every time it’s open, the fact that rear seats are practically un-usable, and that the plastics rival only Fisher Price, somehow doesn’t matter. You won’t care, because the first time you jump in and turn the key, your heart will jump for joy a little as an array of red, blue and green lights burst to life on the dashboard.

It’s like being thrown into a driving-game simulator from your childhood, crossed with downtown Tokyo at night. That might sound like dashboard display hell, but it’s central to the experience of the car. And jump back into any other car after going for a spin in the CR-Z, and we’ll guarantee you find the in-cockpit experience suddenly feels just a little dull and last century.

The central, blue-hued speedo/rev counter dominates your field of vision from behind the wheel, and in a way is all you need to look at. We could go on about the rest of the dash and cockpit, but you’d still be reading the article tomorrow, there’s so much to tell. We’ll just say that there are plenty of read-outs and gauges to keep you entertained, including the requisite power-flow display that you get in most hybrids, so you can see which bit of the system is working when.

The rev counter itself is analogue, and in its centre sits a floating hologram-style digital speed read out. Around the periphery is a coloured ring, which changes depending on how you drive. Green when you’re driving most efficiently, through the blue-green colour spectrum to dark blue when you’re being naughty with the accelerator pedal. Flick the car into Sport mode via the three buttons down the right hand side of the column, and the ring goes red, while the annoying (but eco-worthy) gearshift indicator present in the normal and eco modes disappears.

Regardless of the mode you’re driving in, the CR-Z nearly always cuts it’s engine when you’re slowing down, and shuts it off altogether at the lights - giving you that smug, warm feeling of being kind to the planet that all hybrid cars seem to provide.

We’ve found that eco/normal/sport settings in other cars sometimes feel like a gimmick. But in the CR-Z it really works, changing the car’s character convincingly. In eco mode it is so relaxed it feels like the car’s almost gone to sleep. While in sport it does an amusing impersonation of a sports car, complete with heavier steering, sharper accelerator response and a burble from the exhaust.

Outside of the main gauges, there are neat, driver-focused controls for things like the heating control. So it’s just a shame that the optional navigation system that came on our test car proved so unintuitive and slow-witted. It gives you USB, aux and phone connectivity too, all of which worked well, but the logic of the system, slowness of the touchscreen and hopeless-ness of the nav wound us up. Best to stick to the standard stereo and rely on TomTom, which might not get you lost as frequently as we did...

Overall there’s much to like about the CR-Z. It feels like a proper little sport-car, one that’s usefully compact for the city, but with a decent size boot. You sit low in the cabin, and while that slashed side-window graphic and steeply raked rear windscreen completely destroy your rearward vision when inside the car, we think this is easily the best looking hybrid on the market. It’s a very graphical piece of design all-round, one that looks great in the white of our test-car - easily the best colour for showing off this design, giving a very cool contrast black/white appearance. 

Verdict

There are very few small coupes on the market today, fewer still powered by a hybrid drivetrain. That in itself makes the CR-Z a fairly unique, special proposition. But the fact that the drive is so engaging and the interior and driver interface so exciting (if somewhat bonkers), means that the CR-Z found a special place in our hearts during its time with us. It seems very much of its moment, combining fun design and impressive drivetrain tech with an ability to keep those with an eye on the environment and their wallets happy. The small price premium it commands is one we’d say is worth paying. And to anyone who says that hybrid cars have to be boring, we’d urge you to try a CR-Z. You might just change your mind.