Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Road Test: 2011 Honda CR-Z

I forgot to get out my camera at the dealership, so I do not have any photos to share here. Hopefully I will manage to get some later and revise this. For now, stock photos must suffice.

On paper, I love the idea of this car. And the styling (sans grille) is certainly very sharp. But it just doesn’t feel complete.

The driving experience can be likened to a weird cross between a Prius and a Civic. Much of it is very Honda-esque; the steering and brakes, for instance, could have come straight out of my dad’s Civic LX that I drove to the dealership. Which is to say; quick, firm, relatively responsive. The suspension is considerably harsher than in the Civic, but this translates into much less lean in turns and a more buttoned-down feel overall.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t get that “sporty” feeling behind the wheel. Much of this is a due to a very un-Honda-like attribute – an extremely high front cowl and closed-in cockpit, both of which have the unfortunate effect of making the car seem much larger than it is. This is a tiny car - much smaller than a Civic – but it did not feel like it. No matter how well sorted the suspension and steering, a car will never seem nimble if it does not “feel” small from the driver’s seat.

The powertrain is equally disappointing. No, it is not quite as slow as many reviews would have you believe, but what bothered me most was the CVT transmission. Now, this is the first car I have ever driven with a CVT, so perhaps I’m just not used to it. It is certainly something that you have to experience yourself, so I will refrain from describing what exactly I dislike about it. Actually, I can’t really put it in words, nor am I sure what it is I don’t like about it. All I really know is that I just don’t like it.

Transitions from gas to electric are much smoother than in the previous generation Prius, a car that sends a long and pronounced shake through the entire body with its engine on/off mode. Having not experienced a Gen3 Prius yet, I cannot compare it to the CR-Z. Though not quite as slow as many reviewers would have you believe, almost any other car will outrun the CR-Z in a drag race, including the base Civic. Typical of Honda, this engine revs very high (nearly 7000 RPM), and you are certainly audibly aware of it under WOT, something you will be doing often given the 0-60 time north of 10 seconds.

It goes without saying that there is an abundance of road, tire, and suspension noise present; after all, this is a Honda. Having said that, it is not as objectionable as you would think. Oddly, the sporty mission of the car almost makes it seem a required part of the package. More connection to the road, I guess? Who knows. Bottom line; if you want quiet, there will always be Corollas.

Overall, I couldn’t decide whether this car wants to be fun and sporty or practical and efficient. It’s too compromised for the former, not quite appliance-like enough for the latter.

Comparisons always bring out the best and worst of a particular model. In the CR-Z's case, slipping back into the Civic LX after the test drive did not provide a favorable comparison. Visibility! Ride quality! A genuine gasoline engine and a transmission that actually shifts gears! Hallelujah!

In the end, the only real hope I see for this car in terms of success is in its styling. Though it does most everything competently, it does not function as a legitimately sporty car nor does it function as a true Hybrid. Lower the cowl, offer a more powerful all-gas powertrain (the Civic motor would work nicely), and most of its shortcoming would be rectified. Otherwise, the sharp silhouette is the only way this car will likely gain any sales. A car selling solely due to its styling? Certainly not unheard of… how else did Ford sell so many of those god-awful Explorers back in the 90s?


Martin van Duijn said...

Well, there you have it. The CVT experience. The first one I drove one was my brother in law’s 1969 DAF 44, with just three setting: forward, neutral, backward. It was odd, but then it was DAF and there was little to expect from a car like that. The Volvo (ex-DAF) 66 I drove a few years later – belonging to the brother of a friend – was already better, with more proper transmission settings. Subaru Justy ECVT , Fiat Uno Selecta and the previous generation Prius are the only other CVT experiences on my CV. That’s about it, but maybe I forget one. I never liked them. Although on paper, and when rationality speaks, they should be better than regular transmissions – both manual and automatic – because they always, at any given moment, choose the correct transmission ratios, resulting in better acceleration and fuel economy. But… they feel slow, because the car always seems to trail behind the revs you see on the tacho and the noise you hear, which probably just is transmission whine. Still, manufacturers are in love with the CVT and it is difficult to find a compact car here that does not have one if you do not want to shift yourself. BTW, a company here in Holland, Van Doorne Transmission, that was a spin off from DAF, is getting filthy rich hardly doing anything, by issuing patents to use the CVT technology and producing a few vital parts for the trannies.
I just read in Car & Driver, that the manual shifting CR-Z provides a sportier feel compared with the CVT version. But alas, Honda only offers the automatic here in The Netherlands. On the styling, I liked it when I first saw one, but my opinion changed. I think the cowl could be lower, even when having to meet European pedestrian protections mandates. Look at Miata/MX-5, but I suppose Honda wanted a ‘climbing’ beltline because of visual dynamics.

Very good review, by the way, Max.

Chris M. said...

The one and only CVT experience I have was in a 2007 Maxima SE, and I didn't mind it actually--it took some getting used to, sure. But in a relatively powerful (255 HP) car like the Maxima, and with what seems to be regarded as a responsive CVT, I didn't get much if any of a feeling of lag. And while it was disconcerting not to hear and feel a downshift when the pedal is floored, seemed to move out like I'd expect it to with a conventional transmission.

Perhaps in a less powerful car the faults are more noticeable?

Max P. said...

It was mainly the lack of noticeable gear shifting that made the CVT unappealing to me. The visceral feel (and sound) of a transmission upshifting or downshifting seems like a required part of driving an automobile, and it just isn't there in a car equipped with a CVT.

It almost feels like there's something wrong with it, as if the transmission is slipping and can't hold the right gear. Maybe I would get used to it with more time behind the wheel.