Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

I’m CR-Zy in love

Honda’s little hybrid a zippy, sporty sipper

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Mr. Williamson, this is Hans from the

European Health Spa. We have made repeated attempts to speak with you regarding your long-overdue account, but you have chosen to ignore our calls. As a result, we are cancelling your membership and this matter has been handed over to our collection department.

It had been months since I’d stepped foot in the spa, but they still wanted their money. Who could blame them? I’d signed up for their special "lifetime membership" and was on the hook for several hundred monthly payments of $9.99.

So what does any of this have to do with the all-new 2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid?

Back in 1988, I liked the Honda CRX, (the gone but not forgotten precursor to the new CR-Z) so much that I bought one. OK, that’s not entirely true — I almost bought one.

It was a brand-new jet black ’88 CRX Si model with aluminum wheels wrapped in low-profile tires. It had a five-speed transmission, a sunroof and a sporty black interior. I was 21 years old and this car appealed to me for a multitude of reasons: It was not just small, sleek and fast, it also sipped the fuel. This car was essentially my polar opposite.

It’s important to note that at the time, I was driving a Lada Signet with a half baked clutch.

The name of the place escapes me, but it was a Honda store on Pembina Highway near Confusion Corner. I can vividly recall the first time I saw that little CRX up on a ramp in front of the dealership. A short test drive later and I was sold. I’m pretty sure the price was around $17,937. My shrewd negotiating had knocked several hundred dollars off the asking price. I believe they also agreed to throw in a black leather bra — for the car, not for me.

After signing my name several hundred times and filling out an extensive credit application, I made a sizable down payment ($20) and crossed my fingers.

The next morning, the salesman called and informed me that my credit application had been denied. When I asked him why, he started laughing and mentioned something about the European Health Spa. He was still laughing when I hung up the phone.

Eventually, I was able to restore my credit rating and have secured at least 47 loans since that fateful day, but I never forgot that little CRX. It was the one that got away. That’s why my ears really perked up when Honda unveiled the all-new CR-Z as a full production model at the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

 

I’ve always been a fan of affordable two-seater cars, but they basically disappeared from the market. I drive a pickup truck and live in the country, and for a number of years I’ve thought if only someone made an affordable sports car that I really liked, I could actually afford to keep an older truck around for trips to the dump and commute daily in something that was not only good on gas, but also fun to drive.

Truth be told, I knew I wanted a CR-Z before I ever drove one, and when I finally got the chance, it didn’t disappoint.

I only had about an hour with a white 2011 CR-Z at the recent Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) TestFest, but it was enough time to make me want one. In fact, if a Honda sales rep had been at TestFest with a credit application on hand, I probably would have driven it home.

The first leg of my test drive took me through a combination of city and highway driving and I was immediately impressed with how comfortable the CR-Z is. The seats are very supportive, yet still comfortable, and even though it’s a small car, there was more than enough room for my Shrek-like figure. The driving position is distinctly sporty and

features a driver-focused cockpit with 3-D instrumentation. The dashboard wraps around the driver and all the controls are within easy reach.

The CR-Z is well-equipped and includes premium features like a 360-watt AM/FM/CD high-power audio system with seven speakers and a subwoofer, Bluetooth HandsFreeLink, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 16-inch alloy wheels, HID headlights and automatic climate control.

 

Under the hood, it features a 1.5-litre four-cylinder with variable valve timing (VTEC). It’s a similar engine to the one in the Honda Fit, with the key difference being it is mated to a 10 kW electric motor. Combined, the two units produce 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. That may not sound like much in the power department, but with a curb weight of only 2,637 pounds, it’s just a touch heavier than a Mini Cooper and just as much fun. The gasoline engine clicks off at stoplights, provides a small amount of boost under acceleration and serves as a generator during braking or coasting. However, it won’t run exclusively on the electric motor, even at low speeds. But the electric motor will most certainly improve fuel economy and reduce emissions in city driving conditions.

On the left side of the steering wheel there are three buttons that allow you to select a driving mode — Sport, Normal or Econ. The Normal mode is fine for most situations, but activating the Sport mode not only increases throttle response but also adds increased steering resistance.

 

 

 

The Eco mode, on the other hand, makes the CR-Z feel sluggish and weak. If I owned this car, I would never put it in Econ mode. However, in bumper-to-bumper city driving, where acceleration means nothing, it might actually save you a few bucks.

The model I drove had the optional continuously variable automatic transmission. I’m starting to get used to CVT, and in a lightweight car like the CR-Z, it performs very well. There are paddle shifters on the steering wheel if you want to shift gears on your own and they work quite well when paired with the high-revving engine. If you don’t mind using a clutch, a six-speed manual version that promises an even sportier ride is standard fare and is the first six-speed manual ever offered in a hybrid vehicle.

Although I was suitably impressed with the CR-Z on the road, around the test track is where it really shone. I had the opportunity to roar around the track in quite a few different cars at this year’s TestFest, many that were far more expensive than a CR-Z, but this little Honda was an absolute riot and had me grinning from ear to ear. It sits fairly low to the ground and is very agile in the corners. The brakes are also great and it ran around the track like a go-kart on steroids. There are much more powerful cars, to be sure, but the CR-Z delivers the kind of cheap thrills that have been conspicuously absent lately from the compact-car world.

Granted, a car like this isn’t for everyone. The rear cargo area may be quite cavernous, but it is only a two-seater. But if all you’re doing is commuting back and forth alone in your gas-guzzling pickup truck and rarely ever have cargo in the bed, this might just be the answer to your petrol problem.

Honda really didn’t need to make the CR-Z a hybrid to appeal to me. Green is not my favourite colour. In addition to a well-documented disdain for vanilla-looking hybrid cars that remind me of appliances, I also despise the Saskatchewan Roughriders, especially their 13th player. You know — that drunk guy with the melon on his head.

That said, this could actually be the first hybrid model on the market that can save you a few bucks during the week, then compete on weekends in local Autocross events. It really is that good a driver.

Although my test drive was short, I heard there is a CR-Z coming our way for a week-long test period and I’m really looking forward to seeing if this car lives up to the great first impression it made. I have a sneaking suspicion it will. If it’s black, there’s also a good chance they might not get it back.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

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